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Tourist town swamped with elk

Canada long has prided itself on accepting refugees, immigrants and sojourners of every kind with open arms. But a wave of new arrivals in this mountain resort town has carried things a little too far.

They eat the rose bushes. They block traffic on the main street. They camp on the golf course. They give birth in inconvenient places. They overturn picnic tables to poach lunch. They knock small children off bicycles. They are horned and hairy, and they are getting more numerous and unfriendly by the season.

They are elk, and Banff is overrun with them.

The onslaught has overwhelmed local officials, in some cases literally. A bull elk can weigh 1,000 pounds and sport many-pronged antlers; it takes seven men to handle a cranky one. Cows are smaller, but ferocious during calving season, which occurs this month. No human being has been killed by an elk in Banff, but a few dogs have been, and people have suffered bumps, bruises and broken bones. In addition, several small cars have been sexually assaulted by lusty bull elk, with resultant body damage _ to the cars.

Banff residents have learned to tolerate the antlered ungulates. They keep their distance and, when threatened, make themselves look larger by raising their arms or their umbrellas. But Banff, which is surrounded by rocky peaks, entertains more tourists every year, and few of them know much about elk.

Those charged with handling the elk problem are on the horns of a dilemma. The city is in a national park. Shooting the elk, or even driving them away, is illegal, not to mention politically incorrect. Elk, which resemble deer on steroids, roamed this region of the Rockies long before Banff was built.

But Banff makes its living from tourist dollars. The visitors pour in by car or by bus from Calgary, where they arrive by the jet-load. All told, 3.5-million visitors spend money in Banff each year. The town has grown rapidly to accommodate this tourist traffic.

At the same time, the number of urban elk has increased significantly. Completion of a four-lane fenced highway from Calgary has reduced the number of elk that die in traffic. Many of the bears that formerly preyed on elk calves have left town now that Banff has closed its dump and started shipping its garbage to Calgary. The lawns and gardens of Banff provide nourishment, and the highly educable elk have learned that where people are, wolves are not.

Park officials are trying to minimize people-elk conflict by educating both sides. During rutting and calving, they warn tourists in posters, public meetings and videos to treat elk with respect.

Last year they employed a specially trained herding dog to carry out "aversive conditioning" _ chasing the elk out of certain parts of town in the hope that those sections will acquire bad karma.

Despite all these efforts, wildlife warden Glen Peers is not optimistic about a resolution of the conflict. Banff is too alluring to both humans and animals. But he says he knows which side is at fault.

"The animal is doing what's natural," he said. "It's the person who's causing the problem."