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Wildlife conflict, visitation rise together

The number of wildlife conflict occurrences in Banff National Park hit an all-time high last year – while at the same time the number of visitors to Canada’s flagship national park continued to soar.
A grizzly bear ambles down the Vermilion Lakes Road near the Banff townsite.
A grizzly bear ambles down the Vermilion Lakes Road near the Banff townsite.

The number of wildlife conflict occurrences in Banff National Park hit an all-time high last year – while at the same time the number of visitors to Canada’s flagship national park continued to soar.

Parks Canada reports there were 1,250 wildlife conflict occurrences in the Banff field unit last year, with almost half of them involving black bears and grizzly bears. That compares to a total of 924 occurrences in 2013.

The number of bear related occurrences almost doubled from 272 in 2013 to 577 in 2014. The vast majority of those occurrences – from bluff charges by young female grizzly 148 to bear 122 strolling through Central Park – happened in areas adjacent to the Banff townsite.

The most up to date visitation figures show there were 3.1 million independent visits from January through November, an increase of 7.8 per cent over the same period the previous year. This does not include group tour visits.

Officials say a late spring that kept bears in the lower valleys longer than usual, a poor berry crop later in the season, and increasing visitation all played a part in the rising occurrences.

“There appears to be a direct correlation between the number of visitors we have and the number of wildlife occurrences,” said Steve Michel, human wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.

“I think because we have more people in campgrounds, trails and campsites, there’s a greater opportunity for them to have encounters with wildlife and, therefore our occurrence numbers are going to reflect that as a result of increasing visitation.”

There are an estimated 60 grizzly bears in Banff National Park. Last year, several bears made their living around the townsite, including the offspring of grizzly bear 64, a celebrity bear believed to have died of natural causes at age 24 in 2013.

The inaugural Banff marathon in June had to be re-routed because of bear activity.

Grizzly bear experts suggest it is only a matter of time before another serious bear attack happens in Banff, particularly given the growing number of visitors to the park.

Renowned grizzly bear expert Mike Gibeau said Banff has been fortunate there has not been a serious attack in recent years.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the number and trend lines to see that it’s just a matter of time,” he said.

“The number of occurrences and conflicts go up in direct correlation to the number of visitors and number of events. The probability that something serious is going to happen is going up.”

A wildlife conflict occurrence is defined as any event that requires a response from a resource conservation officer in Parks Canada’s wildlife office. A sighting does not constitute an occurrence. There were 2,500 bear sightings alone last year.

An occurrence can be anything from a roadside wildlife jam and hazing habituated elk out of Banff townsite, to a bear encounter on a trail or wildlife mortality on the railway tracks or roads.

Heightened bear activity last year forced widespread warnings or closures around the townsite in spring and fall. During those times, there were six or seven grizzlies and just as many black bears in the area.

At one point, bear 122, a large, dominant 700-pound grizzly, walked right through the heart of downtown Central Park, and female bear 148, a daughter of 64, bluff charged at people who got too close to her on several occasions.

Of the 1,256 occurrences in the Banff field unit last year, 577 of those involved bears – 307 black bears, 253 grizzly bears and 17 unknown. That compares to 273 bear-related occurrences the year before.

In 2013, there were 924 wildlife conflict occurrences, 894 in 2012, 888 in 2011, 761 in 2010, 499 in 2009, 513 in 2008 and 490 in 2007.

“It’s really being sneaking up quite substantially,” said Michel.

Michel said weather conditions last spring and a poor berry crop later in the season also played a role in the higher occurrence numbers.

“We had a lot of bears concentrated in the valley bottoms throughout the early part of the year. With the late winter, late spring and lingering snowpack, bears couldn’t get up to higher elevations as quickly,” he said. “When they’re down in low elevation areas, that’s where the visitors and residents are and we see higher conflict numbers.”

The berry crop was also poor last summer.

“Often, when we have a good berry crop, they will be congregating in areas where food resources are abundant, often away from human use,” Michel said.

“Some of the areas where berries are good are in the Bow Valley proper, but often they just sneak away and off up into the Cascade River, up North Fork, Flint’s Park, off the beaten track – and that didn’t happen last year at all.”

The wildlife office has 12 resource conservation officers in the busy summer months when wildlife occurrence numbers, particularly with bears, are highest. More than half of those are seasonal positions.

“There’s no question with the number of people that we had, we were running off our feet non-stop throughout the summer months,” Michel said. “We were barely able to keep pace last year.”

Staff put in almost 50 hours on one particular wildlife conflict occurrence – that of a report of a grizzly bear struck on the train tracks near Carrot Creek on May 11, 2014. Five different staff were involved in the investigation, including dog handler Mike Henderson.

Parks believes a grizzly bear was struck, but survived.

“In a situation like that, we would have a fair number of hours put into that because grizzly bears are such a high priority and mortality is such a high priority,” Michel said.

“It would be different if it was an elk struck on the railway tracks. If it was an elk, we’d probably spend about an hour looking into it – no carcass, we don’t know the outcome, end of story.”

Other high profile occurrences last year related to a bold black bear, known as 1403, that got into food at an illegal campsite by Echo Creek, and into garbage in a yard off Cougar Street in early September.

Bear 148 was also a high profile bear that generated many occurrences.

She made her way onto the highway on June 20, and bluff charged a person who had gotten out of their vehicle. Two days later, she bluff charged another individual who got too close near the Fenlands day use area.

She spent lots of time around town, and got into crabapples in late fall.

“It would be safe for me to say several hundred hours have been invested in her with all staff, including aversive conditioning,” Michel said.

“On and off, all throughout June, July, August and September, over a dozen times, there were bluff charges, vocalization and foot stomping.”

Parks Canada has put a lot of effort into preventative measures to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts, from pioneering garbage management in the 1980s to highway fences and wildlife crossing structures.

There are also proactive seasonal restrictions on hikers and mountain bikers in certain areas. Over an eight-year period from 1998 to 2005, there were five bear attacks in two locations – the Aylmer Pass trail near Lake Minnewanka and Allenby Pass near Bryant Creek.

All of the bear attacks occurred when outdoor enthusiasts were travelling alone, or in a small group, and surprised female grizzly bears with cubs along these trails during the critical berry season.

“Parks Canada does a number of things that definitely make a major difference in terms of serious human-wildlife conflict potential,” Michel said.

Some of the more serious bear incidents in Banff National Park include:

• September 2011: One of North America’s top mountaineers, Barry Blanchard, was stalked by a grizzly bear and and chased up a tree as he guided a client. They clung to nimble branches for about two hours. The grizzly bear was subsequently destroyed.

• July 2008: Trail runner Charisse d’Hamers was attacked and bitten up to eight times by a black bear on the Great Divide Trail near Lake Louise.

• May 2006: Town of Banff employee Greg Flaaten narrowly escaped with his life when a black bear attacked him as he was riding a trail on Tunnel Mountain. He was dragged more than 50 metres from the initial point of contact by the bear, and suffered extensive injuries.

• September 1995 – Six campers were mauled by a grizzly bear in the dead of night at the Lake Louise campground.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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