The Canadian Rockies

Big Five Wildlife Photography Photos

The Canadian Rockies are known for spectacular wildlife photography.  Few photographers would probably disagree with that.  But, what is the trophy list of species that visiting photographers should seek out?  With my long term professional photography experience here in Canadian Rockies, more than two decades worth, I’m going to go on a limb and put forward “The Canadian Rockies Big Five Wildlife” list for the region.  I think that I have a pretty good idea of what the big five could be.  Collecting this list would make for a great trip to the Rockies too.  I hope that you have fun getting out to photograph the Canadian Rockies Big Five Wildlife!

Grizzly Bear:

Banff Grizzly Bear
A grizzly bear near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. © www.brianmerry.ca


Rather than include a wildlife photograph of a big, badass grizzly bear, which I do have, I thought I’d post this cute little guy instead.  Grizzly bears can grow to be very big and are never to be messed with whether they’re big, or smallish.  These guys can mess you up.

Bear safety:

Luckily, I’ve found that grizzly bears don’t want to have nasty encounters with people.  They just want to make a living eating their nature foods which doesn’t include people, unlike polar bears.  However, if you were to surprise a grizzly bear on a trail, or find yourself in close quarters with a sow and her cub(s), they could likely charge and potentially attack you.  Be prepared to mange a bear encounter.

Fortunately, grizzly bear attacks are very rare considering the shear number of people hiking and camping out in the back country in their natural habitat.  It is a good idea to make a lot of noise while hiking, especially in densely vegetated areas.  This will help to prevent running into a grizzly bear as you walk around a corner since he will likely hear you coming long before he sees you.  Grizzly bears have good hearing and will tend to move off of the trail to avoid you when they hear you coming.

Also, carry bear spray and have keep it readily available to grab quickly.  Keep it on your belt or on your chest pack strap.  It’s no good to you if it’s buried inside of your pack, or even tied outside on the back of your pack.  You need to be able to grab it quickly when you need it.  I tend to pass it through my chest strap on my pack so it is in the middle of my chest.  This way I can use both hands and look at it as I quickly get it out of the carrying harness harness to use it quickly.  Be sure you know how to use it too.  It could save you from a nasty bear encounter.

Having said that, I’ve encountered many dozens of bears on the trail, in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies without being attacked.  I have been charged a few times, but have always been able to manage the situation and convince the bear to leave without using my bear spray.  Bear spray only works within a few meters anyways.  It is a necessary piece of equipment, but it is a tool to be used when everything else fails.  Be “bear aware” when traveling in the backcountry.



Elk, a common ungulate in the Canadian Rockies. © www.brianmerry.ca

Elk are somewhat plentiful in Banff National Park, if you know where to look for them.  And, they are also beautiful and magestic making for a somewhat reliable “Big Five” wildlife photography photography session.

Elk are not as plentiful as they were 20 years ago when they where commonly found in many places in the town of Banff.  A big animal like this can be dangerous, especially the females during the Spring calving season and the males during the Fall rut.  Male elk start growing their antlers in the Spring, rub the velvet off in late summer before the rut, and then drop them around February to early April at the latest.  The photo above was taken in mid March in Banff National Park.


Bighorn Sheep:

A big old Big Horn Sheep Ram. © www.brianmerry.ca

Bighorn sheep with huge curled horns are a much sought after wildlife photography prize.  These can be photographed at anytime of the year.  They are a somewhat reliable photographic subject when I go out to photograph wildlife close to my home in the town of Banff.  I know the local bighorn sheep flocks very well and can usually find some of these guys when I want to photograph them.


Two male Bighorn Sheep Rams butting heads © www.brianmerry.ca

Bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies are somewhat unafraid of people as well.  If you were to approach them they would probably stop what they are doing and leave though.  It is important not to change their behaviour when photographing them.  If you notice that they stop eating or start to wlk away from you, then you’ve probably gone too far in your prusuit for your photograph.  Be respectful of their space.  With many millions of visitors to the Canadian Rockies every year we need to respect their space so they can make a living here too.



