Tourism and Animal Decline: The Future of Canada's National Parks

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Crowds at Lake Louise in Banff National Park


Canada is famous for its breathtaking scenery and stunning national parks. Among them is Banff National Park, located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Every year, more than four million people from around the world visit Banff and its nearby attractions Jasper and Canmore, generating an estimated provincial income impact of over CAD 1.82 billion. Last summer, I joined the ranks as a Jasper local, sharing the sights, geography, and historical significance to tourists from around the world. However, what I learned as a sightseeing host showed me that what was good for the economy, was not good for the environment. Widespread tourism in the Canadian Rockies has had detrimental effects to the local environment due to poor tourist behavior, developmental pressures, increased pollution, and overcrowding. Despite all of this, the Albertan Government has vowed to double tourism by 2030. In this article, I will be recounting my own personal experiences and what I have learned to show why tourism in Banff and its sister parks must be limited.

The Problem

“Will you show us wildlife today?” This was, by far, the most common question I would be asked by my guests. The question exemplified how tourists viewed animals: as an attraction, a sight they were entitled to. This attitude translated to how tourists treated the wildlife: despite laws forbidding visitors from exiting their vehicles in presence of wildlife or from feeding the wildlife, tourists exiting their vehicles to crowd around a bear or elk was a common sight. These close human-wildlife interactions often lead to two issues: (a), the animal becomes conditioned to humans or (b), the animal attacks under a perceived threat. They both have a common conclusion: being put down. The chances of being put down are especially high for carnivore interactions. The stats support this correlation between increased tourism and greater risks of human-wildlife conflict, with human-wildlife conflicts growing from 924 in 2013 to 3,291 in 2019.

The Woodland Caribou

Some species have already faced the consequences of unregulated tourism. In Jasper, the woodland caribou has been on the verge of extinction for the past three decades due to human activity in their habitats. Ski tracks left by off-trail cross-country ski enthusiasts created compacted snow tracks, negating the caribou’s evolutionary advantages of running over snow and giving wolves easy access to hunt. Although Parks Canada has since banned back-country skiing in the Maligne Valley, the Maligne herd was officially declared extinct in 2020. Other at-risk species such as the bison, grizzly bear, and wolverine may follow.

Why Should You Care?

This animal loss has direct impacts on the environment and humans living in the area. Ecosystems are highly interdependent, and every extirpated species makes the entire ecosystem more fragile. In a diverse ecosystem, the extirpated woodland caribou in Jasper can be replaced by other species such as elk and deer. However, if the liver fluke disease plaguing the elk population in Banff is spread to Jasper, the lack of large herbivores could damage the predator population or result in the overgrowth of trees and shrubbery. This imbalance leaves the Canadian Rockies ecosystem far more susceptible to further biodiversity loss, natural disasters, and disease.

2015 Jasper Excelsior Fire

Forest fires are a regular and healthy occurrence for the forest ecosystem, but unnaturally strong and frequent fires destroy habitats and add to greenhouse gas levels at an unsustainable rate. A recent example is the 2015 Excelsior Fire in Jasper. It was started by a lightning strike, but its unprecedented strength was largely due to Parks Canada’s 60 years of fire suppression in the 20th century, resulting in forests far denser, older, and drier than they should have been. The fire raged only 15 km from the town of Jasper and required the area to be evacuated. If the large herbivore population continues to fall, the overgrowth of trees and shrubbery can lead to a similar effect, exacerbating the risk of uncontrollable and unsustainable forest fires. This endangers the 30,000 people living in the Bow Valley Area, its visitors, and the first nations reserves that surround the park.

Similar problems may occur if existing rates of bear mortalities and other predators continue in Alberta, causing a trophic cascade. To preserve our beautiful parks and keep the people living in the Bow Valley safe, we must take a stricter stance on enforcing environmental protection laws against tourists in Banff and its sister parks.

A Bird’s Eye View: Climate Change Impacts on the Rockies

In addition to its direct effects, tourism has indirect effects on the national parks through air and noise pollution.

