Does that sound like something you want in the neighbourhood? In a small mountain town, the answer is yes. When a cougar left the remains of a deer near the playground of a school in Canmore recently, the school did not close, the world did not end. Instead, a few signs (“Cougar in Area”) went up; parents were informed; and the Outlook ran its standard warning: “When encountering a cougar, the public is advised to immediately pick up children and pets and maintain eye contact with the cougar while backing away from the animal slowly. Do not turn your back on a cougar and never run.”
When I tell Brandy Dahrouge, a local photographer, that I’m writing about cougars, she says, “I hear you never even know they’re coming. So why worry about what you can’t see?”
When the Outlook posted a photo of a cougar crouched in a Canmore backyard, the comments were so cool you could have collected them in a cone: “We’re so lucky to have the opportunity to view wildlife like this,” Dorinda Ainscough enthused, insanely if you ask me.
To an eastern city slicker, the good people here seem to be in deep denial. A wildlife corridor sounds like a great big thing – a barrier, say, on the order of the Mexican border. In fact, they’re unmarked tubes that rim parks and schoolyards and subdivisions, which is what Steve Michel means when he says that “the interface between the town and the wilderness is really abrupt.” The edge of the Tunnel Mountain corridor, an alleged favourite of cougars, is five minutes from where I am sitting as I write.
An eastern city type might also say, as occasional residents do: Look, these are predators encroaching on human space – move them. It doesn’t work. The current cougar activity started when the last big cat in the area – known to all as Doug – died two winters ago at the advanced age of 14, resulting in an “influx of young sub-adult male cougars,” all jostling for Doug’s real estate. The mountain wilderness is like corporate life: The headstrong bucks and the crabby oldsters inflict most of the damage.
Doug “was like the celebrity cat around town,” Mr. Michel says. He had the habit of leaving the remains of a sheep or a beheaded deer on the steps of a building, all without ever being spotted. “We never had a single problem with him, in more than a decade.” A new big cat seems to be asserting himself this spring.
How much nature is too much nature, and how much is not enough? You can have that conversation in a city, but the conclusion is always a compromise. If a big-city planner claimed that a murderous neighbourhood was a reflection of the city’s true nature and shouldn’t be fixed, she would be torn apart. But in a mountain town, where the land defines your job and your life, where what you can consume is less important than what might consume you, these existential questions are daily fare. The mountains make people serious.
Should a national park be safely usable by everyone? Or should it preserve nature in its wildest and most dangerous state, so that we can remember what the world was like before man came trampling along?
“There is absolutely a range of opinion on this,” Mr. Michel says. Residents have learned to co-exist with the wild things. Newcomers need help. “They’re willing to live with wildlife, but they don’t want them wandering through their condo complex. But they also understand that’s part of the mystique of being in a place like Banff.”
In the meantime, he and the town try to minimize clashes. Hiking with headphones? “That’s like walking through the wilderness wearing a blindfold.” The town also prohibits the planting of fruit trees. Bears like them too much.
Susanne Gilles-Smith launched the recent campaign against chain stores in Banff when Toronto-based David’s Tea opened a branch on Banff Avenue 14 months ago. Ms. Gilles-Smith owns the rival Banff Tea Company as well as the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, beloved of hikers in Lake Louise.
A lifelong resident of the Bow Valley, she insists that she was trying to protect Banff as much as her profits. “We sort of lose track that we live in a national park, and not in some cowboy town. We live in what is probably the most famous town in Canada. We could be a real flagship. We could set an example.”