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Snow at higher elevations keeping bears in valley bottoms

“There’s less food up high so we have more bears staying in the valley later and that’s coinciding with an increase in tourist use,” said Laura Nicholson, resource management officer for Banff National Park.

BANFF – Areas in and around the Banff townsite are experiencing elevated bear activity with snow at higher elevations keeping bears in the valley bottoms in search of food.

Parks Canada has managed at least four bears in the last two weeks, including male grizzly bear No. 136, also known as Split Lip for his disfigured mouth, who was escorted by wildlife crews for part of his journey from one side of town to the other.

Wildlife officials say there is about 20 per cent more snow this year compared to last year detected at weather stations in places such as Sunshine and Skoki for example, forcing bears to remain in the busy valley bottoms longer than usual.

“There’s less food up high so we have more bears staying in the valley later and that’s coinciding with an increase in tourist use,” said Laura Nicholson, resource management officer for Banff National Park.

“Typically in early spring bears are low in the valley because that’s where the food is early season, but this year we just have a lot of snow further upslope.”

Split Lip forced the temporary closure of a section of the Spray Valley south of the townsite in late May as he feasted on an elk carcass just off the trail.

He was also spotted by several mountain bikers and hikers as he made his trek from one side of town to the other a couple of weeks ago, but reportedly showed no signs of aggression.

Nicholson said bear 122, also known as The Boss, has not been seen for the past few weeks, but bear 136 continues to cruise the valley bottom.

“The larger males tend to move with a purpose; they cruise the valley bottoms and that’s what 136 is doing,” she said.

“He came from the golf course, crossed the Bow River onto Tunnel Mountain, went through one of the campgrounds and then out of town to the west near Norquay,” she added.

“He did a big loop, primarily on the outskirts of town, trying to get from one place to another, not spending much time, and we escorted him through.”

Two black bears, one black in colour and one brown in colour, have been keying in on appetizing grassy lawns including in residents’ yards, the park administration building and golf course.

Nicholson said the two bruins are consistently being hazed out of town.

“We’re pushing them out, but it’s hard to push a bear off a food source when there’s not a lot of other vegetation available,” she said.

“They’ve been keeping us busy as we’ve escorted them out of people’s backyards and escorted them out of areas of town where it’s not safe for bears to be.”

With elk calving season underway, grizzly bears around the Banff townsite have been known to hunt calves as an early season food source.

“In the past, I’ve watched bears hunt elk calves,” said Nicholson. “It’s a really good opportunity for a bear to get a good meal.”

With all of the bear activity, Parks Canada encourages residents and visitors to brush up on their bear safety skills.

Parks Canada recommends people make noise, watch for fresh signs of bears such as tracks, droppings, diggings, torn-up logs and turned-over rocks, leave the area and report immediately if there is an animal carcass, and travel in larger groups of at least four people.

In addition, it is the law to keep dogs on a leash at all times.

“Dogs are hard on wildlife, they can provoke defensive behaviours in elk, in coyotes, in bears, and that’s stressful for wildlife and it can also be stressful for you and your dog,” said Nicholson.

“If you have the ability to leave them at home, consider doing so, and if you don’t have the ability to leave them at home, keep them on a leash.”

Bear spray can also be a make or break situation in the event of a bear encounter.

“You want to be carrying your bear spray with you even if you’re not far out of town. Bears are right up against town right now,” said Nicholson.

“Having your bear spray with you, it works for bears, but it also works for elk and wolves and cougars and any other wildlife you might encounter.”

At this time, Parks Canada also suggests using officially marked trails during daylight hours only.

“With the reduced habitat that’s available for bears right now, we really want our human use to be predictable and confined,” said Nicholson.

“If we can stay on official trails, and use those trails during daylight hours like after breakfast and before dinner, that makes a predictable pattern of use for wildlife to know.”

With bears in and around town, Nicholson said it is more important than ever for residents to properly store food and garbage.

“Because we have these bears that are in close proximity with people as a function of trying to access natural food sources, it puts them at higher risk of coming across unsecured human food sources,” she said.

“That can be dog food, that can be garbage or food waste, but it can also be things like fertilizer and barbecue grease that we might not associate with being super enticing to us, but could be super enticing to a bear.”

Banff National Park’s so-called picnic patrollers will be out and about at day-use areas such as Lake Minnewanka, Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake and Cascade Ponds educating people about the importance of keeping wildlife attractants secure.

The bear guardian teams will also be patrolling the roads and parkways where bears feed roadside on lush grass and dandelions.

Nicholson said drivers should slow down when wildlife is beside the road.

“If that bear decides to cross the road, you want to have the ability to respond to that,” she said.

Parks Canada is also encouraging people to consider not stopping when they see wildlife feeding roadside.

“Bears have it hard in this valley. There’s a lot of people, there’s competition with other bears and they need to spend a lot of time eating to restore their fat reserves from a long winter and they only have so many months to do that,” said Nicholson.

“If you don’t stop, and reduce disturbance to that bear, that’s the best outcome for them.”

For those who decide to stop, always stay inside the vehicle.

Nicholson said find a safe spot to pull over, put vehicle hazard lights on and don’t block traffic.

“Take a few pictures and move on, minimize the amount of time you’re staying there if you decide to stop,” she said.

The Town of Banff is running bear aware information sessions. A bear aware session for families will be held online on Saturday, June 4, from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and an in-person event will take place on Wednesday, June 8 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Fenlands recreation centre.

“We’re all kind of sharing the same zone right now,” said Nicholson.

“As the snow melts and things start to green up-slope, the bears will start to travel up-slope, but right now we’re all using the same sort of space.”

Parks Canada asks that any sightings of carnivores, including bears, be reported to Banff National Park dispatch at 403-762-1470.