LAKE LOUISE – Famous for its glacier-fed turquoise lakes and iconic mountains, the Lake Louise area is one of the busiest and most over-crowded in Banff National Park.
It is also home to grizzly bears and a host of other wildlife that face increasing pressure from exploding human use that has grown to more than 4.1 million annual visitors, a 29.8 per cent increase in a decade.
In an attempt to get more cars off the road and reduce congestion at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, Parks Canada is relocating the existing park-and-ride lot on the Trans-Canada Highway to the Lake Louise ski resort this summer as part of a two-year pilot.
The move will provide more than 2,000 parking spaces at the ski hill as opposed to the 800 spots in the existing overflow lot east of the hamlet, and according to Parks Canada will be much safer than the existing lot east of the hamlet where buses pull out into busy back-to-back traffic.
Parks Canada officials say they recognize that moving the park-and-ride to the ski hill will significantly increase vehicle traffic on Whitehorn Road, which cuts through a critical wildlife corridor used by grizzly bears and other wildlife species.
“We think it’s the best solution from a safety and visitor experience perspective,” said Alex Kolesch, a Parks Canada senior advisor for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.
“We’re also committed to protecting and improving wildlife movement around Lake Louise so we’ll put in place a number of measures to safeguard wildlife corridors on both sides of the valley.”
Two wildlife corridors traverse the valley bottom and side slopes parallel to the Bow River – the Fairview corridor on the west side and the Whitethorn corridor on the east. The Lake Louise region is known to be part of a core reproductive range for grizzly bears.
The Fairview corridor is bisected by Lake Louise Drive to Moraine Lake and Upper Lake Louise and encompasses the townsite, while the Whitehorn corridor extends from the Trans-Canada Highway to the mid-elevations of Mount Whitehorn including a portion of the ski area.
Under the new plan, vehicles will be banned from accessing the Whitehorn road to the ski hill between 8 p.m and 6 a.m. during summer months with the installation of a permanent gate. Access will be maintained for ski area staff and the gate won’t prevent access to the parkway.
If the park-and-ride moves to the ski hill permanently at the conclusion of the two-year pilot project, Parks Canada will explore a future wildlife crossing structure on Whitehorn Road to make it easier for animals to safely cross the road. This structure would be in addition to the underpass required under the Lake Louise ski area long-range plan.
On the Fairview corridor side, Parks Canada will expand the existing summer trail closure on the west side of the Bow River Loop to include the pedestrian bridge at the campground to the pedestrian bridge at the train station.
The parking lot at the Great Divide trailhead, which is a known hotspot for wildlife activity, will also be closed. The trail, however, will remain open.
While there are no restrictions, Parks Canada recommends pedestrians use the Louise Creek Trail rather than the Tramline Trail to reduce human use in this area. Cyclists can keep using the Tramline trail as a safe alternative to busy Lake Louise Drive.
There’s also a plan to close a network of unofficial trails between the village and the lake to focus human use on the Louise Creek Trail and Tramline Trail. This is intended to allow wildlife to move and forage undisturbed in adjacent areas.
Kolesch said Parks Canada’s wildlife experts have looked at all of these measures carefully.
“We do believe that this is the best, in total, to protect wildlife corridors in the Lake Louise area,” he said.
The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) say use of the overflow camping area off the Trans-Canada Highway east of Lake Louise as a park-and-ride lot was untenable for many reasons and the ski hill parking lot will undoubtedly provide a safer and more convenient transit hub for visitors.
However, Reg Bunyan, the group’s vice-president, said it comes at the potential cost of further compromises to the wildlife corridor on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway.
He said the area in and around the Lake Louise ski hill has been identified as one of the most important areas in Banff National Park for grizzly bear family units.
“Because of this, for the last 20 years, Parks Canada has been steadfast in trying to keep human use levels very low in and around the ski area,” said Bunyan.
“It’s unclear to us, what if anything has changed from a science perspective to allow this shift in policy.”
With the approval of increased summer use at the ski hill, Bunyan said traffic on the access road will greatly increase and this will now be magnified by overflow parking traffic and shuttles shifting the “wall of steel from one side of the valley to the other.”
“It’s vitally important to keep this wildlife corridor functioning and bear populations unhabituated. Parks Canada shouldn’t be in the business of further compromising one wildlife corridor to improve effectiveness in another,” he said.
“Without an accompanying human-use strategy to manage overall numbers in the Lake Louise area and the potential of the larger ski hill lots to increase shuttle capacity, we fear further ecological degradation of this sensitive and much loved area.”
Parks Canada produced an area management strategy for a 220-square-kilometre area surrounding Lake Louise, which was released as part of the draft Banff National Park Management Plan in March 2021. The final management plan has still not been approved.
The most significant change in Lake Louise since the last management plan was approved in 2010 has been unprecedented growth in visitation to more than 4.1 million people from 2019-20 – an increase of 29.8 per cent from 2010-2011 visitors figures.
The annual two-way traffic volume on Lake Louise Drive was 2.1 million vehicles in 2019, up from 1.2 million vehicles in 2010, a whopping 75 per cent increase.
