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Dramatic cliffside elk calf rescue has 'picture perfect' ending

Baby elk almost swept over falls in Banff, rescued from a tiny ledge.

BANFF, Alta – Parks Canada saved a baby elk stranded on a narrow ledge above the treacherous Bow Falls in a dramatic cliffside rescue.

The four-and-half-hour ordeal on June 18, witnessed by a large crowd of bystanders, ended when the calf was tranquillized, hauled up a cliff face above the falls and eventually reunited with its mother near The Banff Centre.

Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist for Banff National Park, said the anxious cow elk was vocalizing high up on the bank of the Bow River as the calf was stranded below on a small ledge.

“Probably what had happened is the cow and calf had attempted to swim across the river, and the cow made it and was able to climb out, but the calf got swept downstream a little bit,” said Fyten.

“The river is quite high and swift, so it got swept down a little bit further where it ran up against the cliff face and struggled to get out and found itself on a little bit of a ledge, the last edge essentially before you would be swept over the falls.”

It is not uncommon for elk to swim across the river, but the calf would not yet be a strong enough swimmer for the fast-flowing water.

Parks Canada’s resource conservation specialists called in the visitor safety team to help with a rope system to lower two people down the cliff to the calf.

“We thought we would do our normal ‘scoop the calf kind of thing’ but as we got fairly close to the calf, a few metres away, it ran upstream a little bit on the ledge and then it jumped into the river,” Fyten said.

“Downstream there was a sweeper hung up on a rock there and the calf hit that sweeper and the sweeper redirected it back to shore where it climbed out again fairly close to our two individuals there.”

Realizing the tactic of scooping up the 50- to 60-pound calf was not going to work, rescuers re-evaluated the situation.

Fyten said a decision was made to chemically immobilize the calf at this point to put it to sleep.

“We weren’t quite sure how that would work. Sometimes when you hit something with a dart it runs, and we kind of thought maybe the calf would jump back into the river,” he said.

“But the calf wasn’t going to survive where it was at if we did nothing.”

Two people – a wildlife expert and a visitor safety specialist – were again lowered down the cliff to the calf.

Members of Banff Fire Department were also on scene to help pull the two rescuers back up the cliff on the rope system.

“They were able to successfully dart and immobilize the calf. It didn’t go anywhere, it just laid down there and went to sleep,” Fyten said.

“We were able to grab the calf and put it in a rescue bag that the visitor safety people use to get people off a cliff, and then we just raised the rescuers along with the calf back up.”

Throughout the four-and-a-half hour rescue, the mamma elk remained on the bank of the river not too far away.

Once the calf was brought up, the rescuers ran it across the road to the forest by the Banff Centre.

“We put it down and then reversed the drugs. Once the calf started coming to, it let out a little bleat,” Fyten said.

“Mom came charging in from 100 metres away and they reconnected. It was picture perfect and they wandered off together. It was one fortunate calf.”

The resource conservation team does not typically intervene in a natural event or incident involving wildlife.

However, in this case, a large crowd had gathered on the bank, it was a highly visible location in the townsite and both Parks Canada and the Banff Fire Department were getting calls for help.

“If we didn’t intervene, then quite likely a member of the public might try and go over the ledge, and if you were to slip or fall into the river, you’d be gone over the falls,” Fyten said.

“It was a place where due to public safety and safety of animal that we intervened. Had this happened somewhere else, we likely wouldn’t even know or get a call about it.”