The Canadian Rockies have called to me ever since I first visited the region at the tender age of one. My parents had a photo in my childhood home, taken along the Icefields Parkway, that elicited stories of my trip there with them. Me sitting for the most part on a mattress in the back of a black VW bug (this being long before the time of LATCH car seats).
As I grew up and into the mountain-loving person I am today, those majestic Canadian Rockies still beckoned. Finally heeding their siren call a few years ago, I’m as smitten as ever.
For those who haven’t been, and for those who—like me—wish for further discovery of their grandeur, an adventure in the Canadian Rockies is a must. Let’s learn a bit more about this sublime mountain range and what wildlife you can expect to see (or at least learn about) on a trip there.
Where Are the Canadian Rockies?
The Canadian Rockies—a segment of the Rocky Mountains—extend for about 1,000 miles from northern British Columbia on a southeastward bent that forms nearly half of the 900-mile border between BC and Alberta. The Mackenzie and Selwyn mountains, which are farther north along the Northwest and Yukon territories, are often grouped in with the Canadian Rockies.
On the west side of the Rockies, a geologic depression called the Rocky Mountain Trench separates the front range from the Columbia Mountains. These include the Cariboo, Selkirk, Monashee and Purcell mountains. Like Mackenzie and Selwyn, they are often included when we talk about the Canadian Rockies as a whole.
Why are nature lovers so innately drawn to the Canadian stretch of the Rockies? It’s likely due in part to the sublimely rugged nature of the peaks, which are more heavily glaciated and more extreme looking than the American Rockies. The climate is cooler and moister, leading to more and bigger rivers, richer soil, and increased glacier activity, which is what carved out these steep, sharply pointed peaks in the first place.
Glaciers and rushing rivers sculpted immense valleys through the region’s limestone, shale and sedimentary rock. Those rivers, in addition to the glaciated mountains, are among the area’s calling cards. They’re also world-renowned for rafting and angling.
Four Animals You May See in the Canadian Rockies (And One You Probably Won’t)
You’ll be sharing the sharp, sheer Canadian Rockies with moose and mountain goats, bighorn sheep and bears. It’s no exaggeration that grizzlies outnumber people here! Traveling with a conservation-minded company like Nat Hab ensures that you are experiencing their home turf with respect and awe.
Now, get to know some of the most iconic creatures in the Canadian Rockies. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. Don’t forget the hoary marmots, ground squirrels, pikas, mountain boats, golden and bald eagles, moose and more that live here, too!
1. Bighorn Sheep
Fun Fact: A ram’s horns can weigh up to 30 pounds, making these accessories account for about 20% of their body weight!
Famed for the large, curved horns that the males (rams) sport, bighorn sheep inhabit a vast range, from the Canadian Rockies all the way down to the arid deserts of the American Southwest. They are relatives of goats, and their sharp vision and rough-bottomed, split hooves aid them as they move along the rocky heights. These sociable creatures live together in herds segregated by sex (males with males and females with females and their young). Their diet consists of grass, seeds and other plants, which they regurgitate and then chew as cud before swallowing and digesting it.
Symbols of the American West, bighorns used to be ubiquitous throughout the Rockies range, from Alaska to northern Mexico and into the snowfields of Canada. Distinct social groups of 10 to 100 members totaled approximately two million overall animals. However, as European expansion headed west, trophy hunting increased, leading to a population decline. Ranchers started acquiring more land, degrading wildlife corridors and habitat. The introduction of domestic sheep struck a final blow, forcing the bighorn sheep to compete for forage even as they encountered new diseases wrought by the domestic herds.
The bighorns you see in Canada still face adversity. The total population has diminished more than 70% from historic levels. The species is particularly vulnerable to pneumonia carried by domestic sheep, and outbreaks can lead to mortality rates of up to 90%. Your Nat Hab Expedition Leader can share more about the current conservation practices in place to reinvigorate the bighorn sheep population, including buffer zones to separate them from domestic herds, working with private landowners to ensure they have enough grazing area, and endorsing public policies that prioritize their conservation.
2. Black Bears
Fun Fact: Black bears have perhaps the keenest sense of smell in the animal kingdom.
