The Mind-Altering Road Trip
This past month, my husband and I drove up to the Yukon Territory to meet up with John. This the second of several field trips John and I are planning for the upcoming book. We spent a week with John and his lovely family at Million Dollar Falls campground, just outside of Kluane National Park. Each morning, John and I would get up at 4am and drive through prime bear habitat as the sun slowly crested over the St. Elias Mountains. The wilderness in the Yukon is vast, and in comparison to our hometown of Canmore, nearly void of people or human development. The Kluane National Park area is home to approximately 1200 grizzly bears, just over 600 people in the town of Haines Junction, and a few hundred people living in various small First Nations communities from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation. The last Kluane National Park Management Plan estimates day use at 10,500 people per year. The exact opposite situation exists in the Canmore-Banff area with approximately 65 grizzly bears, 21,000 residents, and over 4 million visitors per year.
From the Yukon, with love.
We went from a busy tourist destination with few bears to a land largely occupied by bears. Flipping the human: bear ratio changed everything. I began to think about coexistence differently based on where I was in the world. In bear management, we often talk about coexistence and how to create it. But there are so many ways to define it. How we define coexistence is directly reflected in how we manage it, what kinds of management actions we put in place, and whether we manage bears or people. I saw this throughout our trip. On a road trip exploring a small piece of Canada’s north.
We drove to the Yukon through Fort St. John, Ft. Nelson, and Liard Hot Springs. Liard is a magical place unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Natural hot springs bubble through colourful rocks to warm a pool filled with fine pebbles and surrounded by a lush forest of mosses and ferns. There is a hot pool, feeding into a cooler pool that leads to a little water trail and a small creek. I floated on my back down the water trail with the trees stretching over me. Birds and butterflies flitted overhead. I was in the belly of the forest. If fairies exist, they live here.
On our way to Liard, we saw 16 black bears roadside. It was amazing! There were bears everywhere. I got more and more excited with each passing hour as we headed further north. I began to feel a sense of stepping into a land where bears ruled the forest, not people. We were getting into true wilderness.
A mama black bear and her yearling cub grazing in the ditch on our way to Liard.
It was fairly busy when we arrived at Liard Hotsprings Provincial Park and the campground was full. We were fortunate to get a spot in the overflow campground and were quick to go for a swim. Soaking our car-stiff bodies in the healing waters of the hot springs, we heard a large bang off in the distance. A bear banger. We heard two more that night around the camping area. Hearing a bear banger in a place like Liard that is literally surrounded by dozens of bears didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was how at no point did anybody talk to us about keeping a clean camp or putting our food and other attractants in our car.
In the Bow Valley, attractant management and educating people how to keep a clean camp to reduce human-bear conflict is second hand nature. We do it all the time. Yet, in northern BC, I began to see how it was much more about managing bears than about managing people. The week after we left Liard, a black bear was destroyed for breaking into someone’s tent to access the food inside. The bear died because it was a risk to human safety, which is definitely true. This bear’s death, however, was preventable. If only people had kept a clean camp and we educated to better manage attractants. In our short visit to Liard, we saw several campsites with coolers and food items left unattended. People come from all over the world to travel the Alaska highway and educating visitors should be an essential component of campground management in bear habitat. At no point in our whole trip were we told to keep our attractants in our vehicle and keep a clean camp.
Bears in the Kluane area were different. There is no mistaking who is the boss in that landscape, and it’s not people. With so many bears and so few people, the dynamic changes drastically. There are likely bears in this area that rarely, if ever, encounter people. People are very aware that bears can be sighted anytime anywhere. Parks Canada managers close trails or areas if a female grizzly with cubs is sighted in an area twice in a 24 hour period. Bears don’t always act aggressively towards people, but they can and most people we talked to had a story that ended with someone they knew getting hurt by a bear. Last winter, a woman and her baby were killed by grizzly bear. The mark of that event lingers in the community adjacent to Kluane. Even though the risk of a fatal bear attack is low, the risk changes how people see bears. I actually think this reality makes people more respectful of bears and their space around Kluane. I began to wonder why negative interactions might be more common in the Yukon. Was it just because there were more bears and people were more likely to run into them? Or is something else going on?
