Skip to content

'Wildlife paparazzi' putting pressure on Banff's grizzly bears: experts

“With cell phone cameras, the digital photos of wildlife have become the 21st Century equivalent of hunters going out and bagging an animal that they can hang on their wall."

BANFF – Watching wildlife going about their lives is one of the most uplifting experiences in nature, but wildlife paparazzi driven by a desire to post photos and locations on social media are putting unprecedented pressure on grizzly bears in Banff National Park.

Earlier in spring, social media sensations The Boss, the patriarch of Bow Valley grizzly bears, and Split Lip, a bear with a badass reputation named for his disfigured mouth, were hounded by hordes of visitors and amateur photographers for almost two weeks shortly after emerging from their winter’s slumber in March.

Reports quickly spread of people crawling on their bellies to get as close as possible to both big bears as they fed on spilled grain along the train tracks, with social media posts feeding the frenzy that led to about 20 people at the site along the Bow Valley Parkway on at least one occasion.

The rise of social media, image sharing and widespread use of mobile phone cameras has generated an extra level of pressure on wildlife, through huge demand for selfies and close-up images with animals, resulting in close encounters between humans and wild animals that have potential negative impacts.

Brian Spreadbury, who had many dealings with The Boss and Split Lip during his 21-year career with Parks Canada before retiring in 2021, said bears in the busy Bow Valley “just don’t get a break” from visitors and “wildlife paparazzi”.

“With cell phone cameras, the digital photos of wildlife have become the 21st Century equivalent of hunters going out and bagging an animal that they can hang on their wall,” said Spreadbury, who worked in Lake Louise for 15 years, including eight as a human-wildlife conflict supervisor.

“The whole social media phenomenon where people go out and get those trophy photos, and they feel the need to share them, and they also end up sharing locations, is creating problems because it just draws more and more people.”

Grizzly bears are a threatened species in Alberta, with approximately 60 in Banff National Park.

Protected areas around the world have been grappling with how to deal with the impacts social media is having on animals like bears, with places such as Jasper National Park and Grand Teton National Park in the United States implementing strict and legally enforceable regulations around wildlife watching.

In Jasper, visitors must stay inside their vehicles to view roadside wildlife, while in Grand Teton it is the law to stay 100 yards (91 metres) away from bears and wolves, and if wildlife inch closer, the onus is on visitors to maintain the legally-required distance.

Banff National Park, which attracts more than four million visitors a year, has been reluctant to go there. The preferred approach is a recommendation for visitors to stay at least 100 metres from roadside bears and other carnivores, and there’s no rule preventing visitors from jumping out of vehicles at bear jams.

Parks Canada officials say they prefer to take the education approach first and foremost on safe wildlife viewing practices, but do have other legally enforceable tools to keep bears and people separate, like no-stopping zones.

In the case of Split Lip, numbered 136, and The Boss, aka No. 122, earlier this spring, Parks Canada implemented a no-stopping zone along the section of the Bow Valley Parkway for public safety and to give the bears some breathing room as more people flocked to the area, but it took several days to do so.

“We haven’t obviously gone that same route as Jasper with the restricted activity order,” said Saundi Stevens, a Parks Canada human-wildlife coexistence specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.

“We feel that we have a bunch of different actions or tools and techniques at our disposal to manage human use and promote wildlife coexistence and safe wildlife viewing, so we tend to defer to those.”

Spreadbury, however, said he believes Parks Canada needs to be more proactive in this age of skyrocketing visitation and the growing social media phenomenon, saying he is genuinely worried “we will have a serious roadside injury or mauling” unless the agency moves away from the status quo.

“If you’re reactive as opposed to proactive, there’s a very high probability that something bad’s going to happen,” he said.

“You’re either going to have to put down an animal or a member of the public’s going to get injured.”

Most famous grizzly in the world

Grand Teton in northwestern Wyoming has its own celebrity bear, a female grizzly bear known as 399, whose home range includes the national park and Bridger-Teton National Forest. She is followed by as many as 40 to 50 wildlife photographers at a time and millions of tourists flock to see her up close.