As you explore the Canadian Rockies, particularly hiking in Banff and Jasper national parks, keep an eye out for the black bear—but don’t assume it will always appear black! The American black bear (found in Canada, too) can have fur ranging from gray to blue-gray, black, cinnamon and white. They’re recognizable by their small heads, straight-line profiles, rounded ears and short tails. Black bears are large and stocky; adults generally weigh between 130 and 660 pounds, but the largest males can grow to more than 800 pounds.
As a species, black bears are generally less aggressive than brown bears and will escape predators, such as grizzlies and wolves, by climbing trees instead of fighting. They spend the warm season filling up on plants in phenological states of highest nutrient availability, bulking up their fatty tissue and thick fur for their upcoming winter hibernation. Longer summer months—a consequence of climate change—are delaying black bears’ typical foraging and denning behaviors and increasing the chances that they are out during the day when they are most likely to encounter humans, inevitably causing conflict.
3. Grizzly (Brown) Bears
Fun Fact: After polar bears, grizzly bears are the largest members of the bear family. Although the two diverged 150–500,000 years ago, genetic testing in 2006 confirmed the existence of polar bear-grizzly bear hybrids.
First off: brown bears and grizzly bears are technically the same species (for now). Brown bears are those found in coastal areas, while those that are found inland or in the North, as in the Canadian Rockies, are called “grizzlies.” Their “grizzled” appearance includes a prominent back hump and large shoulder muscle mass, as well as long, straight claws. Grizzlies have an incredible memory, allowing them to return to a site of successful foraging year after year. When they’re not feasting on berries and vegetation, grizzles are consuming spawning fish, wolf-killed ungulate carcasses and elk and moose calves.
Grizzlies have an enormous geographic range—the widest of any of the world’s bear species. There are approximately 110,000 grizzly bears worldwide, with an estimated 25,000 in Canada, primarily in western Alberta, the Yukon and Northwest territories and British Columbia. Like most animals that prefer cold-weather climes, grizzly bears are under threat from climate change. Human-carnivore conflict presents another challenge, as well as commercial development, environmental degradation, vehicle collisions and hunting activities.
4. Black Swifts
Fun Fact: The black swift, or cloud swift, is the largest swift in Canada and the United States. More than 80% of North America’s black swift population resides in Canada.
Birders will want to look closely for black swifts as they enter Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park. They’re somewhere between the size of a robin and a swallow, with small feet, a tiny bill and a square tail. Though large, the black swift typically nests behind waterfalls and on cliff ledges. Their numbers have been dwindling, landing them on the endangered species list by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 2015. As a reference, there were around 12 nests in the canyon between 1981 and 1982, but more recently, there have been just one or two. The culprits? Airborne pollutants, climate change, logging and, not surprisingly for a popular national park, human activity.
Luckily, the black swift population has experienced a recent increase. While it’s not entirely clear what is causing the rebound in population, park rangers and researchers believe it’s due in part to reduced human activity, which the park has facilitated by closing or restricting access to immediate areas around swift nests.
Danielle Rubeling, the visitor experience manager for Banff National Park, puts it best: “What we really want the public to know is that those closures and restricted activity orders are in place to protect a highly sensitive endangered species. Staying out of that restricted area, by minimizing disturbance to the birds and their nesting site, is a really important action that people can use to hopefully feel like they are contributing to the success of an endangered species.”
5. Banff Springs Snails
Fun Fact: Sadly, this tiny creature’s “fact” is that it’s the first living mollusk to be classified by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
Found only in a small handful of thermal springs in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, the little Banff Springs snail is facing imminent extinction. The sobering reality is that this is the most at-risk wildlife species within the park. Grizzlies, woodland caribou and wolverines are considered “special concern” or “threatened,” whereas the snail is considered “endangered.”
Why care about an inconspicuous snail found only in remote Canadian hot springs? Just as a healthy grizzly population is vital to the ecosystem, the number of Banff Springs snails reflects the vitality of their own unique thermal spring habitat (one of the planet’s most punishing environments, with warm water, little to no oxygen, large amounts of dissolved minerals and an array of bacteria and algae). Disturbance and destruction to the snails’ fragile habitat—largely by humans—has continued to threaten the existence of a population that exists only here. Read more about what Parks Canada and Banff National Park are doing to protect these minute creatures, who live in one of the harshest environments in the world.
With their dazzling scenery and range of wildlife, the Canadian Rockies are an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. When enjoyed respectfully and responsibly, as on a Nat Hab trip, you can help ensure that this wild wonderland will be around for future generations to enjoy.