Passenger vehicles emit air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and sulphur oxide. Many people know how these pollutants contribute to global warming. These particles remain in the atmosphere, preventing more of the sun’s energy from being reflected out and trapping it in Earth’s atmosphere, in a process known as the greenhouse effect. However, nitrogen and sulphur oxide deposited from the air can directly harm ecosystem processes. Eutrophication, when nitrogen deposits itself into the soil, acts like a fertilizer for certain plants, artificially changing community composition to unbalanced levels. Acidification, when nitrogen and sulfur deposits itself from air to soil, leaches nutrients from soils, lakes, and ponds, decreasing habitat quality and killing acid-sensitive plant species. For fragile mountain ecosystems, even the loss of one species can snowball into a trophic cascade.

Car honks, helicopter choppers, and the chatter that come with a flourishing tourist attraction contribute greatly to noise pollution in the Rocky Mountains. Anthropogenic noise is heard in 37% of protected Park Service lands in America and a study conducted by Colorado State University found human-caused noise doubled environmental sound in 63% of U.S. protected lands, and over a ten-fold increase in 21% of protected areas. This has an array of negative effects on ecological communities: noise may scare away carnivores, resulting in inflated prey species, interfere with animal communication, or push a species away from the “loud” area.

What Should Be Done? A Local’s Solution

Although the negative effects of tourism to the Rocky Mountains is undeniable, so are its contributions to the local economy and provincial GDP. It is vital to strike a balance between the economy and the environment. Unfortunately, Parks Canada has been under slam over the past decade for its focus on tourism over conservation as it passes new development of trails in Jasper and expansions of Lake Louise’s ski resort. In 2015/2016, only 13% of Parks Canada’s national park spending was dedicated to conservation. Now, as of 2023, Parks Canada struggles to have any conservation budget at all, with its capital budget being slashed by more than ⅔ in 2022. To illustrate, the 2020-21 budget was CAD 556 million, 21-22 was CAD 448 million, and 22-23 is a paltry CAD 138 million.

Moraine Lake: now restricted from all personal vehicle access to cope with over-tourism

In January 2023, Parks Canada announced private vehicles are no longer permitted at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in an attempt to curb overcrowded tourism. To add my own experience, I recall waking up at 5 am to catch the Moraine Lake sunrise, only to circle the parking lot for over thirty minutes! While a great start, one tourist site is not nearly enough to protect the ecological integrity of the Canadian Rockies.

Working in the tourism industry, the debate between conservation and tourism was actually a popular discussion topic between my colleagues. In Jasper, I was fortunate enough to work with bus drivers who have been living in the parks for decades- back even before the tourist corporation took over and when it was all family businesses! One suggestion that really sparked my interest was completely banning all vehicular traffic, replacing all personal vehicles with railroad transit, shuttle buses, and tour buses. While this idea sounded radical at first, it actually proved to make sense. Research shows trains emit the lowest carbon dioxide per passenger mile at 177 grams per passenger mile. They also address the problem of noise pollution, limiting noise pollution to a smaller area and creating overall lower noise levels.

Upon arriving at their destination, be it Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, or into British Columbia, tourists can use public transit and alternative modes of transportation such as walking or cycling. In Banff, all tourist attractions are accessible by walking, cycling, and Roam Public Transit, for the low cost of $2 per trip. At the same time, tourists can avoid problems associated with driving fatigue, road congestion, and parking.

The biggest obstacle to railroad travel is its cost. VIA Rail and the Rocky Mountaineer, the two largest train tourism services running through the Canadian Rockies, are seen as luxury trips, with prices far higher than driving your own personal vehicle. But even without outright banning personal vehicles, simply subsidizing cheaper (albeit less luxurious) rides can go a long way in clearing up congested traffic. By encouraging tourists to avoid using their own vehicles, Parks Canada can streamline tourists into popular tourist destinations while leaving the rest of the park untouched. Limiting access to parts of the parks allows Parks Canada to focus their resources on enforcing conservation laws in tourist hotspots.

Works Cited

More posts by Catherine Su.
Tourism and Animal Decline: The Future of Canada's National Parks
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