Born in 1996, grizzly 399 is often said to be the most famous bear in the world. The 400-pound bruin is so famous that she has had her own Facebook, X (Twitter), and Instagram accounts.

She has raised generations of cubs close to people, with research determining that she seeks these busier roadside spots over backcountry areas because it is safer for her cubs against the threat of male bears often trying to kill them.

It was bear 399, and an encounter with one of her daughters in particular, that led to Grand Teton’s wildlife watching rules legally requiring visitors to maintain at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards (23 metres) from all other wildlife, whether in vehicles or on foot.

Justin Schwabedissen, a bear biologist with Grand Teton National Park, said growth in visitation along with changes in visitor use patterns over the past 10 to 15 years has led to challenges in managing interactions with bears and people, particularly with bears like 399 that have become known worldwide.

“We’re seeing more visitors coming specifically to view bears and other wildlife and we have more wildlife photographers here in the park, but also more people that are coming to see specific bears,” said Schwabedissen.

“They’ve come to learn about the story of some of these bears they’ve heard about, whether it’s through social media, through books that have been published, through communications that have gone out, or different news articles that have been out about these bears.”

Grand Teton National Park staff do their best to provide opportunities for visitors to view wild bears in their natural habitat, but the 100-yard requirement is enforced, and if education does not prove fruitful, charges are laid.

Schwabedissen and his team have the help of a 36-strong member Grand Teton Wildlife Brigade, which is based on a similar model to Banff National Park field unit’s roving wildlife guardian team, to keep the animals and people apart – and both unharmed.

The wildlife brigade was formed in response to the magnitude of visitors coming to the park, which topped 3.4 million in 2023, partly due to social media increasing the popularity of the bears, and drawing more people.

“We do everything we can to provide those safe and ethical viewing opportunities when we can do so, but at the same time doing everything we can to minimize human-bear conflicts,” said Schwabedissen.

“With the 100-yard rule, we try to ensure that visitors aren’t parking right next to bears and blocking that bear’s natural movement across the landscape.

“We provide areas where the bear can easily cross the roadway if it chooses to do so. We’re trying not to block the bear in on multiple sides.”

In Jasper National Park, roadside wildlife viewing falls under a restricted activity order, mandating visitors remain fully inside their vehicles if within 100 metres of any bear, cougar, or wolf, or within 30 metres of elk, deer, moose, caribou, sheep, and mountain goat.

In response to an escalating number of roadside human-wildlife conflicts, including reports of people feeding wildlife, the restrictions that came into effect in 2020 apply to areas within 400 metres of any road or highway in Jasper.

James McCormick, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist in Jasper National Park, said the restricted activity order is another tool in the toolbox to ward off potential conflicts.

“This just gave us a little bit more of a way to enforce that compliance or to encourage that compliance if they knew there was something that they had to do,” he said.

“We found compliance definitely goes up a little bit if people understand it’s more than just the guideline; that this is what you’re legally required to do.”

McCormick, however, said charges and fines are a last resort, noting the preference is to encourage compliance through education first. Plenty of warnings have been issued by park law enforcement wardens, though.

“We’re not trying to prevent people from viewing wildlife, but help them view it in a way that it’s safer for the wildlife, safer for people,” he said.

When the restricted activity order came into effect in 2020, park staff were having increasing trouble managing swarms of visitors getting too close to roadside bears as people sought the great outdoors during the COVID-19 restrictions.

McCormick said there were also concerns about habituation of bears.

“That means we have to up our management actions potentially on that animal and we have to monitor it a lot more closely,” he said.

Staffing needed to manage roadside wildlife viewing

Bill Hunt was a resource conservation manager for Banff National Park for the last 11 years of his 34-year career with Parks Canada before his retirement in 2021. He said the federal agency’s education and messaging has worked well through the years, but said national parks in North America are not ready for the impacts the social media phenomenon are having on the park’s treasured wildlife.

