Officials shocked at bear feeding
By: Cathy Ellis
| Posted: Thursday, Aug 02, 2012 06:00 am
Banff’s most famous grizzly bear and her three yearling cubs were tossed meat by tourists from a commercial tour van in a dangerous and misguided bid to lure the animals closer for a photo.
Parks Canada officials say they received a report of people in a van owned by B.C.-based Bestcan Tours throwing food to grizzly bear 64 and her cubs along Vermilion Lakes Drive on July 25.
Officials say it appears the bear family did not actually feast on the meat, and say they do not expect to lay charges at this point because the group of tourists has left the country.
“It’s absolutely shocking to us that this could happen to her. This is completely inappropriate behaviour,” said Steve Michel, human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.
“This is the sort of behaviour we saw 30 or 40 years ago and it’s certainly very concerning when we see that kind of disrespectful behaviour in 2012, particularly to a bear that has been so successful on the landscape.”
Park wardens are investigating, but officials say it is unlikely that any charges will be laid at this point. The file will remain open for another week in case new information comes in.
Warden Terry Willis, supervisor of Banff’s law enforcement branch, said the driver was tracked down the next day, adding it appears he is not a company tour guide but someone who rented the bus.
“We interviewed the driver and the people who were involved with the incident were Chinese nationals and have left the country,” he said.
“We’ve been unable to identify the individual who tried to lure the bear. Our investigation has come to a halt because we have no evidence on who actually did it.”
Willis said wardens made it very clear to the driver of the bus that feeding wildlife is illegal. Feeding wildlife in national parks carries a maximum fine of $25,000.
“We’ve talked to the driver. He knows our concerns and he’s learned a very hard lesson,” he said. “He’s in our data base system for law enforcement.”
Rose Huang, manager of Richmond-based Bestcan Tours, said the company rented out the bus, adding it was not being used as a company bus.
“I spoke to the driver and we will make sure that will never happen in the future,” she said.
Research has shown bears can become dangerous and unpredictable, and lose their natural wariness of people, if they become accustomed to human food.
This human-caused habituation of bears has left wildlife officials in many jurisdictions little choice but to destroy an animal if they start to become a threat to public safety.
Michel said it is not known for sure if 23-year-old bear 64 and her yearlings actually ate the meat, but they are monitoring the behaviour of this bear family closely.
He said 64 and her young ones have been honing in on the calorie-rich buffalo berry crop in the Vermilion Lakes and Sundance Canyon over the last week.
“When they were in the front country area, we didn’t see any real indication that their behaviour had changed at all, or that they were approaching vehicles,” Michel said.
“She’s been foraging on buffalo berries, so that’s a good sign she didn’t actually receive a food reward. We have to keep a close eye on that over the days and weeks ahead.”
Michel said there was a similar reported incident of people feeding bear 64 on Sunshine Road earlier this spring, although again it was not determined that she actually ate the human food.
“To our knowledge, if she has received a food reward sometime over the last 23 years, it’s certainly been very isolated,” he said. “She’s showed us no behavioural indications that she’s seeking human food.”
Grizzly bear 64 was first captured as part of a research project in June 1999. It was determined at that time that she had not yet had cubs, but in the following years she has produced two litters of cubs, possibly three.
The mountain parks, made up mostly of rock and ice, make for difficult living for a grizzly under normal circumstances, but this famous resident bear miraculously manages to carve out a living in the Bow Valley, all the while navigating train tracks, roads and a bustling tourist town.
A warning is in place for the Vermilion Lakes and Sundance areas near the Banff townsite where 64 and her yearlings, as well as bear 130 and her two cubs, are feasting on buffalo berries.
“There are seven grizzlies using those high human-use areas, feeding on ripe seasonal berries, and so the likelihood of encountering bears on the trail is high,” Michel said.
The warning applies to the Sundance Canyon trail, Healy Creek Trail, Marsh Loop Trail, Fenland Trail, the Vermilion Lakes Road and a portion of the Legacy Trail west of Banff.
To lower the chance of a surprise encounter, people are advised to travel in groups, make noise, carry bear spray and know how to use it, and keep dogs on leash at all time.
In addition, people cycling, jogging, rollerblading or skateboarding are urged not to wear earphones, as they make it difficult to be aware of their surroundings.
“It is a very unique area in that we have a paved trail running through very high-quality mid-summer grizzly bear habitat,” Michel said. “There’s females with their offspring here, so it’s time to take all the precautions.”
Willis asks the public to report any suspicious activity to 1-888-WARDENS or 403-762-1470.
“We would like everyone to report, report, report. If they report, we will come,” he said. “We need the eyes and ears of the public out there.”