Black bear deaths concern Parks Canada
Parks Canada is investigating several ways to deal with an alarming spike in the number of human-caused black bear deaths in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks this year.
So far this year, 14 black bears have been killed in these three national parks, including 10 on roads and four more on the railway tracks. The long-term yearly mortality average is 7.8 deaths.
The cash-strapped agency is considering hiring another Bear Guardian team to roam Kootenay National Park to educate tourists at bear jams, as well as get the RCMP to focus highway enforcement on speeding trouble spots.
Alan Dibb, a Parks Canada wildlife biologist, said the high number of mortalities not only puts people at risk when their vehicles hit bears, but causes suffering for animals; especially because many don’t die immediately.
“It’s definitely a concern to have this many mortalities, but unfortunately we don’t have really good population data on black bears, so it’s hard to assess the number in relation to the total population of bears,” he said.
“Though they are not a species at risk, they are ecologically important in the parks. It’s a large mortality number and we’d like to do whatever we reasonably can to reduce the mortality level,” he added.
“Regardless of what the population level implications are of the current levels of mortality, we know that we do have a problem and I think it would be wise for us to try to address the problem and get mortality down.”
On top of the 14 confirmed mortalities in the three parks this year, there have been 10 other strikes. In these cases, drivers have reported hitting black bears, but a carcass has never been found.
The most recent black bear mortality was on the Trans-Canada Highway near Hoodoo Campground at the western end of Yoho National Park on Aug. 11. It was an adult male bear.
On Aug. 12, a black bear was reported hit on the highway near the Minnewanka interchange in Banff. On Aug. 10 another black bear was struck on Emerald Lake Road in Yoho. Neither bear was found.
“With those 10 strikes, some of those bears may have survived, but in most cases, they probably succumbed to their injuries,” Dibb said.
According to park statistics, average yearly black bear mortalities for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay combined is 7.8. It is now only August and bears have been historically hit on park roads into October, sometimes November.
Though difficult to say for sure, park staff speculate one of the reasons black bear mortalities is so high this year may be due to a large and lingering snowpack that kept wildlife in the valley bottoms seeking roadside habitat.
Anecdotally, park staff are saying there also appear to be more black bears around this summer.
In order to address the mortalities, Parks Canada is looking at the possibility of putting a Bear Guardian team along Highway 93 South in Kootenay to educate visitors about bear safety and conservation.
Presently, the federal agency has two teams and vans on the roads seven days a week – unless there are scheduled presentations – focused primarily along the Bow Valley Parkway and Icefields Parkway.
Bear Guardians use communication and education as a tool for managing people at bear jams (traffic jams where vehicles stop where bears are spotted) and raising awareness of bear and bear conservation issues.
The cost to Parks Canada to run those teams was unavailable at press time.
Dibb said a Bear Guardian team for Kootenay National Park is an idea that is presently being discussed for the medium to long-term, particularly given budget implications.
“Nothing has been settled. It would be a budget issue and it’s very much in the early stages right now and we need to bring it to our management group and explore what the possibilities are,” he said.
“Definitely funding will be a consideration as it does require some considerable funds for staff, to outfit a team with a vehicle and all the other things they need.”
In addition, Parks Canada plans to talk with the RCMP to explore more options of enforcement in certain areas, including along Highway 93 South, where drivers are commonly observed speeding.
The agency is also considering the use of more electro-mats, which seem to be proving more effective than cattle guards at keeping bears from entering the fence right-of-way along the Trans-Canada Highway.
Researchers have been experimenting with the use of electro-mats – which shock the animals – at some interchanges, including at the junction of the Icefields Parkway just west of Lake Louise.
“Some bears have learned to walk across cattle guards, but if a bear steps onto an electro-mat, the animal would experience some discomfort and in the vast majority of cases would not successfully cross,” Dibb said.
“I should say that this year, however, most of the bear highway mortality has not been in the fenced zones, but that has been an issue in other years.”
Dibb said Parks Canada is also considering more targeted wildlife alerts, with more communication, signage and focussing staff in certain areas to let visitors know bears are at higher risk of being hit.
“One of the challenges we have is the distribution of mortality is all over the three parks; it’s not a concentrated hot spot,” he said.
“We would have to be flexible and try to react to situations as they arise, we can’t just look for hot spots and focus all efforts there.”
Conservationists welcome Parks Canada’s plans to try to better address the problem.
“Oh my god! Fourteen black bear mortalities,” said Sarah Elmeligi, senior conservation planner for the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). “That is way too much, especially because none of those are natural causes.”
Elmeligi said she hopes Parks Canada spends the money to put together another Bear Guardian team to educate visitors, but perhaps more importantly, work more with the RCMP for increased enforcement.
“Parks Canada’s reaction to bolster efforts to address these bear mortalities is obviously needed and we’re super supportive of that,” she said.
“I think their idea to partner more with the RCMP is very critical, because we all know speed is a big issue. Bears are dying because people are driving too fast and we need to slow them down.”
Dibb said Parks Canada also encourages drivers to slow down, keep to posted speeds and be vigilant and aware of wildlife at all times while driving on park roads.
“There’s a number of things Parks Canada can do, but we really do need the public’s cooperation,” Dibb said.
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