I stop my car on a windswept shoulder of the four-lane Trans Canada Highway a few kilometres west of where Alberta’s Bow and Kananaskis rivers converge – near Highway 40 to Kananaskis Country, and the exit to Highway 1A, the Bow Valley Trail. As a parade of cars and transport trucks speed by, I feel the ground shudder and shake. I park far off by the ditch and climb a sun-drenched hill. Looking east, there are rolling foothills that lead to Calgary an hour away; to the west, near and into the distance, there’s a seemingly impenetrable wall of mountains, carpeted green with spruce and pine, right up to jagged cliffs where trees no longer grow.
Everything gets pinched through a narrow gap between towering peaks – the converging highways, the towns and villages they connect, and the busy cross-country railway that transports goods to and from far-flung communities and ports on the coast. Wildlife habitat is wedged in here as well, strung along the gentler slopes, as animals try to follow their ancient pathways along the rivers.
The animals here, as everywhere, are constantly on the move, searching for food and mates and places to rear their young. That’s why the Alberta government is considering a wildlife overpass right where I’m standing – an area dubbed Bow Valley Gap by local conservationists – roughly 20 kilometres outside the Banff National Park gates. Proponents say the overpass would reduce the amount of wildlife-vehicle collisions that occur here, and would give roaming elk, wolves, grizzly bears and other animals safe passage across a highway that averages roughly 22,000 vehicles a day.
About 20,000 people live in the Bow Valley, mostly in Banff Townsite and nearby Canmore, and roughly four million tourists, nature lovers, hikers, skiers and back-country adventure seekers visit every year. “We’ve got two of the biggest protected areas in Alberta – Banff and Kananaskis – and a city of more than a million people an hour away,” says Jay Honeyman, a human wildlife conflict biologist for Alberta Environment and Parks. “It’s a very, very busy place – some say it’s pie-in-the-sky to think that wildlife would want to live here, but so far, they have.”