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Animals in Jasper
JASPER, Alberta – The following is an introduction to the large mammals that call Jasper home.
Jasper National Park has a robust elk population numbering in the thousands. Highway 16 East, Highway 93 and the Maligne Lake Road are all excellent venues for seeing and photographing elk. The town of Jasper itself is frequented by elk intent on eating the greenery in local’s yards and escaping the predators they would face elsewhere in the park.
For the best viewing opportunities, visit the park in the summer months to see the big bull elk along Highway 16 East or near Medicine Lake, or come in September and join photographers and wildlife watchers from around the world for the famous elk rut along the banks of the Athabasca River in the picturesque Canadian Rockies.
Moose are on the decline in Jasper National Park, due in part to a deadly liver fluke, the return of wolves after a long absence and an unnaturally high number of deaths on the railways and highways.
However, you still have a good chance of spotting a moose in the ponds and lakes along the Icefields Parkway in the northern part of the park. The Saskatchewan River Crossing and Waterfowl Lakes areas are moose “hot spots” in the spring and summer months. Both Jasper National Park to the north and Kananaskis Country to the south have large healthy moose populations.
Jasper National Park is home to both whitetail and mule deer, and both are common along Vermilion Lakes Drive and the Bow Valley Parkway, particularly in the spring. There are twice as many mulies in the park as whitetails and mule deer are common year-round in the vicinity of the Banff Centre and on Mount Norquay Road. Mule deer are larger and have a black tip on the end of their tail in contrast to the smaller, more slender whitetails who have a white underside to their tail.
Bighorn sheep are abundant throughout Jasper National Park and are most commonly seen along the Bow Valley Parkway at Backswamp, on Mount Norquay and Lake Minnewanka roads, and at the top of the gondola ride on Sulphur Mountain. The large rams are best viewed in the winter months when they are at lower elevations; in the summer, most of the rams and many of the ewes can be found by hiking into the high alpine meadows in the park.
Banff National Park has a healthy population of mountain goats, but very few good places to view them from roads or short trails. Watch for them high on the cliffs along the Icefields Parkway as you approach Jasper National Park, or, if you’re in a hiking mood, do a day hike around Bourgeau Lake and look for the herds of goats and sheep that call the area home.
Sheep vs. Goats – Who’s Who?
Mountain goats have shaggy white coats and sharp black horns like this one on the right, while bighorn sheep have brown coats and brown horns. You’re more likely to see sheep in Banff National Park since most of the goats live at very high elevations on the cliffs and mountain tops.
The mountain caribou’s dwindling range in Alberta extends south into the northern section of Banff National Park, where a small herd of 10-15 animals makes its home in wild untouched country northeast of Lake Louise. The size of a large deer, caribou have dark brown bodies, white manes and large curved antlers. Though rarely seen in Banff, sightings are common in Jasper National Park during the winter and spring.
Jasper National Park is home to 45 wolves comprising five different packs. After eradication from Jasper in the 1950s, wolves returned for good in 1982 and have been thriving in remote parts of the park ever since. Three of the five packs are rarely seen, but numerous sightings are made each year of the Cascade pack in the Lake Minnewanka area in winter and of the Bow Valley pack between Banff and Lake Louise year-round.
The coyote population in Jasper National Park has been struggling in recent years, due largely to the increased volume of traffic on our roads. However, coyotes are still fairly common in most areas of Jasper where there are open meadows and good hunting grounds. The Vermilion Lakes Road, the Bow Valley Parkway and the Buffalo Paddock are all good places to spot them, as is most of Highway 93 South from Banff to Radium.
Wolf or Coyote?
Wolves are generally much larger than coyotes, usually the size of a large German shepherd. They also have a broad face, in contrast to the narrow fox-like muzzle of the coyote. Coyotes come in one shade, a greyish-brown, while wolves come in all colours, including grey, black, white and brown.
Jasper National Park supports a small population of mountain lions, however, sightings of these wily cats are extremely rare. They prey upon Jasper’s deer, bighorn sheep and elk populations, and cat tracks are often sighted in the winter in the Mount Norquay and Sunshine Road areas. A much larger and more viable population of cougars lives to the south of Jasper in Kananaskis Country.
The black bear population is considered to be a threatened species in Banff National Park, with only 35-40 left. However, sightings in the spring and summer are still quite common, particularly along the Bow Valley Parkway; the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise and on the Icefields Parkway near Saskatchewan Crossing. Black bears in Banff come in a variety of colors, including black, brown and cream, and eat everything from ants to dandelions to buffalo berries. They go into hibernation in late October and usually don’t emerge from their slumber until late April or early May.
Surprisingly, there are more grizzly bears in Banff than black bears. Grizzly researchers working on the Canadian Rocky Mountains East Slope Grizzly Project estimate that Jasper is home to about 70 of the great bears. Grizzlies can be distinguished from black bears by the large hump of muscle on their shoulders and from the shape of their face: grizzlies have very broad round faces, while black bears have narrow roman profiles much like a dog’s face. While sightings of grizzlies are rare, you may spot them in the backcountry or along the Bow Valley Parkway or the Icefields Parkway.
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