“When there was a bear jam in the old days, it was whoever happened to come along the road, but nowadays people are immediately posting that and attracting more people to that site that wouldn’t have normally been there,” he said.

“Where there’s a food source that’s there over a longer period of time, people have the opportunity to make a point off seeking that out and making a trip out from Calgary to see if they can see The Boss on the railway track, or whatever it is.

“If you’ve got social media accelerating that bear jam, it can quickly become very unmanageable.”

While he believes it might be difficult to enforce a mandated wildlife viewing distance in Banff National Park because of the sight lines and topography of the Bow Valley, Hunt would like to see people required to stay in their vehicles when viewing roadside wildlife.

“It’s a very clear boundary and that’s a really easy one to enforce,” he said.

“The reason Parks Canada moved away from that years ago was that people ended up basically playing bumper cars trying to get in that coveted spot where they had a good view of the wildlife. The thinking was if they can step out, but maintain the appropriate distance, maybe that’s fine, but the problem is people just don’t – that’s human nature.”

Having enough human resources is key, including staff and wildlife guardian teams, to provide the safe viewing opportunities of wildlife that people come to see, said Hunt.

With climate change and increased visitation pressure, he said staffing needs to be increased earlier in the season, potentially year-round.

“We need to get our head around that with climate change, the fire season is going to be longer, bear season is going to be longer at either end,” he said.

“So being ready and having the staffing levels to manage and respond to incidents is really critical and I’m not sure if Parks Canada has been able to do that of late.”

Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit has disbanded its wildlife guardian program, which has been in place since the 1990s in the Lake Louise region, where there is a high concentration of grizzly bears, including female bear 142 who ekes out a living among busy and developed areas.

The Banff field unit’s wildlife team, however, is gearing to kick off in June, with the roving team delivering 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.

“We have some extra staffing capacity to compensate for that on our team this year, so our team will have more of a presence,” said Stevens.

Spreadbury echoes Hunt’s comments. He said staffing levels should be boosted given the ever-increasing need to manage public safety at busy roadside bear jams in a proactive way as visitation rises, and calls the wildlife guardian program critical and a godsend to staff.

“Parks literally does not have enough staff to deal with these situations,” he said, noting staff typically work non-stop from the beginning of May and into summer.

“There were a lot of days where a seven-and-a-half hour shift ended up being 11 to 13 hours because there was simply too much going on and we didn’t have enough staff to react.”

Spreadbury agrees that mandating people to stay inside their vehicles to watch wildlife, like in Jasper National Park, is a good first step.

“You can see this at any given bear jam, as somebody comes out of a vehicle, a bear’s head comes up and that's never a good sign,” he said.

“If people will stay in their vehicles, be quiet, it’s basically just this metal box on wheels and bears don't get that same level of intimidation.”

Hunt said to the best of his knowledge there has never been a contact charge at a roadside bear jam in the mountain national parks, which he said is “incredible if you think of the millions of encounters.”

But he worries there is always that potential as visitation continues to grow.

“The other part that concerns me where you get a mob of people at a bear jam – you know that bear’s on a food source of some type, whether it's spilled grain or a carcass or dandelions or shepherdia – they can get defensive if they feel crowded or cornered,” said Hunt.

“I think that pressure, that constant pressure, including bears with cubs, it's a whole other problem.”

Spreadbury said historically bears like The Boss and Split Lip tend not to get as harassed as much as female bears with cubs, like bear 142.

He recalls watching a tourist trying to get a selfie walk to within four metres of female grizzly bear 142 when she was a sub-adult.

“The bear kind of did hopping on her front legs, which got a reaction and the tourist ran away, and then they promptly went back to take another selfie,” he said.

In the Rampart Creek area, Spreadbury watched a group of about 20 tourists circle a black bear, essentially backing the bruin up against a rock face along the Icefields Parkway.

“The bear was basically all but completely circled and literally had nowhere to go,” he said, noting the tourists were within about seven metres of the bear.

Spreadbury got to know the personalities of various grizzly bears over the years, but he is always reminded they are wild animals and anything can happen, particularly if cornered by camera-slinging tourists.

