Elk will give you a big welcome to Banff National Park

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Written by Patrick J. Smith posted on Monday, December 7th, 2009

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There was a time when people thought elk no longer lived in the Canadian Rockies. Today, hundreds of magnificent animals such as this fine male abound in Banff National Park and surrounding environs.

There was a time when people thought elk no longer lived in the Canadian Rockies. Today, hundreds of magnificent animals such as this fine male abound in Banff National Park and surrounding environs.

If you come to Banff National Park, we can just about guarantee you’ll see an elk.

We know the wildlife enthusiasts who throng to the Canadian Rockies tend to chase after the bears, or the wolves, or the moose – the really glamorous animals. And deservedly so.

Elk? Perhaps not so much. Because these magnificent deer have become so common, they might be easy to overlook. Yet they are vital to the balance of the ecology.

Oddly, perhaps, elk were not so common in the area as recently as the late 1800s. Indeed, when Banff National Park was created in 1885, only a few roamed the Bow Valley. About 20 years later, sightings were so rare that some thought they’d disappeared altogether.

And hey, for an elk, that’s a neat trick!

Then, of course, the situation changed. In the next 10 years, elk numbers rebounded strongly, assisted by the introduction of 235 elk from Yellowstone National Park in 1918-1920.

And now? There are around 3,200 elk in Banff National Park alone. Some 900 of those can be found in the Bow Valley near the town of Banff itself.

Quite often, some of those can be found actually in the town of Banff itself. But that’s a column for another day.

HOw can you tell an elk apart from other deer? Well, of course they’re bigger; of the deer, only moose are larger. Elk have light brown coats with dark faces, necks and legs. And they are well known for their distinctive creamy white runt patch and their stubby tails. In fact, another name for elk is wapiti, a word that comes from Shawnee that means “white rump.”

Oh, yes. There are those antlers!

Male elk, correctly called stags but referred to more commonly as bulls, sport magnificent racks of antlers. The antlers of a bull in his prime can reach up to 1.2 meters (4 feet) in width and weigh as much as 22 kilograms (48 pounds).

Some folks will tell you that a bull’s antlers indicate how old he is. Not necessarily. Young bulls, in their second year, will have just a single tine. The bulls grow new antlers each spring and cast them the following winter, and each year the bulls will grow more tines, as many as seven per antler. But how many more tines they acquire depends as much on general health as it does on age. A young bull in good general condition may have as many tines as or more than an older, weaker bull.

If you want to see elk, head to the eastern side of Banff National Park. No matter what time of year you are visiting, your chances to see elk are excellent. The Bow Valley Parkway and the Minnewanka Loop in particular are good candidates. But be alert! Like most deer, elk may dart into the road suddenly. Obey the speed limits and keep your eyes peeled.

Also, when viewing elk, be sure to keep a safe distance. We think 30 meters is a good distance – at least 3 bus-lengths. Watch the elk closely. If it grinds its teeth or lays its ears back and appears alert and nervous, you should back off.

And if you’re taking pictures, do so from your vehicle, as it makes a great “blind.” Just be sure not to take too long; you don’t want to create an “elk-jam.”

Lastly, we have to remind you: Don’t feed the elk! Or any of the other wildlife. That’s as much for your protection as it is for theirs.

So there you have it, a quick primer on elk viewing in Banff National Park. Later this week, we’ll take a look at elk management within the park, and then how locals and authorities deal with the elk in the town of Banff itself.

In the meantime, check out a couple of the other places you can visit in the Rockies:

Jasper National Park

Canmore/Kananaskis

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