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How can we safely share nature with wildlife?

by Karen Ung
In an effort to protect park users, local parks have implemented multiple wildlife advisories, trail closures, tenting bans, and even put down two wolves. Some recent incidents that triggered these measures include the following:
Why is this happening and how can we reduce the number of human-wildlife conflicts? Large predators (bears, wolves, cougars) have always lived in our mountain parks, but this year we are dealing with a bumper berry crop after two years of drought, record numbers of park visitors, and hordes of ignorant campers/hikers who refuse to abide by the rules. While conservationists would remind us that habitat loss is an important part of the equation (and they would be right), the biggest thing we can do right now is change our behaviour so we are not part of the problem. The wolves that were recently killed in Banff and the bear killed at Mount Kidd Campground in Kananaskis in 2013 were habituated, essentially trained to eat human food.
When we stayed at Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff last month (July 2016), one in three campers in our loop left food bins, coolers, garbage, barbecues, and/or dog food out at unattended campsites (all night or for several hours) despite tons of signage advising otherwise. It’s no wonder that wolves were frequenting the campground (and the Two Jack campgrounds) for meals! Sadly, the wolves paid with their lives and careless campers continue to make the same mistakes. It’s just as easy for this to happen with bears too.So how can we share natural spaces with wildlife safely? In a way that neither endangers humans nor wildlife?
Here are 6 ways to share nature safely with wildlife.
1. Respect Wildlife: One of the seven tenets of Leave No Trace is to respect wildlife. Keep your distance, don’t touch them, never ever feed them, and don’t leave food out for them. This goes for all creatures, large and small. If you’ve ever been in touristy areas overrun with problem ground squirrels stealing your food or going in your vehicle, you know what I’m talking about! If not, take my word for it. Besides, Cheetos aren’t good for anyone. Wild animals need to eat wild food! Did you know the fine for feeding wildlife in the national parks is up to $25,000?

Don’t feed wildlife!

2. Educate Others: Some people have never seen a bear and don’t believe that one would come into a crowded campground. Of course, that is not the case. Do what you must – if you have to scare the bejeesus outta them to make them put their shit away, so be it. I like telling people that bears come around the campground every night after you go to sleep. Works like a charm! Likewise, many people don’t seem to understand that very placid looking moose, elk, or bison can hurt you if you get too close, approach their babies, or are within 100 metres of them during rutting season (when males are extremely territorial). Keep your distance, please!

Bison near our site in Yellowstone National Park

3. Say No To Bear Jams: Stopping on the side of a twisty mountain road is not only dangerous from a traffic perspective, it accustoms bears to human company. As civilized as that sounds, you do not want to have tea with a bear (guess who will be doing all the eating?). Slow down and snap a photo from the car if you must, but please don’t stop. If you’re brave enough, you can lay on the horn as you drive by to break the bear jam up. When I spoke with WildSmart educators last month, they advised me this was a helpful thing to do (but to expect some ticked off people – one of their employees was tailed and harassed for doing so).

4. Be Bear (and Wolf! and Cougar!) Aware:  By making noise and hiking in a group, it is very unlikely you will ever see a large predator on the trails. You should, however,  carry bear spray for insurance and know how to use it. For more bear safety tips, please see this post.
See! Bears DO hang out near campgrounds!

5. Respect Trail Closures: Trails are closed on a temporary or seasonal basis for a variety of reasons: prime wildlife habitat, environmentally sensitive area, caribou winter grounds, mountain sheep calving area, carnivores feeding on a carcass, mother bears with cubs. You may put yourself at risk entering these areas, or you may endanger wildlife. I heard a sad story this summer of how the caribou population near Maligne Lake was decimated. The Maligne Lake Road and winter backcountry users allowed wolves to get in to an area historically safe for the caribou in winter (caribou have big hooves to travel on snow, wolves cannot move through deep snow). It is unlikely that Maligne Lake herd will last long with only 3 individuals left. We need to think of the long term effects of our actions and choose another path.

6. Keep a Bare Site: All food and attractants must be put away when you are not at your campsite or when you go to sleep at night. This includes coolers (bears can smell 100 times better than us and can smell food inside them!), garbage, empty bottles, toothpaste, bug spray, pet food, barbecues, and dishes. If you are backcountry camping, hang your food high in a tree at least 100 metres from your tent or utilize the campground’s bearproof food lockers or bear wires for all food and attractants. It’s safer for you and your campmates and ensures animals don’t get rewarded for sniffing around camp.

Are there any other ways we can help wildlife? I would love to hear them!

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