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Shops in downtown Banff, Alta.

Jeff Whyte/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?"

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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?

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"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."

The fight came down to ideals versus real estate. Ms. Gilles-Smith, whose tea emporium is off the main drag, pays $50 a square foot; rents on Banff Avenue, the high-traffic frontage, run two to four times that sum, and that's before "key fees" that can top $100,000. According to Ms. Gilles-Smith, "It's some of the most expensive commercial real estate in Canada."

Its owners – three-quarters of Banff's downtown retail space is owned by six parties – were against a quota on chain stores because it would lower property values. Council voted 5-1 against.

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"When you live in a national park," Ms. Gilles-Smith says, "you're supposed to protect what is dear to you – a community, a way of life that is unique, a unique perspective on the environment."

Recently I met a man who has resided in Banff since the late 1930s, "back when it was mainly a summer resort, when it used to be high end," he said. "People came for two months at a time. Now, Banff is a pretty wild place." He wasn't talking about cougars.

But chain stores also go way back here. The Feb. 3, 1933, edition of The Crag & Canyon bears a front-page headline: "Chain stores are menace to a community." And as Chip Olver, a councillor for the past 19 years, points out, "This town started as a chain. The whole Banff Springs-CP hotel was a chain to bring tourists into the mountains." Money-making has a pedigree in Banff as long as any white man's – just not as long as nature's.

Statistically, I am more likely to be killed by falling airplane parts than I am by a cougar. Or so says Jerry Kobalenko, the author of Forest Cats of North America. We're skiing on the Cascade fire road, 15 minutes outside town, past the spot where Frances Frost, a 30-year-old cross-country skier, was killed by a two-metre-long cougar at 1 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2001. She is the only human being to have been killed by a cougar in Alberta in 115 years. People in town still talk about that day.

It was an innocent-looking place to die, no more than 200 metres from her car, to which she was headed at the time. Mr. Kobalenko examined the site right after the attack: The cat stalked the woman from the edge of the woods, avoiding the backward thrust of her ski poles, until it took her down by jumping on her back and biting through her spinal cord.

"Avoid that initial attack," Mr. Kobalenko says, "because it hits you like a ton of bricks." I do not find this advice reassuring. Still, he says, "unless you have a particular fear of cats, it's not an issue to be out, even in cougar country."

That's the logic of mountain thinking. "It's part of the culture of being here," Karsten Heuer, the filmmaking, book-writing president of the Yellowknife to Yukon Conservation Initiative, explains to me. "It's no different from people accepting the hazards of being mugged when you live in the big city. It's part of the contract of being here." He thinks that wild animals make him wilder, more alert. "The fact that in the Bow Valley we can still encounter these animals that can do us harm is a gift. It wakes us up and gives us some of their vitality."

Or, to put it as an insider at City Hall did, "We don't stay in our rooms because we know there's a cougar out there. We prepare for it, and go out. And we don't not go downtown because we know there's a McDonald's there. We know it's there, it has a role to play, and we're not going to have it dictate to us."

These days on my daily trips up Tunnel Mountain, I carry my bear spray 30 per cent of the time. I don't know why I do when I do, or why I don't when I don't. I suspect it has something to do with why people come to live in the mountains, where you can still be surprised every day – by a sharp shift in the weather, by a stark view you never noticed, by a cougar on your log pile, by how little separates the wild from the settled.

It makes logical sense to carry bear spray against cougars (protection against attack), and also not to carry it (far greater odds of setting it off accidentally in your own face), just as there are rational reasons for and against chain stores in a unique setting most Canadians worship. But a life isn't just about adding up. Out here, among the animals, that can still be true.

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