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Buffaloberry season leads to bear advisory for residents, visitors

“If there's a good crop, they’ll literally just park themselves into a shrub bush and often engorge on them. It goes through their system pretty fast and sugars get extracted.

BANFF NATIONAL PARK – Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy a good berry on a summer day.

Parks Canada issued a public advisory, warning residents and visitors of Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks to be vigilant as bears begin feeding on their primary food source in the region.

Buffaloberries – also known as shepherdia – are fruit-bearing shrubs that offer bears a high-calorie source of food as they begin preparing for hibernation season and attempt to fatten themselves.

“If there's a good crop, they’ll literally just park themselves into a shrub bush and often engorge on them,” said Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist with Parks Canada. “It goes through their system pretty fast and sugars get extracted.

“They’re coming out of a long winter and cold spring where there wasn't a lot of green up until later than normal, so that puts them into this food stress state and [buffaloberries] is a fairly important food source.”

The advisory warns encounters with black and grizzly bears are more likely with them feeding, especially with bears being more focused on eating and potentially unlikely to notice humans in the immediate vicinity.

The food source is essential for bears in the mountainous national parks of Alberta and they can eat up to 200,000 berries in a day, while large male grizzlies can eat up to 300,000, Fyten said.

Later in the summer, bears will enter hyperphagia that is an intense eating period when they begin to forage all day to put on weight for the upcoming winter hibernation.

“This is the time of year when the berries start to ripen up and bears come back down to the valley bottom and take on this food source,” Fyten said. “What we're seeing so far this year – more anecdotally what we're seeing – right now is it's kind of a poor crop.”

He said after a strong bumper crop in 2020, last year was much weaker due to it being hot and dry that led to a berry reduction of 80 per cent. Fyten said this year looks to be similar to 2021.

He added if there’s a large shortage of berries, bears will continue to graze and look for other food sources such as an animal carcass. A greater concern, however, is people leaving garbage on campsites that may attract bruins.

Fyten stressed the importance of people securing food while camping and to ensure they take everything with them when leaving the site.

A 2019 University of Calgary study predicted climate change could potentially lead to a berry shortage in the Rocky Mountains in the next 60 years in the months for bears prior to entering hibernation.

The study was published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change and predicted buffaloberries could ripen three weeks early than they do now and up to 40 days at higher elevations.

Grizzly bears and black bears will typically stay on the outside of the towns, but if they feel there’s a chance to secure food they will go where their nose and stomach takes them.

This past spring, with the snowpack well above normal levels, grizzly and black bears were a far more common sight in areas of the Bow Valley. In late June, a young grizzly bear was trapped and relocated several hundreds of kilometres away since he had become a common sight in Canmore.

“For the most part, they stay on the periphery but if there’s an opportunity and somebody’s left garbage and they smell it, there’s a good chance they’re going to come into town whether it’s a night or early in the morning,” Fyten said. “That’s why it’s really important to not leave wildlife attractants out.”

Fyten added smaller bears – who are threatened by larger predators – are more likely to come closer to townsites since they feel more protected. In the middle of July, a black bear was in the Banff townsite and passed the new pedestrian bridge and was heading towards Bow Falls travelling near the Bow River before being stopped.

“They see it as a safety refuge from those bigger bears. It’s no different than the elk that hang out in town. It’s a bit of a safety refuge in the world with bears and wolves,” he said.

In 2018, the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence provided 28 recommendations to reduce encounters between people and bears. It included fruit-bearing trees as a significant wildlife attractant.

Bears have an excellent sense of smell and ones who discover food will continue to come back to the site, which in residential areas can lead to a higher risk of human-wildlife encounters.

Grizzly Bear 148 was relocated from Canmore in 2017 after it knew where fruit trees were and moved to a remote area of northwestern Alberta. It was later shot and killed by a hunter in British Columbia.

At least 23 bears were captured and relocated in the Cochrane provincial fish and wildlife district that includes the Bow Valley.

The retirement of long-time Canmore-based human-wildlife specialist Jay Honeyman has also left the province without such a position, which is required through the grizzly bear management plan in every grizzly bear management area.

At its July 5 meeting, Canmore council supported adding a potential ban on new fruit-bearing trees in Canmore as part of the development of a community standards bylaw.

The possible ban – if approved by council when the bylaw is considered – would include new vegetation that attracts wildlife, but there wouldn’t be the removal of existing fruit-bearing trees such as crabapples or chokecherry.

In Banff National Park, Fyten said there are about 65 grizzly bears and an equal number of black bears.

Parks Canada recommends always carry bear spray and know how to properly use it. To reduce the risk of surprising a bear, Parks Canada encourages people to make noise while on trails, travel in groups and watch for signs of bears such as scat or prints.

If people are running or cycling, they shouldn’t wear earbuds and travel slowly. If encountering a bear, people should stay calm, back away slowly, leave the area and not run.

The Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley also has a weekly bear report, which provides safety tips, warnings and closures and a summary of bear activities.

If a person sees a bear, they should contact Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470 or Kananaskis Emergency Services at 403-591-7755.