Everyone who spends any length of time in Banff, the most famous small town in the country, has the wildlife conversation. Perhaps you are a skier, and you ask Dr. Margaret Clarke, a town resident you meet one day at lunch, where to find the most accessible cross-country trails. The following chat ensues:
Dr. Clarke: Well, there’s the Cascade fire road. And there’s the Spray Lakes loop behind the Banff Springs Hotel. Just don’t go alone.
Newcomer: Why not?
Dr. Clarke: The bears are waking up, and they’ll follow you.
Newcomer: In March? Isn’t that a bit early?
Dr. Clarke: Not really. And there are four cougars in the area.
Newcomer: Cougars? Really?
Dr. Clarke: At least take some bear spray.
Hardly anyone who has lived here long carries anything so wiener-ish as bear spray while skiing. But you are a nervous newcomer. And so the next day, as you hand over $30 for a tube of pressurized capsaicin, you mutter sheepishly, by way of saving face, “I heard the bears are waking early this year.”
“A bit early for that!” the customer behind you interjects merrily. She’s a skier in her 40s. “But you can always use it on the cougars.” It’s not clear if she is taking the mick or not.
There are at least 10 cougars roaming the woods these days between Banff and Canmore, 15 kilometres down the Trans-Canada – a lot, even by local standards. The Rocky Mountain Outlook and The Banff Crag & Canyon carry stories every issue: big cats lolling, lounging, lunging and lurking on woodpiles, in backyards, at dogs, near schoolyards.
That’s what cougars do. They’re the four-legged version of the Mob: You never know when the hit will come.
None of this flusters the locals. What they are afraid of is Starbucks, and other invasive retail fauna. Last month, after 12 years of simmering debate, Banff’s council rejected a proposal to limit chain stores, even though three-quarters of its residents were in favour of regulation.
The general complaint is that “formula stores” undermine Banff’s uniqueness as a showpiece of Canada’s original national park.
Between the cougars and the coffee chains lies the question of what people should be more wary of: the encroachments of homogenized urban civilization, or a 90-kilogram cat that can snap your neck at a single pounce.
In the city, which is to say in most of the rest of the country, we presume that more is more: Growth is good and bigger is better, broader and brighter. But out here, in a place small enough to be examined on a granular scale, people think about this stuff all the time.
Steve Michel, Banff National Park’s human-conflict wildlife specialist (note that the park has such a person), likens my new bear spray to a seatbelt: “You can go your whole life and not need a seatbelt. But you can’t put it on after you’ve had the accident.”
We’re drinking coffee at Wild Flour, a bakery in what is known as downtown Banff. The downtown covers less area than a large mall in suburban Toronto.
“We don’t know precisely how many cougars there are,” says Mr. Michel, who looks like a wildlife officer – slim, red hair, tan uniform. (The necktie seems to be going extinct west of Winnipeg.) Counting cougars is as subtle, or impossible, as predicting the end of the Bitcoin bubble. Cougars require prey, mostly deer and elk; prey distribution depends in part on how much snow is covering the vegetation they feed on. This was a low-snow year in the town of Banff; hence, maybe, more cougars.
Thanks to remote cameras installed along the four wildlife corridors that surround Banff, Mr. Michel knew by January that four different cougars had taken up local residence. Snow-track analysis revealed at least four others, he adds: “We know we had one big male, and a couple of sub-adults.” They were all within a 10-km radius of Banff and Canmore. A large cougar weighs 90 kilograms and is the size of a grown man, and also tawny, quiet, agile, fast and carnivorous. Cougars have a particular taste for small dogs and children. They kill before they eat by breaking their prey’s neck or biting through the back of its skull.