The first dusting of snow lies on the backcountry of Banff National Park. In its fresh white icing are imprinted steps: squirrels’ parallel tracks, a bird’s three-toed pattern, hare’s tiny front and comically large hind paws. But the larger animals have worn this trail through the spruce forest, and deer and elk hooves can be seen in the snow as well. Pete White has been noting them for kilometres and recording all the tracks he crosses in a small yellow field book.
White and other biologists have walked this transect for years, observing, counting and reporting the tracks they find. Along with wildlife cameras and collars, this is how they monitor wildlife and record how their patterns shift over time.
White sees more than a recreational hiker would on his 20-kilometre loop through these mountains. The tracks tell a story of deer in various groups moving from areas rich in food to terrain safer from predators. He sees the movement of an elk herd post-rutting season. And then he sees the cat prints layered over top. He sees where the cougar has followed the trail and where it has quietly slid into the forest and gained higher ground. He can imagine how the cat tracked the elk—not that different from how he is now.
As a biologist, White does a lot more than hike in the woods. “The job looks at how people and development co-exist with wildlife and how we manage that; either reactively by hazing a bear out of town, let’s say, or proactively through education or signage and temporary closures,” he explains. This work of protecting wildlife from humans, and vice versa, is a full-time job for roughly a dozen people in the Bow Valley.
White has a quiet, sturdy way about him; a humble, upright sort of presence you’d imagine comes from lots of time alone in the mountains and a compassion for humanity that surely gets tested at work. “Part of the job is certainly the ability to deal with people,” he says. “Staying calm in stressful situations with wildlife, but also with people because so much of the job also involves working with visitors and residents. Coexistence has the pressures of all that, what the wildlife are doing, and what the humans are doing.”
In summer, White and his colleagues spend a lot of time responding to calls: elk in people’s yards, bears on the highway or coyotes eating garbage in a campground. Come fall, those calls decrease, and they have time to catch up on office work like reporting, special projects and connecting the data they’ve collected all summer with research. But the soul of the job is somewhere out there in the mountains, moving through the wilderness, observing, tracking and trying to understand the lives of wild animals.
On fall weekends, White wakes up before dawn and is out walking game trails far outside Banff National Park, in the foothills where snow has not yet fallen, but the predawn air is cold, and the ground crunches with first frost.
He’s been walking this land a lot lately, observing the wild lives that are unfolding here, and learning their patterns. How many deer are there, and what groups are they moving in? Are they healthy? Where are they finding food and water? Are there older bucks who aren’t mating anymore? Does that doe have a fawn? He looks for signs of predators, too—other predators.
Eventually, over weeks, he triangulates the three things deer need: water, food and cover, and comes to understand the deers’ movements between those areas. Finally, with the scouting done, he returns to a spot near the middle of that triangle. And hidden in a place with clear sight lines, he waits. Early in the hunting season, he waits with his bow; later in the season, he has his bolt-action rifle. He’s likely practised the shot that he’s waiting for and, as he sits, sometimes for hours, he rehearses it in his mind.
When White talks about hunting, he does so with a reverence that he doesn’t have for his other recreational activities like snowboarding or climbing. It’s on par with the respect he expresses for his profession. Over a beer, in a reminiscent tone, he explains, “It’s special to have an interaction where you are being completely still and quiet, to allow wildlife to come right up to you. I’ve had an experience sitting on a hillside where a pack of wolves came right up beside me—to within ten feet of me and sniffed around. It’s an intense feeling, really special.”
As the deer White’s been waiting for approaches, tension grows. Frozen fingers slowly grasp the rifle and gently raise it to his cheek. After weeks of prep, this is the moment, and once he fires, it will be over one way or the other. “I’ve had it go both ways, where I wasn’t able to stay calm, or where I was shaking and breathing heavy, or I’ve broken a twig [and scared the deer off]. But there are other days where you’re able to be in the moment and be calm, take a breath and make the shot and successfully harvest that animal.”
When things go right, a full freezer to start the winter is a hunter’s reward. Simple in a way, but White admits, “I’ve never been involved in an activity that’s so contentious.” Many people would be perplexed by a biologist shooting an animal on their weekend.
Protected areas, like national parks, are full of these apparent juxtapositions. Sometimes land managers preserve forests; sometimes, they burn them. Some fish get protected while others get exterminated. Some men and women work all week to protect wildlife from human interference like trains, open picnic boxes and habitat destruction. And a surprising number of them fish and hunt outside of the parks on their days off. As odd as this may seem, it has a long history. The Alberta Wilderness Association, for example, was started by hunters in the 1960s, and there have been avid hunters in the Parks Canada warden service since its inception more than 100 years ago.
If you are driving west from Canmore on the Trans-Canada Highway on a fall morning, you’re likely to see a truck or two pulled into the broad grassy ditch running through the Bow Valley corridor. The vehicle’s owners have parked and, shouldering their hunting bows, hiked up onto the sunny terrace between the multi-lane highway and the peaks of the Fairholme Range. Seeing hunters so close to protected land, you may imagine them waiting for unsuspecting animals to cross the boundary, but during hunting season, wardens patrol the park boundary regularly, and hunters rarely cross it on purpose. If a wounded animal crosses into the park after being shot, it’s a bureaucratic pain in the butt for everyone. So, no, being near the national park is not what draws hunters to this area.
Hunters, biologists (and likely the animals themselves if you could ask them) all agree the greatest threat to wildlife is habitat reduction due to human development.
