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Banff Springs snail habitat destroyed by swimmer

BANFF – Critical habitat of the endangered Banff springs snail was destroyed after a man took an illegal swim at the Cave and Basin on the weekend.
Banff Snails
Banff hot spring snails sit on a bed of algae in one of the upper hot spring pools in Banff in 2018. The snails are considered an endangered species in Canada and only exist in the thermal waters found in Banff.

BANFF – Critical habitat of the endangered Banff springs snail was destroyed after a man took an illegal swim at the Cave and Basin on the weekend.

A security camera at the site was not working at the time, but Parks Canada law enforcement wardens are looking for a man who took a dip in the Cave pool at the national historic site on Sunday afternoon (March 3).

Parks Canada was unable to provide any details at press time, including a description of the man, but a prominent Banff-based snail expert said the swimmer appears to have destroyed habitat, such as microbial mats the snails live and lay eggs upon.

“It’s critical habitat, it’s not a swimming pool,” said Dwayne Lepitzki, who is also co-chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada’s (COSEWIC) molluscs species specialist subcommittee.

“There was habitat destruction and there very well could have been snail deaths, but we’ll never be able to prove snail deaths because if they died they would have sunk to bottom.”

This is the second incident involving someone illegally swimming in the Cave while the tourist attraction site was open in the last couple of years. Other cases, including one involving two Park Canada employees, occurred after hours.

In the other daytime case, an Ontario man who swam with the snails in 2014 was fined $4,500 in court. The microbial mat, where snails feed and lay their eggs, was badly damaged.

“Sure it’s only the second incident, but there’s clearly an issue of people doing things illegally even when the site is open,” Lepitzki said of this most recent event. “That is even more troubling than when people are doing things after the site is closed.”

The snails are endangered because the hot springs on Sulphur Mountain are the only place in the world where the species is found, it lives within only a few pools there, faces many habitat threats and experiences wild fluctuations in numbers.

Last year, COSEWIC re-assessed the lemon-seed sized snail for the first time in 10 years, concluding there are still too many threats to its survival to take it off the endangered species list.

Climate change is considered a big threat. Some thermal springs continue drying up every year, while there are years with more storms and rainfall at atypical times of year, resulting in changes in
snail numbers.

In the past, gold fish were illegally dumped into one of the outflow streams, which had to be removed by Parks Canada aquatics experts, while a non-native raccoon was wandering throughout the area before being eventually trapped by Parks Canada.

The highest recorded numbers were 3,700 at the Lower Cave and Basin and more than 3,000 in the Lower Middle Spring. That compares to just 22 snails in the Lower Cave and Basin and 40 in the Lower Middle Spring – a very wet year.

In this most recent case, Lepitzki said snails can die when people rub up against the wall getting in and out of the pool.

“That’s where the snails are; they have lungs and are sitting at the air-water interface breathing and doing what snails do,” he said.

He said the microbial mats, upon which snails live, eat and lay eggs were also damaged.

“There was no floating mat where it used to be in abundance,” he said.

If anyone has information on this incident, call Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470.