If you’re dreaming of visiting a mountain paradise with lush forests, fresh water, and all kinds of wilderness, you’re not alone. Sure, there are all kinds of mountain folk that dwell throughout the West Kootenays, but they’re not the only creatures to call this special place home.
From the top of the food chain to the bottom, a wide range of species can be found in the region. One of the densest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America resides north of Kootenay Lake amidst old-growth trees and the crystal clear Lardeau River. These iconic animals are also known to frequent higher elevations throughout the area’s dramatic inland temperate rainforest.
Black bears are a more common sight, especially closer to townsites. Although it’s common to think that bears can be identified just by their colour and size, it’s best to consider multiple attributes to be sure. Black bears lack the grizzly’s pronounced shoulder hump, tend to have a flatter face, and have shorter claws and more pointed ears (if you can zoom in that closely). They also have more of a tendency to scavenge for human food, so it’s critical that you have a “bare” campsite and use bear-proof garbage bins.
Without access to a high protein salmon diet like their burly relatives on the coast, our bears rely on a mainly vegetarian diet, with an emphasis on berries. If you’re in the bush huckleberry picking, do the bears a solid and leave them most of the buffet. Rossland’s alpine elevation is especially prime habitat for bears, so it’s important to be bear aware; make lots of noise when in the backcountry, carry bear spray, and know how to use it.
Deer are the most spotted large mammal in the region. White-tailed deer favour the valley bottoms, while the mule deer is more common the further you head uphill. Watch for them on our twisty and turning roads, particularly when you see the bright yellow jumping deer signs. Elk are also known to graze on meadows around Kootenay Lake, including a large field just south of Kaslo. Be particularly cautious if you come across them in the fall rutting season, or protective mothers and their calves in the spring.
Skunks, coyotes, otters, muskrats, beavers, marmots, chipmunks and ground squirrels are just some of the other animals that make this area home. The Western Toad, Pacific Treefrog and Columbia Spotted Frog all sport their own signature camouflage to blend in with their surroundings and avoid predators. Painted turtles and the Western Garter Snake can also be found around Kootenay Lake and the Columbia River.
Pint-sized to prehistoric fish can be found under the surface. Minnows are the most common aquatic species and provide nourishment for larger fish, including Kokanee sockeye salmon. These iconic red fish can be seen spawning each fall in streams at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park and Meadow Creek. Rainbow trout, including the prized Gerrard species, feast on Kokanee and can grow to more than 30 pounds, although it’s more common to find them under 10 pounds. But the real beast of the deep is the White Sturgeon. These ancient bottom dwellers are massive, with the largest catch from Kootenay Lake weighing 350 kilograms. Dams have created impediments to their reproduction, but longstanding conservation efforts are hoping to help the species thrive. The free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River between Castlegar and the US border is prime fly fishing territory.
It’s not just fishermen that seek a prized catch from the lake. Birds also depend on fish, including ospreys. These migratory birds can be seen in aerial nests around our lakes and rivers when not chasing the winter sun in Central and South America. With a wingspan of over two meters and a white head and tail, bald eagles live near the water year-round and are known as the boss on the lake. You’ll often see full-on bird fights over fish and rodents. Owls, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, crows, ravens and kingfishers flit amongst trees, while turkeys and grouse can often be found near waterfront roads. Loons, swans and colourful mallards are some of the other birds commonly found.
Birdwatching in Castlegar has become a popular pastime in the last few years because of the large number of species that live in, and travel through, the region. This is because Castlegar boasts a variety of habitat from forests to wetlands to fields, it’s located at the confluence of two major waterways, it’s on the migratory path of many species, and it enjoys mild weather in the winter and hot temperatures in the summer. Species that can be spotted include bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and other raptors.
From high above to under the water, from the forests to the streams, all kinds of wildlife have found a mountain paradise in this spectacular Kootenay region. We encourage you to tread lightly, safely, and with respect for these special creatures.