“It’s a matter of habitat,” White explains. Hunters are there despite the possible hassle, for the same reason the animals are because it’s some of the only good wildlife habitat left in the Bow Valley. The growth of the town of Canmore on one side, coupled with good foraging of the Fairholme prescribed burn of 2003 on the other, has made the tiny slice of land a busy wildlife area. Hunters, biologists (and likely the animals themselves if you could ask them) all agree the greatest threat to wildlife is habitat reduction due to human development.
There was a time when animals and hunters roamed freely in the Bow Valley (before there were national parks, golf courses and condo buildings), and there was no perceived contradiction between conservation and hunting. The first humans on this landscape hunted freely. And when Treaty 7 was signed in 1877, it stated these First Nations retained the right to use the land for hunting.
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In 1885, when the first slice of what would become Banff National Park was protected, wildlife was considered “game” and the Ministry of the Interior’s stated management goal for wildlife was to benefit the tourist experience while providing residents with “wild meat”.
But Indigenous harvesting was never seen as favourable by the settlers of this area—regardless of what Treaty 7 stated. In 1894, the assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs, A.E. Forget, wrote, “kindly also have orders issued that no Indians are to be allowed to hunt or trap within the limits of the Rocky Mountain Park. The N.W.M. Police have been asked to cooperate with you in enforcing this prohibition by driving out of the park any Indians found hunting or trapping therein.”
To further help enforcement, Park Superintendent Howard Douglas helped create the Game Guardians that would be the start of the Parks warden service. These early wardens had the conflicting tasks of both protecting wildlife and “killing pests,” which, at the time, could include hunting predators such as wolves, in an attempt to increase other populations. In part, due to hunting, wolves were completely driven out of the Bow Valley and wouldn’t return until the mid-1980s.
These days it’s the bison’s turn to return to Banff National Park. In 2018, wild bison were reintroduced after more than a 100-year absence. Through the reintroduction of this keystone species, managers hoped to improve ecosystem integrity and cultural connection. Five years on, most people see it as a great success and White has been lucky enough to be a part of the team monitoring the animals, maintaining fencing and writing reports.
By January, winter has eclipsed hunting season and White dons skis to cover 100 kilometres of remote backcountry on a four-day field trip. With heavy packs, he and his teammates ski to a series of tiny backcountry patrol cabins. They are collecting bison dung along the way and carrying it back to town to learn more about the herd’s diet.
Travelling on foot far from human development, cresting a windy ridge to see a wild herd of bison below is a powerful experience that recalls a bygone time. The return of bison to the park, which began in 2017, has been described as an act of reconciliation. The reintroduction started with an Indigenous blessing ceremony and a Parks promise to engage all Treaty 7 Nations throughout the project.
Parks has recently released a report on the project’s first five years, and though there is no mention of hunting, it’s easy to see that the herd is growing (projected to hit 200 animals within eight years), and that land for them to roam is limited. If all goes well, they will likely need to be culled to some degree, as elk around Banff and Jasper have been in years past.
The Stoney Nakoda Nations, who once hunted wild bison on this land for subsistence and included the animals in their cultural and spiritual practices, have released their own report on the project. Enhancing the Reintroduction of Plains Bison in Banff National Park Through Cultural Monitoring and Traditional Knowledge states that they, too, see the reintroduction as an act of reconciliation, and they would like to see the project expanded. It also recommends enhancing the project through ceremony, cultural monitoring, and, eventually, harvesting some of the animals like they had done before the park was established, before they were banned from hunting their traditional lands, and before the bison were driven to near extinction.
Many modern hunters have thought long and hard about the future of wildlife conservation. They have a vested interest, obviously, and they spend a lot of hours sitting quietly. They also see the impacts we all have on the environment. They witness how new developments change wildlife routes or how more hikers on a trail affect when and how animals use it.
Today there are a number of non-profit hunting organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Ducks Unlimited who advocate for research, habitat restoration, and the protection of public lands that support the needs of both people and wildlife.
When the rest of us bike past a deer or a bear on the trails, we rarely stop and observe them for hours or return week after week to check on them as hunters do. We’ve likely already scared the animal by the time we spot them. Even supposed low-impact sports affect wildlife daily. In contrast, hunters try hard not to be noticed: camouflaging themselves, quietly hiding behind bushes or blinds, some even conceal their scent by wearing clothes left in airtight containers when they aren’t in the field. Hunters have as little impact as possible on wildlife until they have a final, fatal impact.
When the rest of us bike past a deer or a bear on the trails, we rarely stop and observe them for hours or return week after week to check on them as hunters do. We’ve likely already scared the animal by the time we spot them.
Some differentiate these types of recreation as consumptive (hunting and fishing) and non-consumptive (our outdoor sports that impact wildlife differently) which hints at society’s mindset. But is hunting really recreating? Or is it humans’ natural role in the ecosystem? There’s a discussion to be had there that wouldn’t be entirely comfortable at most dinner parties. But between hunting and conservation, urban growth and environmental preservation or even colonialism and reconciliation, is the messy middle ground where White spends a lot of his time.
“I was drawn to hunting by working in conservation and studying biology. And through hunting, I’ve been inspired to continue with that work. Being a conservationist has made me a better hunter, but being a hunter has made me a better conservationist, too. Thinking back to my master’s degree, the time spent in the field hunting gave me the ability to see things on the landscape and not just on the computer screen of wildlife data. You need that balance of being out there.”
“In a utopian world, we’d all see the benefits of hunting, and hunters would be very conservation-minded and ethical. I acknowledge that there are people that don’t do it ethically. But ideally, non-hunters would recognize the role the hunters have to play in conservation as well. That’s a piece that’s forgotten.”
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