Summer visitor use of four popular hiking trails increased by 156 per cent, and a fall increase in trail use of 400 per cent was recorded in Larch Valley.
While summer continues to be the busiest period in the Lake Louise area, the shoulder seasons of late spring, early fall and winter holidays have all seen a surge in visitation requiring Parks Canada to manage traffic in the area on a year-round basis.
“High traffic volumes on Lake Louise Drive and Whitehorn Road may cause wary species to avoid using the area or crossing the roadway during busy periods,” states the Lake Louise area strategy.
Bunyan said Parks Canada rightfully argues that between the village and Upper Lake Louise, there is an urgent need to improve wildlife corridor connectivity, much of which has been compromised by wall-to-wall traffic during peak periods.
“Potential mitigations have been identified in the form of wildlife underpasses in both areas, but these are currently unfunded, which would seem to be putting the proverbial cart before the horse,” he said.
Bunyan said one of the things that angers BVN about this issue is that it has been an open secret that Parks Canada was in discussions with the ski area about the option of intercept parking prior to the approval of the ski hill long range plan.
“BVN repeatedly brought this up during the long range plan review process with both Parks Canada and the ski hill, as the plan allowed for greatly increased summer use,” he said.
“Cumulative impacts are an important component of the environmental assessment process and, frankly, it was at best disingenuous of Parks Canada to separate these issues and not include the impact of summer intercept parking as part of this process.”
Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) welcomed the news of the relocations of the intercept lot.
“We believe it will successfully achieve its aims of making people and wildlife safer, offering a better experience for visitors and providing more efficient transit,” said Paul Shaw, a spokesperson for BLLT.
With many transit and shuttle options available at most top tourist attractions in Banff National Park, Shaw said visitors are encouraged to leave their cars behind, relax and enjoy the view on the way to their adventures.
“With parking limited, this is often the best option, as well as helping to reduce pollution and congestion,” he said.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has mixed reviews.
“This plan for the Lake Louise area is not perfect and I have concerns, but I think Parks Canada is trying to do their best with a crappy hand,” said Sarah Elmeligi, national parks program coordinator for CPAWS.
“The parking lot to take shuttles to Lake Louise cannot be on the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s super unsafe … I feel like it’s only a matter of time before one of those school buses gets hit by a truck.”
Elmeligi said this appears to be a multi-faceted approach to visitor management she hopes will increase wildlife habitat security and effectiveness of both wildlife corridors.
But she stressed monitoring must be a priority.
“The plan is not just about moving the parking lot; they are also doing trail management and seasonal closures,” she said.
“They’re looking at the area holistically, and if they do all that they’ve put together, it is definitely a step in the right direction.”
However, Elmeligi flagged concerns about encouraging increased bike use of the Tramline trail, which also allows pedal-assisted electric bikes.
“If we see increased e-bike traffic we could start to see a lot of increased traffic on that stretch of trail and that’s a little bit concerning because that’s a pretty important wildlife corridor,” she said.
“I’d like Parks Canada to investigate safe ways for the bikes to get up to the top of Lake Louise that don't involve them using the Tramline trail and I’d like them to do that sooner rather than later.”
As part of the area strategy for Lake Louise associated with the draft management plan for Banff National Park, Parks Canada indicated the feasibility of relocating the park-and-ride lot to the large lot at the ski hill would be evaluated.
Conservationists, however, are disappointed that decisions were made ahead of final approval of the management plan and the final recommendations of a Parks Canada-struck expert panel looking at a fundamental top-to-bottom overhaul of the way people access, experience and move around the park.
The expert panel was also tasked with thinking beyond sustainable transportation modes to include demand management strategies, such as reservation systems, access restrictions, quotas, or timed and paid parking, for example.
Kolesch said Parks Canada heard strong support for improving wildlife corridors effectiveness and transportation systems, even in the short-term, during earlier public consultation on the management plan.
“We’re trying out, just as we have for the past number of years, these small incremental steps to make things better and we’ll see how this goes for the next two years,” he said.
While not announced as part of the most recent measures, the area management strategy for Lake Louise also contained other measures.
The draft plan calls for vehicle restrictions at certain times on Lake Louise Drive leading to Upper Lake Louise as well on Moraine Lake Road to protect wildlife.
Specifically for Moraine Lake Road, the plan suggests using shuttle scheduling and traffic restrictions during dawn and dusk to allow wildlife to use and move through a critical wildlife corridor.
In addition, the draft plan considers paid parking at Moraine Lake. Paid parking was already implemented at Upper Lake Louise from mid-May to mid-October, with a flat rate of $11.70 per vehicle per day.
The draft plan calls for an enhanced transportation system, but also proposes to use many tools to manage the type, amount, timing, location or nature of human activity in areas that are ecologically sensitive or contain important wildlife habitat.
There are currently no plans to ban private vehicles on Lake Louise Drive to the busy lakeshore or to Moraine Lake, but there are plans for improvements to the shuttle system that will run from the ski hill park-and-ride lot expected to be announced in the coming months.
“We are not considering any kind of complete restrictions on private vehicle traffic at this time,” said Kolesch.
“Those are big picture questions and those kinds of things are what we’re really looking forward to from this expert panel on moving people sustainably in Banff National Park.”