One time, he was charged by The Boss at the Lake Louise campground after the big bear got into the tenting section to feast on buffalo berries. Crews were trying to get him out of the campground.

“It wasn’t a bluff charge. He flat-out charged me to within 30 feet,” said Spreadbury.

“I shot him between the eyes with the chalk ball round and that stopped him right in his tracks.”

Similarly, he has had lots of first-hand experiences with Split Lip.

He remembers one early spring day, he came across Split Lip along the train tracks west of the Storm Mountain viewpoint shortly after the big bear came out of the den.

“Just his body language that day, I was given him about 150 metres distance,” said Spreadbury.

“You get to know personalities, you get to know kind of trigger distances, but none of us trust Split Lip. I always gave Split Lip more distance than others.”

If roadside viewing of wildlife takes a turn for the worse, Stevens said Parks Canada can lay charges under national park wildlife regulations, which ban hunting or disturbing wildlife.

In the regulations, she said hunting is defined much more broadly than what most people would take it to mean, such as trapping, chasing, pursuing, following or trailing.

“Ultimately, that’s the legislation or regulations that we fall back on,” she said.

No-stopping zones effective

But Stevens said no-stopping zones and reduced speed limits, which are enforced by RCMP and national park law enforcement wardens, have been very effective at giving bears space and keeping people safe in priority areas.

She points to a no-stopping zone that has been used on occasion on the Trans-Canada Highway near Field Hill in Yoho National Park, where a unique white-coloured female grizzly bear heads for a dandelion feast soon after coming out of her den each spring.

“We’re monitoring how things green up and the amount of wildlife activity, but we have those tools to deploy in a moment’s notice,” said Stevens.

“We’re not like waiting for throngs of people to be stopping there. We’re gauging what the wildlife activity is there and do preventative implementation even though we don’t have a blanket restricted activity order like other places.”

Because the white-coloured bear is fitted with a GPS collar, park staff can track her movements and Stevens said staff are ready to go in the event she shows up beside the highway again this spring.

She said the bear, which is numbered 178, came down to the highway after coming out of her den last year, but didn’t stay in the busy highway zone for very long before heading into the backcountry.

“She was virtually not around at all last season, so we had zero issues with her,” she said. “We’re kind of hoping that's her new mojo.”

John Marriott, a prominent local wildlife photographer, said this is a tough topic.

He said he first noticed social media challenges picking up in 2010-11 when he posted a few shots of the Pipestone wolf family, and despite never giving a description of the location or when photographed, other photographers started showing up on scene.

“Within two years, I had stopped posting altogether as there was a noticeable increase in traffic on the Bow Valley Parkway, specifically with photographers looking for the wolves,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marriott said the same surge in traffic he was noticing in Banff was multiplying all over Jasper and Yellowstone national parks and similar areas as photographers who had been going there for years began posting on social media, himself included.

He said that in turn drew in more and more other photographers intent on seeing bear cubs on Maligne Lake Road in Jasper and wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, for example.

“Then, as Instagram reels grew in the past four-five years along with the advent of better and better cell phone cameras, we’ve seen an absolute explosion in pressure from both wildlife photographers and non-photographers alike,” he said.

“The type of thing we saw recently with The Boss and Split Lip, and, to be frank, the type of thing that Parks Canada is woefully unprepared to deal with.”

At this point, Marriott said he almost never posts recent photos from the Rockies and certainly never with actual locations.

“It’s cost me dearly on social media, my FB and IG accounts have not grown in over five years now, but it’s a price worth paying to help keep our wildlife a bit more safe,” he said.

“I’m not sure what can be done at this point… I can’t begrudge people wanting to see the Boss or Split Lip, it’s a super exciting sighting of a lifetime for many people.”

Marriott said maybe one of the best solutions is creating more specific wildlife viewing areas on the Bow Valley Parkway, Icefields Parkway and Lake Minnewanka Loop.

“Make it very clear people need to stay on the road to photograph unless they have a special wildlife photography permit,” he said.

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