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From mountain musings to a PhD

A few years ago, I hiked into the Skoki valley behind Lake Louise ski hill in Banff National Park for my first solo backpacking trip. It was typical back-country bliss – the sun was warm, I ate lunch watching pikas scurry around the rocks, and a carpet of colourful alpine flowers covered the meadows. On my last day, I hiked from Merlin Meadows campground to the trailhead over Deception Pass. The trail was busy as many people were coming out to enjoy another glorious day in the Rockies.

Starting Day 3 – Leaving Merlin Meadows Camp

As I neared Ptarmigan Lake, a Park warden on horseback passed me and warned me of a female grizzly with two cubs near the halfway hut. I replied that I likely wouldn’t see her given all the people ahead of me on the trail. Still, it’s always good to know what’s out there and make sure you’re prepared. I thanked the warden and continued on my way.

Many things run through a person’s mind when they are told there is a bear ahead on the trail: “Where’s my bear spray? Can I reach it? Should I get the binoculars out? What will I do if I see her? What will she do if she sees me? Am I being loud enough to let her know I’m coming?” All of these thoughts run through my mind too, especially when I’m alone in the woods. But on this day, another thought ran through my mind.

“If she’s not at the halfway hut when I get there, where would she go? Did she go to another sweet berry patch where there aren’t too many people? Or has she hunkered down and is waiting for the people to leave before coming back out to feed?”

Grizzlies in the Canadian Rockies have a hard life. There’s only 7 months of the year to eat 12 months worth of food. While they spend as much as time as they can eating, they also have to navigate a landscape full of people, highways, railways, and towns.

By the time I got to the halfway hut, the bear and her cubs were long gone. But where did she go? And is she eating there?

Those two questions sat with me for a few weeks. Was there a way to look at that question and to come up with management actions that would ensure people could still enjoy the Skoki valley but also ensure that resident grizzlies have adequate access to food?

That became the essence of my PhD research.  Over the next four years, I will explore these questions through remote cameras, GPS data from grizzly collars, and visitor surveys. The main goal is to create a suite of management recommendations that will be good for bears and good for people.

Berry patch near the halfway hut.

Sometimes when you ask a question and there isn’t an answer, you just have to go out there and get the answer yourself. And that is just what I’m going to do. Join me on this little adventure across a magnificent landscape with one of Canada’s most charismatic species.

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