Spring is here – but there are plenty of winter activities still going on in the backcountry. At the same time, the bears are waking up, and just like when you wake up from a long slumber, these animals are hungry. The chances of bumping into a bear are high. So it is imperative to be “bear aware” now.
We chat with Jay Honeyman, human wildlife conflict biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, about the simple, but very important things you can do this season to be a better steward to the wildlife.
GREEN UP FIRST.
The ditches of highways and roadways are some of the first places to green up. That tends to be where we get a lot of wildlife activity in the spring, including bears, but also elk and deer. Transportation related mortality is the main cause of death for bears in the Bow Valley. And that would include the highways and the railways.
And then when animals like elk and deer get hit and get killed, that becomes a food source that can also attract large carnivores to those dead animals that are in the ditch. It presents a greater possibility they could get hit as well because they're feeding on that animal in the ditch.
People need to really be aware at this time of the year, the chances of seeing wildlife is increased because there's more food available along highways and they don't have the opportunity to be going into the woods to get similar foods until June when more widespread green up occurs and then into July and August when the berry season kicks in.
It can be difficult to see these guys as they're running across the highway at dawn and dusk; they are dark animals. Just being more aware and just try to keep your eyes open and do the best you can and not be speeding.
Other early green up places like golf courses and backyard grasses are places where bears will be eating, so it is important to give them their space.
LET THEM KNOW YOU ARE THERE.
To me, talking and making noise when appropriate is just a more reasonable way to be then wearing bear bells. It tends to keep you engaged more as well. You don't have to be singing for eight hours a day. It's trying to be aware of your surroundings and make some noise when sight-lines are poor or when you’re travelling near a noisy creek. It just gives animals a heads up there are people coming and provides them an opportunity to move into cover. I think people would be amazed at the number of times they've walked right by animals and had no idea they were there. And that's another indication that, generally, wildlife don't want to have anything to do with us.
EVERY SITUATION IS DIFFERENT.
When you're having an encounter with a bear, you really don't know what their background is and how they perceive you until you look at them and see how they are responding to your presence, or even if they know you are there.
It takes a little bit of time to be able to analyze that behaviour and determine what the best course of action is. All bears are different. They have good days and bad days just like us. So they respond differently and it's up to you to kind of see what the type of response they are having.
Generally, give wildlife space, back up slowly, don’t run, don't yell and scream or get them excited. Just increase your distance from them slowly. Most of the time, that will be the end of your bear experience.
WHEN TO CALL IN A BEAR SIGHTING.
A negative bear encounter and bears that are in town.
Even though bears may not seem to be doing anything unusual, the fact they're in town day after day means they're probably getting into something they shouldn't be. And that holds true for other carnivores, like cougars and wolves as well. And to a lesser degree coyotes. Generally the reason they're in town is probably for food related issues that is often not a good thing.
DO YOUR PART.
We do have some bears that are quite comfortable around people and developments. It's really critical that people take some responsibility and do not provide attractants for bears and other wildlife – don’t suck them into your backyard or into your campsite. We have a bird feeder bylaw in town right now that kicked in on April 1st, which prohibits the use of bird feeders in the valley for the summer months because we don't want to be attracting bears to backyards. We've got bear proof garbage bins throughout the valley resulting in very few garbage related incidents since their inception in 1998. There's no reason we can't be as effective managing other wildlife attractants in town which will result in fewer problems which can only benefit wildlife in the long run.”
The Bow Valley is one of the only areas in North America – outside of a protected area – that has bear proof garbage cans. It is really rare to go to a community outside of a park and find bear proof garbage cans. We are very unique in that respect and are considered a world leader in garbage management. So, keeping food away from bears, is really, really important, not just at this time of year, but all year long. That's where people can really make a difference within the community.
We tend to rarely have negative wildlife incidents with groups of three or four more people. Most of the negative encounters tend to involve single or two people and with dogs off leash. It’s important to keep your dog on a leash, particularly in the Park and around town. Dogs are a hassle for wildlife, particularly this time of year when animals are just coming out of the den and focused on building up – not expending – energy. They're just trying to make a goal of eating and getting stronger; they don't have a lot of extra reserves to be running around and trying to get away from dogs and people.