One morning, John and I were watching a subadult grizzly bear roadside. We had been watching this bear every day for the past three days. He was incredibly habituated to our vehicle and didn’t even raise his head while we watched him. Very chill bear. As usual, on this particular morning, we were the only people on the highway watching him. The sun was glimmering off the roadside grasses as he grazed on dandelions and locoweed. Everything was quiet and still. Except my bladder, which was full of coffee and in need of relief. I decided I needed to pee.
Our most common view of this little subadult. Face down in the grass, stuffing face.
I slowly opened the car door. The bear didn’t even look up. I stepped out of the vehicle and closed the door behind me. The bear didn’t even look up. I took two steps away from the car. He didn’t look up. I crossed the road. No reaction. I took a step into the opposite ditch, crouched down, and peed. He bluff charged. I looked over my shoulder and he was staring at me intently. Uhh… what? I took a deep breath and said: “Oh hi bear. It’s ok buddy.” I’m not sure he heard me. I stood up and walked slowly but purposefully back to the jeep with him watching me the whole time. I put the vehicle between me and the bear and he side stepped to watch me get back in the car.
What’s going on over there? What is she doing?
I don’t know what that is, or what’s going on, but I don’t like it.
“He didn’t like that at all!” John said, once I was back in the car. He sure didn’t. But what happened there? How did a bear who didn’t even care about me at all suddenly get worked up enough to bluff charge? What did I do wrong?
Bluff charge. Hackles up. Huffing. Not happy.
I did something he didn’t predict. It wasn’t the presence of people that disturbed him. This bear is used to people watching him from their stopped cars along the roadside. But I didn’t stay in my car. Maybe it was because I crossed the road and separated myself from the vehicle. Or maybe because I crouched down in the ditch, which he might have interpreted as an offensive stance. Or maybe it was because I peed and he could smell that. Maybe he just wondered what I was doing.
Regardless of what his exact thoughts were, I broke the rules. I did something that he didn’t expect, and he didn’t like it. He very clearly told me that I needed to get back in my box of acceptable human activity.
Some of you may have heard me talk about the complex rulebook we’ve created for bears in the Bow Valley in order for a bear to be a “good bear” and stay out of trouble. The problem with that is that bears can’t read and they don’t understand the rules. In the Yukon, I felt like it was the opposite. Bears have written a complex rulebook for people but we don’t always know the rules. When we step out of line, bears put us back in line. It felt funny to be on the receiving end and I realized that it’s not always people making the rules for bears up there – bears define the rules. We are expected to follow them.
THERE ARE NO GUARANTEED ANSWERS
I wrote a chapter on our trip to the Yukon. My mind was whirling every day. With the field trips and the research for this book, I’ve realized how often I’ve been wrong and how much more there is to learn. I have studied bears for what feels like a long time and I’ve lived with or around them for even longer. On this trip, I was reminded that I make assumptions about bear behaviour all the time. These assumptions are based on my education and experience, but I’m still learning from bears all the time! I didn’t expect that bear to charge me, but I also didn’t expect his behaviour to be different than what we had been observing for several days. I was reminded that you can’t ever really know what a bear is going to do or what it’s thinking. It’s always fun to hypothesize though!
Bear management is a complex relationship based on what people think a bear should do and what people should do. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that there are two parties in this relationship: the bear and the person. Both are engaging in behaviour and making decisions to stay safe. We assume that we are in control, but we’re not really. At least not everywhere.
What works for bear management in one area may not work in another. My experience in the north reinforced my support of education programs teaching recreationists how to be bear aware and reduce attractants. It’s pretty easy to put your food away and keep a bear from coming in to a campground and becoming dangerous. It’s also important for wildlife managers to work in their landscape and make decisions based on the specifics in that landscape. Closing a trail in Kluane National Park may inconvenience a few people, but closing a trail in Banff National Park may inconvenience several hundred visitors. Bears in Kluane are more used to having the landscape to themselves, so they react more strongly to people. Bears in Banff interact with people all the time and have a higher level of tolerance. In both cases, managing people is more of a focus than managing bears, but exactly how it’s done is different.
A good place to sit and contemplate. The book chapter formed in my mind looking out over this expanse of wilderness and imaging how 1200 bears rule this land.
The chapter in the book explores this complex topic in more detail, so you’ll just have to read that when it comes out to see where I finally land on this issue and so many more!