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Home of the grizzly bear

03 January 2011 | Fact sheet

Banff National Park, Canada

Background

In the fall of 1883, three Canadian Pacific Railway construction workers stumbled across a cave containing hot springs on the eastern slopes of Alberta's Rocky Mountains. This is how Banff National Park was born, Canada's first national park and the world's third. The park was established in 1885 as a small, protected reserve, which was later expanded to include Lake Louise and other areas extending north to the Columbia Icefield. In 1887, the park was expanded to 674 square kilometres and it was named the Rocky Mountains Park. The Canadian Pacific Railway built the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise to attract tourists and increase the number of rail passengers. In 1902, the park was expanded to cover 11,400 square kilometres. Bowing to pressure from grazing and logging interests, the size of the park was reduced in 1911 to 4,663 square kilometres, eliminating many foothill areas from the park. Park boundaries changed several more times up until 1949, from which point it has remained at 6,641 square kilometres.

Banff National Park is managed by Parks Canada. Over time, park management policies have increasingly emphasized environmental protection over development. On a provincial level, the park area and the included communities (other than the Town of Banff which is an incorporated municipality) are administered by Alberta Municipal Affairs.

In 1984, Banff was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with the other national and provincial parks that form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, for the mountain landscapes containing mountain peaks, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons and limestone caves as well as fossils that can be found there.

View images of the park

 

Size and location

The park, located 110–180 kilometres west of Calgary in the province of Alberta, encompasses 6,641 square kilometres. The Icefields Parkway extends from Lake Louise, connecting to Jasper National Park in the north. Provincial forests and Yoho National Park are neighbours to the west, while Kootenay National Park is located to the south and Kananaskis Country to the southeast.

Flora and fauna

Banff National Park spans three ecoregions, including montane, subalpine, and alpine. The subalpine ecoregion, which consists mainly of dense forest, comprises 53% of Banff's area; 27% of the park is located above the tree line, in the alpine ecoregion. The tree line in Banff lies approximately at 2,300 meters with open meadows at alpine regions and some areas covered by glaciers. A small portion (3%) of the park, located at lower elevations, is in the montane ecoregion. Lodgepole pine forests dominate the montane region of Banff, with Englemann spruce, willow, aspen, occasional Douglas-fir and a few Douglas maple interspersed. Englemann spruce are more common in the subalpine regions of Banff, with some areas of lodgepole pine, and subalpine fir. The lower, montane areas, which tend to be the preferred habitat for wildlife, have been subjected to significant human development over the years.

Fifty six mammal species have been recorded in the park. Grizzly and black bears inhabit the forested regions. Cougar, lynx, wolverine, weasel, northern river otter and wolves are the primary predatory mammals. Elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer are common in the valleys of the park, including around (and sometimes in) the Banff townsite, while moose tend to be more elusive, sticking primarily to wetland areas and near streams. In the alpine regions, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots and pika are widespread. Other mammals such as beavers, porcupines, squirrels, chipmunks, and Columbian ground squirrels are the more commonly observed smaller mammals. In 2005, a total of five caribou were counted, making this species one of the rarest mammals found in the park.

Due to the harsh winters, the park has few reptiles and amphibians with only one species of toad, three species of frog, one salamander species and two species of snakes that have been identified. At least 280 species of birds can be found in Banff including bald and golden eagles, red-tailed hawk, osprey, falcon and merlin, all of which are predatory species. Additionally, commonly seen species such as the gray jay, American three-toed woodpecker, mountain bluebird, Clark's nutcracker, mountain chickadee and pipit are frequently found in the lower elevations. The white-tailed ptarmigan is a ground bird that is often seen in the alpine zones. Rivers and lakes are frequented by over a hundred different species including loons, herons and mallards who spend their summers in the park.

Endangered species in Banff include the Banff Springs snail (Physella johnsoni) which is found in the hot springs of Banff. Woodland caribou, found in Banff, are also listed as a threatened species, as are grizzly bears.

Threats

Tourism and development

Since the 1960s, park accommodation has been open all year, with annual tourism visits to Banff increasing to over 5 million in the 1990s. Millions more pass through the park on the Trans-Canada Highway.The Trans-Canada Highway, passing through Banff, has been problematic, posing hazards for wildlife due to vehicle traffic and as an impediment to wildlife migration. Grizzly bears are among the species impacted by the highway, which together with other developments in Banff, has caused fragmentation of the landscape. Wildlife crossings, including a series of underpasses, and two wildlife overpasses, have been constructed at a number of points along the highway to help alleviate this problem.

Invasive species

Since the 19th century, humans have impacted Banff's environment through introduction of non-native species, controls on other species, and development in the Bow Valley, amongst other activities. Bison once lived in the valleys of Banff, but were hunted by indigenous people and the last bison was killed in 1858. Elk are not indigenous to Banff, and were introduced in 1917 with 57 elk brought in from Yellowstone National Park. Other species that have been displaced from the Bow Valley include grizzly bears, cougars, lynx, wolverines, otter, and moose.

Beginning in 1985, gray wolves were recolonizing areas in the Bow Valley. However, the wolf population has struggled, with 32 wolf deaths along the Trans-Canada Highway between 1987 and 2000, leaving only 31 wolves in the area. The population of bull trout and other native species of fish in Banff's lakes has also dwindled, with the introduction of non-native species including brook trout, and rainbow trout. Lake trout, Westslope cutthroat trout, and Chiselmouth are also rare native species, while Chinook salmon, white sturgeon, Pacific lamprey, and Banff longnose dace are likely to locally extinct. The Banff longnose dace, once only found in Banff, is now an extinct. Mountain pine beetles have caused a number of large-scale infestations in Banff National Park, feeding off of the phloem of mature lodgepole pines.

Fire management

Since the early 1980s, Parks Canada has adopted a strategy that employed prescribed burns, which helps to mimic effects of natural fires, minimising ecological disturbance whilst aiming to reduce the fire threat to people and nature.