Rocky Mountain Outlook- By Cathy Ellis
The number of wildlife occurrences in Banff National Park, including encounters with bears, continues to increase at the same time the number of visitors to Canada’s flagship national park soars.
Last year, Banff National Park recorded 1,659 wildlife occurrences compared to 1,558 the year before. Of the 1,659, 360 were black bear occurrences and another 226 were grizzly bear occurrences. There were, however, fewer bear occurrences last year than in 2014.
With an estimated 3.8 million visitors coming to the park, some experts say it is just a matter of time before Banff sees another serious bear attack.
Internationally recognized grizzly bear expert Mike Gibeau, who retired as Parks Canada’s carnivore specialist in 2011 after 30 years with the agency, said he believes there is a direct link between the increasing number of occurrences and visitation.
He said a recent study published in the online journal Nature.com, which looked at carnivore attacks throughout North America and Europe, showed there is a direct correlation between rising visitor numbers and serious wildlife attacks.
“It stands to reason that same phenomenon would apply here. The more people in an area, the more wildlife encounters,” he said. “You don’t need to have an increased number of wildlife to have increased number of encounters, just increased numbers of people will do that.”
Gibeau, who lives in the Bow Valley, said Banff has seen serious bear attacks in the past, but with increasing visitation, Parks Canada is just buying some time.
“It’s just a matter of time before we have another one,” he said, noting the Nature.com study supports that notion with evidence.
That study found that wildlife attacks on people are increasing over time, though they are still relatively rare. About half the 700 well-documented wildlife attacks in North America and Europe were a result of inappropriate or stupid human behaviour.
It concluded that, similar to the increasing trends in attacks, the number of people heading outdoors to recreate continues to climb, a phenomenon researchers say is significantly correlated with the trend in the number of attacks.
In Banff National Park, Parks Canada has a mandate to increase visitation by two per cent a year, which was highly controversial at the time it was adopted amid concerns for the park ecosystem.
The federal agency projects there will have been a 7.4 per cent increase in visitors to Banff National Park from April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016, up to 3.8 million visitors compared to 3.6 million in 2014-2015. The previous year saw a 10 per cent increase.
In the recent study, renowned grizzly bear expert Stephen Herrero said an increase in recreational activities in areas inhabited by large carnivores implicitly increases the probability of a risky encounter and, therefore, potential attack.
“There are more and more people out there and the probability of an encounter increases as a result,” said Herrero, the study’s lead North American researcher. “But even with more people visiting those areas, attacks are still extremely rare.”
Parks Canada officials say the agency invests significant resources into minimizing the potential for wildlife attacks, and although occurrence numbers have been rising, they have not seen a dramatic increase in serious attacks or occurrences even with increases in visitation.
Steve Michel, Parks Canada’s human-wildlife conflict specialist with Banff National Park, said more than one-third of the wildlife occurrences in 2015 were related to black bears and grizzly bears.
“That’s an entire year’s worth of occurrences; however, bears are only active on the landscape for about half of that,” he said.
A wildlife occurrence means a report that necessitates a response from resource management officers, involving carnivores from bears, wolves and cougars to ungulates like elk and deer.
Michel said most occurrence reports are routine and may include an animal needing to be hazed out of a high human use area, or pulling an elk carcass off the train tracks.
“I would stress the vast majority of that 1,659 occurrences are fairly routine in nature,” he said.
Last year, however, did see a serious bear attack on Mount Wilson in the northern end of Banff National Park – the first bear attack in Banff since 2008. At that time, a female jogger was attacked and bitten up to eight times by a black bear near Lake Louise.
Also last year, Scotland’s Greg Boswell, considered one of the most talented climbers of his generation, was climbing with a buddy in November when the bear attacked him directly above steep cliffs about 2,200 metres up on the 3,261-metre mountain.
It’s believed the bear was defending its den, and as a result of the incident, the area was closed.
Bleeding badly from five large puncture wounds on his leg, Boswell still managed to abseil cliffs before making his way to Mineral Springs Hospital in Banff two hours away, where he was stitched up.
In another incident last year, a family was camping at Rampart Creek Campground, 88 kilometres north of Lake Louise, when a black bear put its paws on five-year-old sleeping Noah Bayliss as it ripped the canvas on the family’s tent trailer.
Michel said resource conservation officers tried to capture that bear.
“It was quite a noteworthy event at the time, but it didn’t turn out to be a long-term problem” he said.
Michel said Parks Canada has made greats strides in implementing proactive measures to keep both wildlife and people safe, pointing to seasonal closures and restrictions in areas like Bryant Creek and Lake Minnewanka.
“They are designed very much to reduce the potential for very serious human-wildlife conflict encounters,” he said.
In addition, resource conservation officers are also quick to respond to reports of bears inside the townsite, or other exclusion zones such as picnic areas and campgrounds, often hazing them out of the area.
“We are being proactive so as not to jeopardize the safety of people or wildlife,” said Michel.
Bear 148, the female offspring of famed female grizzly bear 64, continues to take up a lot of time for members of Banff’s wildlife branch, with 82 individual occurrences attributed to her in 2015.
Occurrence reports for this bear have ranged from her feasting in fruit trees in residential yards, to feeding on sucker fish at Vermilion Lakes or using high human use areas like the Tunnel Mountain campground.
“There’s dozens of instances where she uses high human uses areas. It’s not escalating to the point it’s a serious event, but it certainly has that potential,” said Michel, noting bear 148 was not in high human use areas as much last year as she was the year before.
“It certainly takes up a fair amount of resources to monitor her, and we’re making sure we intervene so she keeps out of trouble.”
On top of the bear occurrence reports, there were another 2,000 to 3,000 reported bear sightings last year.
“Those are observations from members of public or staff members, but no conflict whatsoever,” he said.
A new wolf pack that is making a living around the Banff townsite has also generated several occurrence reports, though not as many as bears throughout the summer or elk, particularly in the spring calving season or fall rut.
That bold pack, which last week chased and killed a cow elk on the train overpass at the east entrance to the townsite, has hunted in a residential neighbourhood in Banff and forced closures when it’s killed close to town.
“We’ve had them transiting through the townsite on several occasions, so those are noteworthy and significant,” said Michel, noting the pack is comfortable around high human use areas.
Meanwhile, Gibeau said restrictions in areas like Bryant Creek and Lake Minnewanka are good examples of proactive ways to protect bears and people, but perhaps that does not go far enough.
“There’s a finite space and at some point we need to grapple with limits to growth. There’s been studies about limits of use back 30 years, but we haven’t applied those in our case,” he said. “The notion of unbridled growth still seems to be popular.”