BANFF – The pedestrian railing at Johnston Canyon will be replaced and extended from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls to try to keep people away from endangered birds that live and nest in the cliffs.
Construction work has begun at the popular Banff National Park tourist attraction, and as a result, the trail from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls is closed until late fall under a restricted activity order that went into effect on Aug. 15.
Parks Canada officials say the infrastructure improvements at Johnston Canyon will improve visitor safety and reduce disturbance to the endangered black swifts, with railing encouraging visitors to stay on the designated trail and preventing trampling on surrounding vegetation.
“There’s a lot of sections above the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls where there is no permanent fencing, and this has been identified as part of our integrated approach to managing the black swift and protecting their habitat,” said Daniella Rubeling, visitor experience manager for Banff National Park.
“The railing will be extended to the Upper Falls in order to keep people from going off-trail and also venturing into what we know as the Secret Cave, which isn’t so secret, where we’ve had a restricted activity order for off-trail activity since 2019 since those birds were listed as an endangered species.”
The construction work is being undertaken as part of Parks Canada’s federal infrastructure investment program, which includes $3 billion in spending over five years within national historic sites, national parks, and national marine conservation areas across Canada.
Johnston Canyon, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, is a critical nesting area for the endangered black swift.
Five active black swift nests were confirmed in Johnston Canyon in 2021 – the highest number of active nests recorded there since 2004.
In 2020, three nesting pairs were spotted in cliffs of the canyon, while only one or two active nests were recorded between 2005 and 2019.
While the increase in nesting pairs is a positive sign for the black swift population, it is still below historical numbers of up to 12 active nests in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The black swift nesting colony in Johnston Canyon was initially discovered in 1919 and was the first confirmed inland nesting site in North America.
Rubeling said the extension of the railing on the trail is the next step on the books to help protect the endangered birds from disturbance.
“It’s been part of our plans for a while. The funding is here and we’re getting the project going,” she said.
“It just takes a lot of work to work around visitors and endangered species and mountain construction windows.”
For the duration of this construction project, there will be reduced parking in the Johnston Canyon parking lots.
The east side of the main P1 parking lot will be closed to public access and used as a construction staging area. The remaining half of P1 and all of P2 remain open for parking.
However, Rubeling said there will be some occasional full closures of P1, including this coming weekend from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to make way for helicopter work.
“They are not all-day closures and the P2 parking will remain open throughout all of that,” she said.
Rubeling said construction is beginning in August because helicopter activity must be suspended in September when the black swifts are fledging – as the young ones become capable of flight.
“We know there is an impact to visitors, but we’re trying to get a bunch of heli-work done before the fledging period starts,” she said.
“There’s still going to be work up there, but we can resume the helicopter work once the birds have successfully fledged. The more work we get done now, the less time it will last into the fall.”
The lower portion of the Johnston Canyon trail from the parking lot to the Lower Falls, the day-use area, the campground and Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows and the associated restaurant and gift shop all remain open.
The Ink Pots will be accessible via Johnston Creek trailhead at Moose Meadows.
Visitors are encouraged to take Roam public transit (Route 9) to Johnston Canyon to avoid parking congestion.
“We are really wanting people to know what to expect because the parking will be limited, especially as this work is started,” said Rubeling.