This guy needs no introduction.  The Wolf is a probably the most famous member of this elite list of trophy wildlife photography subjects.  It also has the most troubled and delicate relationship with us humans.  The wolf was hunted and trapped to very low numbers about a hundred years ago.  This resilient and highly intelligent species has bounced back over the last half century while still facing significant pressure from continued habitat loss and human presence.

A Grey Wolf stopping to size me up in Banff National Park. © www.brianmerry.ca

Wolves have a storied relationship with humans mired in conflict for wide open spaces.  This is one species where it is possible to literally love it to death.

As the Bow Valley wolf pack shared the relatively small Bow River Valley in Banff National Park they had to learn to live in Canada’s busiest transportation corridor linking the West Coast of Canada with the East.  Millions of people passed right through their former home range each year on the Trans Canada Highway, a scenic roadway between banff and lake Louise, and on one of the bustiest rail lines in the country.

Eventually, the Bow Valley Pack moved out of the Valley after their prey became scarcer and human/wildlife conflict issues became to great for the pack to bear.  Unfortunately this happened after two members of the pack had to be killed but a packs Canada Human/Wildlife Conflict specialist had to choice but to shot after the pack demonstrated aggressive behavior towards the Parks Employee.  I for one feel story for this event, and for the Parks Canada employee for the difficult decision they had to make when dispatched these two wolves.

Incidentally, one of the well documented human/wildlife conflicts issues involving the pack was the illegal feeding of the Wolves with left over holiday turkey.  It is suspected that an unknown wildlife photographer had baited the wolves for their own wildlife photography benifit.  Many photographers had photographed the wolves leading up to the discovery of the bait piles and the offending wildlife photographer(s) where never caught.

This is a harsh lesson that feeding wildlife can eventually lead to the death of the wildlife being fed.  PLEASE, do not feed wildlife!  Feeding wildlife in Banff National park carries a maximum fine of $25000.  I suspect if the photographer responsible for this feeding the Bow Valley Wolf Pack is ever caught they would receive the maximum penalty.



To round out our Big Five Canadian Rockies wildlife photography big five trophy photographs I’d like to introduce the smallest member of the Lagamorpha Order, Family Ochotonidae, commonly known as the cute little Pika.  This little “rock rabbit” is only found in the high mountain alpine habitats.

The Pika, the smallest member of the Lagomorpha Order.  © www.brianmerry.ca

Pikas are small in size.  They about the size of a grown man’s fist.  But they are easily detected in the Canadian Rockies when you look for them in the right habitat.  You may find Pikas living in boulder fields under which they make their homes.  The perfect boulder field for a Pika is also interspersed with patches of soft leafy vegetation and and alpine flowers.  This vegetation is needed close to their home because they need to collect enough of it to fill their food caches to last them all winter.  These little guys don’t hibernate at all while spending the long winter under the snow.

This little guys are usually heard before they are seen as you hike through their small ~20 m home ranges.  Their alarm call is a very distinctive high pitched “EEEEEE.”  Once you hear this sound simply look in the direction of the noise and wait for him to sound the alarm again to spot him in amongst the boulders.  This is how I easily find them when I’m in their specialized habitat.

Few people see them as well because of where they live.  This perceived rarity makes them a highly prized subject for many wildlife photographers.  Mountain hiking trails usually do not pass through boulder fields at, or near the tree line.  And pikas are not found far from these alpine habitats either.  But when you do venture up into the alpine boulder fields you’ll probably find these cute and noisy little critters.


A Pika pausing to look at me while collecting grass and flowers for it’s winter food cache. © www.brianmerry.ca


A Future Contender for the Canadian Rockies Big Five:

The Bison, aka Buffalo:

Bison have have been reintroduced into Banff National Park via an ambitious project with the goal to restore the historical biological diversity in Banff National Park by added the bison back into the ecosystem.  Maybe someday in the future we’ll be able to photograph bison safely from inside of our cars along the roadways in Banff.  The wild bison in the photograph below was photographed in Northern British Columbia near Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park.

I photographed this bison in Northern BC. Bison are being reintroduced into Banff National Park. © www.brianmerry.ca