Bear Safety in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

2022-08-17

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

The Canadian Rockies are a common tourist destination for both domestic and international visitors. The area includes four Canadian National Parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay – and numerous Provincial Parks. According to Parks Canada, Banff is the oldest and most popular National Park in the country and is recorded to be visited by around 4 million people every year! People are attracted to the area’s impressive mountains, stunning lakes, and, of course, a variety of interesting wildlife – including black bears (Ursus americanus) and grizzlies (Ursus arctos horribilis).

Image displaying visual differences between the black bear (Ursus americanus) and the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). (Image Credit: https://www.alberta.ca/know-your-bears.aspx )

Bear Populations in The Canadian Rockies

There are recorded populations of both black and grizzly bears in all four national parks in the rocky mountains, and bear sightings are described as “common” by Travel Alberta. With this in mind, it is important that locals and visitors to the area are properly informed of bear safety and how to be prepared while in bear country. 

Bear Safe Practices

Avoidance

Bears are magnificent animals and it can be an incredible experience to see one in the wild. However, these sightings are most safe from a distance, and one should take action when in the Rockies to prevent close bear encounters altogether. To avoid an encounter, Parks Canada recommends that you do the following: 

  • Leave the area if there are signs of fresh bear activity such as tracks, scat, or scratched-up trees.
  • Hike in larger groups (4+) when possible and remember to make lots of noise so any bears know that you’re nearby.
  • Consult with the Parks Canada Weekly Bear Report to check if there have been recent bear sightings in locations you plan to visit. 
  • Follow any trail closures and restrictions listed.
  • If camping in bear country, ensure that your site remains odour free and store all food and garbage away from the tent area.
  • Keeping dogs on leashes at all times as they may cause a bear to react in a defensive manner.
Map showing seasonal trail restrictions for the Lake Minnewanka area. Restrictions in place due to bear activity. (Image Credit: Parks Canada)

How do you act if you encounter a bear? 

If you are outdoors and encounter a bear, it is important to remain calm and give it as much space as possible. British Columbia Parks and the US National Parks Service recommend keeping the notes below in mind: 

  • Never try to run away! You will not be able to outrun a bear. Instead, back away slowly while facing the bear.
  • Speak calmly to the bear and wave your arms to help it identify you as a human.
  • Don’t stare – it may view this as a challenge. 
  • Never try to climb a tree! Both black and grizzly bears can climb trees.
  • Attempt to make yourself look large by getting to a higher spot or raising your arms and jacket.
  • Prepare to use your bear spray and ensure you have the safety clip removed.

Bear Spray

Bear spray is often what most people first think of when they think of bear safety. It is an excellent tool that’s recommended for anyone on the trails in bear country to have and to know how to effectively use. However, it is still considered a “last resort” tool and individuals should first take every action to avoid bear encounters when possible. Bear spray can be purchased from a variety of stores in the Rockies and should be carried in an easy-to-reach position on the body. Basic instructions on how to deploy bear spray can be found on the Parks Canada site, but it may be beneficial to watch an instructional video online or sign up for an in-person course, such as this one in Canmore.

What to do in the case of an attack? 

Although bear attacks are rare, they have been known to happen, so it is important to know what to do if you find yourself in this situation. There are often two different types of bear attacks – defensive and predatory. In any attack scenario, bear spray should be your first line of defence. For a predatory attack, fighting back is your best option. While predatory attacks might occur due to bears viewing a human as prey, a defensive attack may occur if the animal feels threatened. 

Why is being Bear Safe Important?

Hint: Practising bear safety protects more than just people!

Parks Canada describes the chances of having a dangerous encounter with an aggressive bear as low. However, that is not to say that attacks don’t happen. Bears are wild animals that are known to act defensively and may attack if they feel that they, their food, or their young are being threatened. 

Being bear safe when visiting the Rockies not only protects you, but also the area’s bear populations. There are two ways in which officials will deal with a bear problem – relocation or destruction. They use the term “destroyed” to describe bears that were intentionally killed due to their behaviour. For example, a black bear was recently destroyed in the Whistler area when it was seen to have been involved in two previous attacks. It was later found that during both attacks there were off-leash dogs in the area, creating a situation in which the bear can be easily provoked. This is an example of an unfortunate situation that resulted in the death of a bear, something that could have been potentially avoided if people had followed bear safe practices. 

Relocation is the other option for bears that are seen to be a problem. However, there are many issues with this method such as the recorded low success rates and whether it is an appropriate form of management. 

It is important to acknowledge that the area we know as the Rocky Mountains has been home to numerous Indigenous groups who have cared for and preserved the land and the wildlife that inhabit it for millennia.

Sources

Parks Canada: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/index 

Town of Banff: https://banff.ca/252/Learn-About-Banff#:~:text=Tourism%20is%20the%20town%27s%20economic,visit%20the%20Town%20of%20Banff

Alberta: https://www.alberta.ca/index.aspx 

Travel Alberta: https://www.travelalberta.com/ca/articles/albertas-bear-necessities-103/#:~:text=Black%20bear%20and%20grizzly%20sightings,or%20on%20a%20guided%20tour

British Columbia Parks: https://bcparks.ca/ 

National Parks Service: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm#:~:text=Black%20Bears%3A%20If%20you%20are,the%20bear%27s%20face%20and%20muzzle

Youtube – “How to Use Bear Spray – Banff National Park”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIvpLzHiCrg 

Canmore Trails and Tales: https://www.canmoretrailsandtales.com/bear-spray-training 

CTV News – Vancouver: https://bc.ctvnews.ca/bear-destroyed-following-attack-on-woman-north-of-whistler-1.5947461 

Factors affecting the success of grizzly bear translocations – https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.21410 

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