CANMORE – Five black bears feasting on trees laden with fruit in residential neighbourhoods were captured and shipped out of Canmore last week, including a mama bear and her two cubs.
A female bear and one of her cubs were caught in a trap off Eagle Terrace Road on Sept. 29, and after the second cub was immobilized the following day, the family of bears was relocated to the western foothills about 100 kilometres north of Canmore.
Two other bears were caught and moved, including one male bear believed to have bluff-charging people.
A spokesperson for Alberta Fish and Wildlife said the female black bear and her cubs were observed frequently travelling outside the natural wildlife travel corridor, and increasingly getting into attractants such as fruit trees in residential areas.
“The male black bear that was immobilized was also accessing residential attractants, and officers have received reports of the bear bluff charging,” said Ina Lucila, communications advisor for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General.
Over the past two to three weeks, there have been several close encounters between bears and people in neighbourhoods all over Canmore, including one incident involving a group of school children riding bikes from the Cougar Creek area to Lawrence Grassi Middle School near Spring Creek.
Lucila said having a habituated large animal in an urban area is a serious public safety concern, especially when the animal is not shy of people and willingly approaches them.
“Bears that show this sort of behaviour are at an increased risk to injure or kill someone, which is why officers decide to relocate these bears,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the community of Field in Yoho National Park, there is a town-wide bear warning due to the elevated risk of a bear encounter with a higher than normal presence of black bears feeding on mountain ash trees.
Parks Canada is removing all mountain ash trees from its properties immediately and is encouraging all residents to do the same on their properties.
“Lastly, we would like to temporarily place electric fences around all of the remaining trees until the bears move off to hibernate,” according to Parks Canada in a briefing to local Field residents.
Canmore-based bear biologist Sarah Elmeligi said Canmore residents accept that bears come into town – but it becomes a public safety risk when they decide to hang around for any length of time.
“We should have a town that is managed in such a way that when bears do come into town they pass through because there’s nothing interesting here, there’s nothing to keep them here,” she said.
“What we’ve been seeing the last few weeks is that bears are staying in town because this is where the food is – like mountain ash, like chokecherry trees or crabapples that you haven’t picked but have now fallen off and are rotting on the ground.”
A black bear was hanging out in Elmeligi’s neighbourhood near Cougar Point Road for more than a week.
“That’s not a good situation. You have children getting on the school bus and walking through this green space where there could be a black bear sleeping, and people walking home from work early in the evening or early in the morning,” she said.
“You don’t really want a bear hanging out in your neighbourhood. It’s too risky for people, and of course, if it’s risky for people, it’s risky for the bear.”
The relocation of bears points to the bigger issue of the community doing a better job of managing trees laden with fruit or berries, like chokecherry, crabapple and mountain ash, which draw bruins into town year after year.
With this year being a bumper year for mountain ash, combined with a poor wild buffaloberry season, Elmeligi said bears are coming into town to eat as many last-minute calories needed to get through winter hibernation.
“Bears are coming into town because there’s no food in the woods and they are going to stay here because this is where the food is,” she said, adding this is a strong reminder that managing bear attractants is about more than storing garbage, cleaning barbecues and taking down bird feeders.
“You can’t be a responsible Canmore homeowner and have fruit-bearing trees on your private property. I think it’s time for everybody in town to start taking this really seriously because relocation doesn’t work.”
The practice of moving bears out of their home range is used by Alberta fish and wildlife as an alternative to killing the animal on-site, but Elmeligi said relocation is more or less a death sentence in many instances.
She said translocations typically have low success rates because of challenges faced by bears in establishing themselves in new areas due to competition with other bears, foraging for food or denning for winter.
“Any relocated bear that is moved out to public lands along the eastern slopes not only has no idea where they are on the landscape, but now has to deal with a whole bunch of threats that they haven’t had to face before – and that’s why they have a really reduced chance of survival,” she said.
“I think there’s still this preconceived assumption that fish and wildlife have come and they’ve taken the bear to some kind of bear utopia where there’s lots of food and no people and everything’s happy, but the reality is bear utopia doesn’t exist.”
Elmeligi said some relocated bears will find their way back to Canmore or potentially other towns in their search for food.
When they come back, she said they are often marked as so-called problem bears and may be destroyed if there is a risk to human safety.
“They could be relocated again, although with black bears, I don’t know how many chances they get,” she said.
Up until the 2018 Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence report, the province destroyed 19 black bears and one grizzly bear in the Bow Valley over the previous 20 years, which includes the four-year-old male grizzly that killed Isabelle Dubé in June 2005 as she jogged near Silvertip.
In addition, 66 black bears and 12 grizzly bears have been moved out of the Bow Valley over the same time frame. No updated figures were available at press time.
On provincial lands, decisions to kill or translocate an animal are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by evaluating different factors, including the nature, frequency and severity of animal behaviours.
The province has previously noted that not all bears are translocated based on one particular incident, pointing to the case in 2016 in which a black bear that swatted a female mountain biker on the south side of the valley was not shipped out.
The technical working group of the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence task force recommended continuing to research the effectiveness of bear translocations to ensure the best chance of success for animals moved out of their home range.