Skip to content

Lake Louise's 'critical' bear guardian program scrapped

“A reduction in responses may lead to more bear habituation issues and potential safety issues for both visitors and bears.”
A Parks Canada Wildlife Guardian directs traffic during a bear jam along the Bow Valley Parkway in July of 2016.
A bear jam along the Bow Valley Parkway in July 2016. RMO FILE PHOTO

LAKE LOUISE – Parks Canada is heading into the busy summer season without its critical bear guardian program in the Lake Louise region, an area of high grizzly bear activity.

The Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay (LLYK) field unit program, which morphed more recently into the 'living with wildlife' team, is made up of interpreters who traditionally work to prevent, monitor and manage traffic jams caused by roadside bears in the area, including along the Bow Valley Parkway from Castle Mountain to Lake Louise and Icefields Parkway.

Conservationists and retired Parks Canada wildlife staff are worried about what disbanding the program in Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit means for bears and public safety.

Reg Bunyan, a member of the board of Bow Valley Naturalists, said managing and educating people at roadside bear jams requires a significant personnel commitment, which is also compounded by the size of the field unit and the number of jams, particularly in the early season, when bears are most often roadside.

“This puts significant stress on staff to be in multiple places at the same time. It’s not clear whether staff will be diverted from other duties or how or if these issues will be managed,” said Bunyan, who is also a retired Parks Canada resource conservation officer in Banff National Park.

“A reduction in responses may lead to more bear habituation issues and potential safety issues for both visitors and bears.”

Banff National Park is home to about 60-65 grizzly bears, with many bears concentrated in the busy and iconic Lake Louise area, at a time visitation to Banff National Park has exploded to more than four million annual visitors.

Fresh out of the dens each spring, Bear 122, a.k.a The Boss, who is the patriarch of Bow Valley bears, and Bear 136, known as Split Lip for his disfigured mouth, typically spend much of their time closer to Lake Louise, and bear 142, a well-known female bear, spends most of the summer in the region.

Initially created in 1997, the Living with Wildlife, program has guardians travelling the park and talking to visitors about how they can help bears and other wildlife survive in this challenging human-dominated landscape.

For visitors who remain to view bears roadside, the crews stress the need for respectful and responsible viewing practices, which means providing bears with enough space to not interrupt their foraging or travel activities.

In addition, interpreters can be found at busy trailheads, day-use areas as well on the road in their distinct van patrolling for wildlife jams.

The mobile living with wildlife team was temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic because of public health restrictions.

Banff National Park’s field unit is continuing with its program this year, which is gearing up to kick off in June, with the mobile team delivering roadside education in high-visitation roadside pull-outs around the Banff townsite, including along the 1A and in the Lake Minnewanka area.

Parks Canada officials said the agency has significant capacity across Banff National Park to manage human-wildlife conflicts and provide education and interpretive programming on actions that reduce the likelihood of conflict with wildlife.

"This capacity is distributed across teams of wardens, resource conservation, visitor experience, and external relations staff," said James Eastham, a spokesperson for LLYK.

"Field units regularly support each other to ensure effective responses across Banff National Park and adjacent national parks."

Brian Spreadbury, who worked in Lake Louise for 15 of his 21 years with Parks Canada in resource conservation and as a park warden, including eight as a human-wildlife conflict supervisor in Lake Louise before his retirement in 2021, was shocked to hear the critical program had been cut.

“The bear guardian program really became a godsend for those of us working in human-wildlife conflict,” said Spreadbury

“It allowed us to focus on the higher priority issues and the bear guardians would deal with the lower priority situations on the Bow Valley Parkway, Moraine Lake Road and Icefields Parkway,” he added.

“The sad reality is that parks managers have a total disconnect with the people that are actually doing the work on the ground.”

In Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming, a wildlife brigade, similar to the living with wildlife program here, has a crew of about 36 people for that U.S. park, which welcomed about 3.4 million visitors in 2023.

Supervised by bear biologist Justin Schwabedissen, the program has been instrumental in facilitating safe wildlife viewing opportunities under the park’s rule requiring all visitors, by law, to remain 100 yards from bears, including while in vehicles.

“The goal of the wildlife brigade is to provide these opportunities for visitors to view bears and other wildlife, but do it in a safe and ethical way,” said Schwabedissen.

“The wildlife brigade is out looking for bear jams …  they’re in contact with people at these wildlife jams to educate them and are really striving to communicate what people can do to help us protect bears.”

Steve Michel, who is now a national human-wildlife conflict and coexistence management officer for Parks Canada, spoke to the importance of the bear guardian program in a Parks Canada video produced 12 years ago at the time he was a local human-wildlife conflict specialist in Banff.

He said the program has proven to be a "real critical part of our operation" and the bear guardians play a "very pivotal role in how we manage bear jams here in Banff National Park."

Often the bear guardian team will be first on the scene, said Michel in the video, where they are quick to assess the circumstances and manage people as need be.

“If there is a situation where they need to potentially manage a bear in terms of hazing a bear a little bit further into cover they will do that as well,” he said.

“They are in close connection with the resource conservation staff and they talk to us on a regular basis and update us on what’s happening with a bear jam and whether or not we may need to attend or whether or not they’ve got it under control,” he said.

Bears in Banff National Park, which is one of the most heavily developed national park landscapes, have had a tough time surviving because of human-caused mortality, whether killed on highways and railways, or getting into food in campgrounds, roadside or day-use areas and becoming food-conditioned.

“There’s a variety of serious threats that bear populations face, so it’s really important that we do everything we can in terms of managing the bear population to help them get a leg up and help ensure their survival in the future,” said Michel.

“The bear guardian program is an absolutely essential part of that process for us.”

In the same video, Brianna Burley, who was a resource conservation officer in LLYK at the time, and is now about to take on the position of the acting superintendent for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, also spoke about how critical the program is.

Burley said bear jams happen pretty quickly, and all it takes is for one vehicle to slam on the brakes and put on hazard lights in the middle of the road, and a bear jam quickly forms.

“It’s awesome to see wildlife; however, when we don’t have the bear guardians out there helping to manage these, a lot of dangers present,” she said.

“Not only is there concern for wildlife, but it’s more people safety. People kind of crossing the road and don’t pay attention to vehicles."





push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks