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'Bear spray prevented something horrific from happening to me'

A large closure is in place on the south side of Canmore to protect people and give space and security to a mamma grizzly bear and her new cubs

CANMORE – Olympic biathlete Emma Lunder believes deploying bear spray saved her life, or prevented serious injury, when a mamma grizzly defending her two cubs throttled towards her from 50 metres away.

Lunder was jogging alone on Loki’s Trail, also known as the Low Line, when a roughly 200-pound grizzly closed the distance within seconds early Wednesday morning (July 17), forcing her to spray the bear in the face when it got within three metres of her.

“If not save my life, bear spray prevented something horrific from happening to me,” said Lunder, who has had mandatory bear safety training as a member of Canada’s national biathlon team.

“It was definitely terrifying. I knew this is literally my last line of defence right now and I pulled the trigger,” she added

“It was purely an instinct and I’m super impressed that I did it. I honestly don’t know how I did it.”

When she first spotted the bear and her two young-of-year cubs about 50 metres away, Lunder thought it wasn’t going to be a problem. She turned to go back the way she had come, but the mamma grizzly instantly charged.

“It got to about 20 metres from where I was, so I started screaming my head off, put my hands up, was walking backwards and I got my bear spray out,” said Lunder, who has lived in Canmore for 10 years.

“Then three seconds after she stopped, she charged again and when she got to three or four metres away, I sprayed the bear. As soon as it hit her, she threw her head down, did a 180 and then sprinted away and then the cubs ran with her and I ran in the other direction.”

Provincial wildlife officials say the grizzly bear is not tagged and does not have a history of concerning behaviour.

John Paczkowski, a park ecologist with the Parks division of Alberta Environment and Parks, said he’s fairly confident it’s the same grizzly with cubs occasionally travelling through the highway crossing structures at Stewart Creek and Wind Valley east of Canmore since May 20.

“She’s used the crossing structures at least four times, which means she’s been in close proximity to the town for several months, but despite that we have had not had any public reports or sightings of this bear,” he said.

“This indicates to me she is a particularly wary and secretive bear and the recent encounter might have been a result of her looking for food sources, particularly buffaloberries as they ripen up in many of the patches around town.”

After the close encounter, Alberta Parks and Environment was quick to put a closure in place on the north side of the Bow Valley for public safety and to give the mamma grizzly and her cubs space and security to feed on ripening buffaloberries.

The closure includes the Highline Trail, Riders of Rohan, East and West Connector Trails, all access trails between Three Sisters Blvd and Peaks Drive and all land south and west of Three Sisters Parkway.

The Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence technical working group recommended land managers implement proactive seasonal closures to restrict human use, for example, in areas where predictable patterns occur.

The study concluded that reoccurring seasonal area closures provide seasonal habitat security to wildlife while reducing the need for reactionary closures in response to high rates of human-wildlife encounters.

Paczkowski said there are regular patrols of the area and remote cameras have been set up to help catch anyone caught ignoring the closure.

“We’re in no hurry to remove the closure while the buffaloberry bushes are in full production,” Paczkowski said. “I can confirm we are not trying to trap the grizzly involved in the incident.”

Colleen Campbell, past president of Bow Valley Naturalists who has studied grizzly bears since 1993, said she is pleased to hear authorities closed the area so quickly, with no plans to open the area any time soon.

“We have no tolerance for elk in our gardens, deer that eat our tulips and a bear that walks down the street, but we want to play in their yards all the time, night and day,” she said.

“We need to be able to accept that there are times that we shouldn’t go to some places and maybe some places where we should never go.”

Campbell pleaded that residents and visitors to respect the closure and accept it for as long as it is necessary to keep bears and humans safe.

“If it’s opened prematurely, someone might not have enough savvy as this girl had. Maybe it ends badly for a person, and it always ends really badly for the bear,” she said. “It’s important for us to accept there are times to stay out.”

Lunder is glad the mamma grizzly and her cubs are not being trapped and relocated, noting she was pleased the closure was put in place quickly.

That said, she said closures should be put in place ahead of time when there’s a lot of bear activity before an incident happens.

“Obviously, it’s extremely traumatic and scary, but I think I do understand why it happened,” she said.

As a national team biathlete, she’s training two times a day, six days a week, but is very aware of the wildlife living in the Bow Valley.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we do end up training on our own, but now I’m making a point not to,” she said.

It was the life and death of female grizzly No. 148 that shone on a light on the challenges bears face on the lands around Canmore. She spent 90 per cent of her time in Banff National Park, but in 2017 spent a chunk of the summer feasting on buffaloberries on Canmore’s south side.

After several close encounters with people, provincial officials shipped her out of Canmore to a remote area north of Jasper. Within weeks, she was killed by a hunter in B.C..

Paczkowski said that based on limited information, this mamma grizzly that charged Lunder is behaviourally at the opposite end of the spectrum from bear No. 148.

“This bear appears to be very wary and avoids people, whereas 148 was very habituated and confortable around people,” he said.

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