James van Leeuwen practices his technique using inert bear spray on a dummy bear during a recent bear and wildlife safety course hosted by the IGA. | C.Castonguay photo Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Everyone knows that you should have a can of bear spray handy when you venture out into bear country, but how many people have actually practiced their technique beforehand?

Getting that experience under your belt is just one of the key benefits that people can expect from attending the Interpretive Guide Association’s upcoming Bear and Wildlife Safety Course. The four-hour course runs on the afternoon of Saturday, May 27 at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum.

“We need to be diligent when we’re in national parks to make sure we know how to behave properly,” said Wendy Niven, the IGA’s local representative.

“We know how to deal with bears: we hike with bear spray. But have you ever actually been trained to use bear spray? Have you ever been taught how to use it properly, when to use it properly? Just like we all could benefit from first aid training, we all have to refresh those skills.”

Niven was careful to note that the class will involve a can of inert bear spray.

The course was developed by Chris Castonguay, operations manager at the IGA, and Jay Honeyman who is a long-term bear conflict biologist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife and park ranger and conservation officer in the Kananaskis District. He is now the executive director of the Bear Conflict Solutions Institute based out of Canmore.  

“Jay really just wants to do it because he wants to make sure the right messages are getting out to visitors. He wants to make sure that people are behaving properly with bears, and knowing how to stay safe and knowing how to keep bears safe,” Niven said.

It was recently offered in the Bow Valley as well.

Niven said that this brand-new course is being offered out of necessity. While it’s intended for guides and IGA members, it offers worthwhile knowledge to anyone and everyone. The average Jasperite is the assumed expert to visitors. They frequently get placed in a leadership role, she said, basically making everyone a guide.  

For that reason alone, it’s important for all to have wildlife safety skills.

“I think a lot of locals are in those situations of taking people and being in that implied leadership situation. It feels to me like there’s more and more wildlife encounters,” Niven said.

She added that Jasper was heading into calving season, which coincides with both the high season for camping and the time when bears are out on the landscape and likely even entering the townsite.

The certificate course will teach its attendees how to identify bear behaviour and prevent encounters. The instructor will discuss what tools are available, and what to do during an encounter to ensure not only your safety, but that of the other members of your party as well. Bear spray is just one way to achieve that objective but you have to know how to carry it, how to get the safety off, and you have to know which way the wind is blowing.

“People need to learn because if you’re not ready to do it, are you going to be ready?” Niven asked.

Besides keeping you and the animals safe, being a better guide also means being a better steward of the environment, she said.

“This course is intended to just bring in another tool for the toolkit of our members that will help them be better guides, help their guests be safer and help the guests that we take out become more informed and more connected to this land and care about this land.”

The IGA hosts this and other certificate courses and events throughout the year and across the province. An apprentice interpreter course takes place here on May 18 and 19.

By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 12, 2023 at 06:00

This item reprinted with permission from    The Fitzhugh    Jasper, Alberta
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