A little 3 year old female grizzly on the Icefields Parkway at the end of a great day in the field.
This spring I’ve seen more bears in the past 2 months than I have in the past 20 years. Part of that is that I’m outside more in bear country than I normally am this time of year. But it’s not just me. There have been many bear sightings around Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, Radium, and Jasper this year. So what’s going on?
Increased bear sightings are usually a combination of two factors: more people being in areas where bears are, and more bears being in areas where people are. It sounds pretty intuitive, but the important thing to remember here is that it’s a two way street. More bear sightings can be just as much a reflection of human behaviour and habitat use as bear behaviour and habitat use.
An important influencing factor this year is the slow-melting snow pack in the high elevations. There’s still a lot of snow up there (check out these pictures of Sunshine ski hill to see what I mean). This means that both people and bears are spending more time in the low elevations waiting for the snow to melt. Bears are incredibly food driven, they go where the food is. Right now, the food is in the valley bottoms and it’ll be at least a few more weeks before it’s blooming enough in the alpine to draw the bears up there. People aren’t so into hiking in the high elevations right now either, and so more people are choosing to recreate on the low elevation hiking and walking trails.
Basically, the slow melt concentrates human and bear use in the same valley bottom areas. So we’re seeing more bears on the road sides, on the trails, and just plain around town.
So be smart out there
Last Monday, I was putting remote cameras up on a trail inside the town of Banff. I made several bad choices. After a busy week, I chose to put the cameras up alone with my mountain bike. I didn’t take my bear spray. I figured it was no big deal, it’s a super busy human use trail right in the town. I was only putting cameras on a small 2K loop and it was literally the middle of the day. I knew there had been bears using the area, but I also didn’t think it was a big deal. I was wrong.
After placing my first camera, I picked up my mountain bike and heard the sound of something galloping down the wooden foot bridge towards me. In my heart, I knew it was a bear. In my mind, I wished it was 70 mountain bikes coming for a ride. I turned to see a sub-adult grizzly about 10 feet away from me. It had stopped running and was shaking its head.
I was scared. It all happened so fast. I instantly felt like such a fool. No bear spray. By myself. In that moment, it was me and that bear. It didn’t matter that I could see the parking lot or that I knew other people were on the trail. There was only me and a very confused and slightly distressed bear. He was so close, I could hear him breathing.
After a moment, I caught my breath and decided to just back away. I put my mountain bike between me and the bear and I started backing down the trail behind me.
The bear watched me for a moment and then walked down the trail going in the opposite direction to me. I kept backing up until he was out of sight and then went straight in to town to get some bear spray before putting up the rest of the cameras.
In all my bear encounters, that one honestly made me the most scared. It happened so fast. It happened right in town. In the middle of the day.
A grizzly bear and a coyote hang out on the edge of Banff townsite.
Lesson learned: you can literally run into a bear anywhere and at any time, even if the chances of it are small. I got complacent. That little bear taught me a big lesson. Bear spray and friends. Never hit a trail with bear activity without them. Ever.
It’s hard being three
As with most bear encounters I’ve had, I spent the next few hours thinking about what had happened, how I reacted, how the bear reacted, and what led to the encounter in the first place. I won’t ever know exactly why the bear was running across the bridge. At first I thought maybe he was just playing around. He’s young and small. Then I thought maybe he had been spooked by something in the parking lot, like a car door slamming or a dog barking, and was running away from that. But there’s also several bears in that area, so maybe he was running away from a bigger bear.
The truth is, I’ll never know. But it could be any number of things. It’s scary to be a 3 year old bear. Nobody likes you. Your mom is gone, every other bear is bigger than you and chases you off any kind of decent habitat. You’re just trying to make your way in this big world and you’re all alone. These little subadult bears are literally running scared most of the day while also trying to establish their own territory and home range. It’s a hard balance.
For the subadult bears that are trying to do this in areas of high human use (like on the fringes of the town of Banff), high levels of human use on trails add another dimension of stress. Now these little bears have to steer clear of people as well as other bigger bears.
And that’s what that little subadult that I ran into is dealing with every minute of every day. He’s just trying to eat and sleep and stay away from a couple of dominant male bears that are in the same area. And he’s trying to stay away from literally hundreds of people and dogs and bikes all day long . That doesn’t leave him with much habitat where he can find respite, safety, and just a little bit of quiet time.
It’s a hard life for him. He’s sensitive. He’s frustrated. And he’s scared. That’s exactly how you don’t want a bear to be when you run into him on the trail.
What does it truly mean to coexist?
I talk a lot about the need for people to coexist with grizzly bears. This means not only that we get used to sharing the space with bears, but that when bears need that space, we let them have it. Sometimes bears need to sort themselves out and they don’t need the added pressure of people around piled on top of that. Right now, we’ve got a high number of bears in low elevation areas. And it’s the tail end of mating season. These bears need to sort out their own territories, mates, and hierarchy. Adding people to that mix puts both the bears and the people at risk. These bears are sensitive right now. We need to give them more space and allow them some refuge without human pressures.
In the past couple of months there have been several bear warnings in place and several trails closed due to bear activity. These warnings and closures are put in place for human safety and bear safety. So please, if the trail you plan to hike is closed, find another. Remember that these bears are just trying to be bears and it’s our responsibility to give them the space they need to do that.
Parks Canada posts trail closures and warnings on their website. Wildsmart does the same for areas outside of the National Parks. Please keep yourself up to date, safe, and give our bears the space they need. I mean, how could you not want to make sure this little muffin bum is safe and happy? Look at her! She’s so freaking cute (and ecologically important) and awesome!