The guinea-pig-sized pika (a member of the rabbit family) dwells in high alpine talus slopes, whereas the grizzly frequents lower montane areas in spring, climbing to above the tree line in summer.
Similarly, birds such as eagles soar on mountain updrafts, seeking prey while American dippers frequent streams throughout the year – including the depths of winter.
The Canadian Rockies cordillera supports 69 species of mammals, 211 species of birds – but only two sorts of toads, six species of frogs, and one turtle.
The Luck of the Draw
Where to go and what to see? Wildlife roams and Mother Nature rules – both dictums make predicting precisely where you can see what species a matter of good fortune. However, here are some general tips.
Wildlife is most active at dawn or dusk, not midday when animals are escaping the heat by sheltering in gullies or forests.
Learn as much about the species you wish to see before heading out: as mentioned, animals migrate in the Canadian Rockies from one ecozone to another – this is not only true of grizzlies but also non-resident birds won’t be found if they’ve migrated out of the region.
Wildlife Watching: Best Practices
When we go “wildlife watching” we’re venturing into the animals’ territory.
Best wildlife watching practices include being quiet; never throwing things, baiting, or otherwise stressing animals; keeping a respectful distance from them (particularly when young are present); never feeding or petting them; and never harming them.
All Canadian parks practice LNT (Leave No Trace) principles, encompassing everything from planning and preparing for your trip through to leaving everything that you find, in its place.
No picking flowers, removing rocks, and leaving nothing but footprints behind. We should all adopt LNT practices, wherever we go.
The caution, throughout the Canadian Rockies, is that you’re in bear country.
Hiking trails and campsites may post bear warning signs and, in some instances, both can be closed if grizzlies have been hanging around.
Hike in groups: and if you see a bear, back off. Before setting off, check the weekly bear reports, ask at your hotel or campground if bears have been sighted.
Best Wildlife-Watching Destinations
Because of accessibility, I’ll concentrate upon Waterton Lakes, Banff, and Jasper National Parks in Alberta and as an example of true wilderness, mention northern BC’s Muskwa-Kechika Management Area (M-KMA).
The latter is such authentic backcountry that if you’re up for adventure on horseback, I recommend exploring with outfitter-guide Wayne Sawchuk. He operates multi-day horseback riding adventures where seeing wildlife is practically guaranteed.
In many parks, Parks Canada biologists set up and monitor wildlife communication trees – so watch for them.
Look for trees which typically have wire on the trunks to capture hair. Researchers do DNA sampling to see how many individual creatures visit, rub, or urinate on the trees: all such territorial markings serve as communication to other critters.
Here are just a few great places to go where I’ll concentrate on the summer-autumn season of May through October when you can drive, hike, mountain bike, or horseback ride as you wildlife watch.
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Waterton’s grassland and mountain landscapes are renowned for their beauty and accessibility – the park being approximately three hours south of Calgary.
My husband Eric and I rode horses here with Alpine Stables in the summer of 2014 and, after negotiating Goat Trail with its hair-raisingly steep talus slopes, we lunched beside Goat Lake.
With binoculars, I scanned the cliffs framing the lake: voilà! The shaggy form of a male mountain goat appeared and as I watched, it picked its way along a seemingly vertical rock wall. When guide Josh Watson whispered “Look right,” we found nine females and kids.
These were exciting finds: goats are uncommon to see because they typically inhabit high, rocky elevations. At lower elevations, we saw white-tailed deer and black bear, bald eagles, grey jays, boreal chickadees and other bird species.
Banff National Park, Alberta
Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park, created in 1885, and the second national park in North America (Yellowstone was founded in 1872).
A great place to start out learning about Rocky Mountain wildlife is by visiting the amazing, heritage collection of taxidermy wildlife at Banff Park Museum National Historic Site of Canada in the Village of Banff. Here you can examine a grizzly “up close and personal,” check out identification books in the library, or watch videos in its Discovery Room.
World-famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and its renowned golf course are famous for autumn sightings of elk which are in rut during late August through October.
During mating season, males “bugle”: listen for a wavering call which starts as a deeply resonant “uhhhhn”, rising to a high-pitched squeal, followed by grunts.
It’s an unforgettable sound and sight, particularly if two males start to butt heads, which creates a cracking sound as antlers entwine and skulls bang together. Meanwhile, it’s comical to see harems of females grazing, appearing to ignore the fuss.
Remember to keep your distance: stay a good 10 metres away from the males because you’ll be interpreted as a threat, and they might charge.
Best practice? Drive around the golf course and take photos either from your car or close to it. Tripods are handy.
Between Banff and Lake Louise drive the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A), a great road to see wildlife in early morning or late afternoon to spot elk, Stone and bighorn sheep, and mule deer.
Moose, too, can be seen in the wetlands of the park but they’re reasonably rare to see.
Birdwatchers flock to Vermillion Lakes, just outside of Banff village. In summertime I’ve never failed to see common loons here, and once discovered an adult on its nest. Also here scan for bald eagles on their nests: look for scraggly looking bundles of sticks in a spruce tree!
In May I’ve found Harlequin ducks diving in the churning meltwaters of rushing rivers: for sure you’ll want binoculars to identify them, as well as more common lakeside ducks as bufflehead, common goldeneye, hooded and common merganser.
Lake Louise is another famous destination in Banff National Park and although I’ve not seen the wild cats I have seen both lynx and cougar tracks when skiing in winter here.
Tracks, scat and other sign (tree rubbings) as well as dens and mineral licks are exciting wildlife finds that you can watch for when you’re on park trails.
Jasper National Park, Alberta
As in Banff, Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge’s golf course is a must for seeing and hearing bugling elk. Also, this property has an easy hiking trail surrounding Lake Boisvert – a great place to bird watch and perhaps spot deer, red fox, beaver, and other animals.
Again look for waterfowl here, such as great blue herons, Canada geese, sandpipers, as well as grey jays (whiskeyjacks) in the woods.
Road sightings of stone and bighorn sheep are common in Jasper National Park. The more remote backcountry is where the wolves, lynx, wolverine and cougars tend to be, but you never know: keep your eyes peeled!
Muskwa Kechika Management Area (M-KMA), British Columbia
During a 12-day riding expedition in this wilderness, we saw numerous wildlife and wildlife sign such as elk and grizzly bear rubbings, ungulate mineral licks, cast-off antlers, a moose jaw, and more.
Outfitter-guide Wayne Sawchuk is a noted environmentalist who has worked hard to create and protect the M-KMA, and as a former trapper who’s spent his life in the backcountry, he knows his wildlife and this terrain intimately.
With Wayne, we saw a herd of 30+ mountain goats descending a mountainside, crossing through a U-shaped valley, and clambering up the opposite mountainside.
Watching the convoy crossing made a great lunch stop for us. Later, riding through the shrubbery, we spied mountain goat “wool” caught in the twigs.
During Wayne’s trips, all sorts of mammals have been spotted in the M-KMA including bison, deer, moose, grizzlies, bighorn sheep and more.
Wildlife is everywhere in the Canadian Rockies, whether it’s a precocious red squirrel chattering in the fir trees or a peregrine falcon soaring in a clear blue sky.
Do your research, procure wildlife and bird lists, then venture into these magnificent national parks to see what you can see.
Contact the Friends of the Parks; talk to park staff about being safe in bear country – and head out for adventure.