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Keeping Elk off the course at Banff Springs

18 December, 2008

Keeping Elk off the course at Banff Springs

18th December 2008

Banff Springs are looking at fencing fairways to prevent dangerous elk encounters and cut costs caused by elk tearing up the turf.

Parks Canada and Fairmont Banff Springs are investigating the possibility of fencing fairways to reduce the risk of dangerous elk encounters and cut back on high maintenance costs caused by elk tearing up the turf.

Fencing is currently not allowed in the Banff National Park management plan, but Parks Canada has asked its montane advisory group for feedback on the ecological effects of fencing all, or portions, of the golf course with a rail fence.

About 20 elk took up residence at the golf course this past summer, attracted to the non-native and fertilized grasses. It is not uncommon to see anywhere from 60 to 100 elk there throughout the fall mating season and during the winter.

Fairmont officials say the fencing idea is just in the early discussion stages, but they are interested in pursuing talks in light of the fencing project at its Jasper Park Lodge property.

"First and foremost, it is about the safety of our guests and the safety and security of animals. That's a paramount concern," said Lori Grant, Fairmont's regional director of public relations.

"I don't have exact figures on the number of incidents, but it's something we're always mindful of. There is also definitely an increased cost in maintaining the course due to the animals, but the primary issue is safety."

In 2001, Jasper Park Lodge replaced a dilapidated, page wire fence encompassing the entire golf course with rail fences. The golf course was divided into three areas: a 250-400-metre wide wildlife corridor bound by two fenced areas.

However, there are major differences between Banff and Jasper, with wild-life movements shown to be far more confined by topography in Banff.

Primarily for that very reason, Parks Canada and the Banff Springs removed a tall page wire fence that encompassed the golf course and surrounding area in the 1980s.

One of the big concerns expressed by the montane advisory committee centred on the impacts putting up a fence would have on carnivores such as cougar and wolves; they want to make sure the animals could move through a narrow, 150-metre pinch point between Mount Rundle and Tunnel Mountain.

The research presented to the advisory group also seemed to suggest that even semi-permeable fences designed to allow carnivores to move through an area might still provide a barrier to movement to some degree.

Jesse Whittington, a Parks Canada wildlife biologist, said wolves most frequently travelled through the golf course from 1999 through 2002,but have not been detected travelling through the area during the last five winters.

He said cougars frequently travel above the golf course on Mount Rundle and across the Bow River, but rarely travel on the golf course itself. They occasionally move across the golf course and Bow River, and between Rundle and Tunnel.

"We do not know how wolves and cougars use the golf course area during the summer. Similarly, we have little information on how bears travel through and around the golf course," said Whittington.

"However, black bears and grizzly bears are often found on the golf course during spring and early summer."

One suggestion has been to relocate the maintenance compound and superintendent's house to a much wider part of the valley, also a recommendation of a 1995 study.

Mike McIvor, president of the Bow Valley Naturalists, said it is important to note that fencing is not permitted in the management plan.

"If that section of the plan were to change as a result of the review that's underway now, presumably some sort of net ecological gain would have to be demonstrated," said McIvor.

"As always I am open to that possibility, but I certainly didn't hear it (yet)."

Melanie Percy, a provincial park ecologist in Kananaskis Country and a member of the group, said there are indications that fences--even if it is a split rail fence -- have potential to exclude all wildlife, not just elk.

"I think the very last thing you should be doing is putting a fence in that pinch point," she said.

"(It) could be detrimental to the movement of wildlife. We've done so much in the Bow Valley to reduce the impacts of habitat fragmentation and restore connectivity."

Richard Leavens, executive director for the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment, said there appears to be "no easy solution."

"I applaud what this process is about, on whether or not there's to be a fence. Where there's a physical situation like a pinch-point, it really makes it tough," he said.

One of the advantages for fencing all or portions of the golf course would be the removal of a large unnatural attractant for elk near town and reduced elk-human conflicts at the golf course.

On the other hand, it was pointed out that could actually turn out to be a disadvantage as elk may be pushed even closer to town, where there would be a chance of increasing conflicts between elk and people.

Parks Canada officials say a poor quality habitat that is safe seems to be far more appealing for elk than a high quality habitat where they are at greater risk of being taken down by carnivores.

"We don't know for sure what the elk would do, but likely in the short-term they would not go very far," said Whittington.

By: Cathy Ellis - Calgary Herald


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