Original Published on Sep 06, 2022 at 16:31
By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
With a growing number of bears frequenting the townsite, Parks Canada hopes to keep all two- and four-legged animals safe.
It’s a matter of managing two conflicting worlds.
“Viewing wildlife is one of the key attractions for people to come to Jasper, more with the visitors than the residents,” said Dave Argument, resource conservation officer with Jasper National Park.
“Residents have certainly started to become a little more, I don’t know, ‘habituated’ themselves to the opportunity to see animals in the park.”
On Friday, he said that there were 10 different bears frequenting the townsite, up from eight the day before. A poor berry crop in the backcountry has brought their noses in the town’s direction.
Those bears include two family groups, one that involves a special connection that lends an extra note of poignancy to Parks Canada’s messaging.
One of the family groups is a mama with cubs. One of the single bears in town is that same mama’s cub from two years ago, now living independently.
“It just shows the trend that we are fearful of: that these mothers… bring the cubs into town and teach them that this is an acceptable lifestyle. When the cubs grow up and separate from the mom, they carry on that tradition,” Argument said.
“When those cubs grow up, if they make it to adulthood, they will have been growing up thinking that this is an appropriate lifestyle. That just compounds the problem year after year. More and more bears are learning that this is a comfortable place for them to live. That’s not great.”
There have been numerous human-wildlife coexistence situations within the townsite that have come precariously close to becoming “negative encounters,” Parks Canada’s code phrase for an interspecies interaction that became scary or involved injury to either person or bear.
When people run to get close to the bear for that perfect photo opportunity, it makes managing the situation more difficult for the personnel on the scene.
“The staff out there trying to shepherd these bears out of town in a safe direction, they need to have a safe movement corridor to move these animals,” Argument said.
“If there are people in the way blocking alleyways or movement corridors, that just makes the situation that much more difficult. In some cases, people actually pursue these animals with their cellphone or their camera looking for that perfect shot, which just adds to the stress level of the bear and adds to the likelihood of what seems like a fairly innocuous encounter turning dangerous very quickly. That’s really an important consideration here.”
Most people don’t recognize the true stress level of a bear that seems to be happily munching away on the fruit of a resident’s tree branches. Argument said that they are already under stress because this isn’t their natural environment.
If they’re under stress and then onlookers add more pressure, the situation could turn negative very quickly.
“It would be absolutely tragic for one of these bears to have a negative encounter with a kid on his way to school or something like that,” he said.
Argument suggests that residents remove the fruit from their trees, or remove their non-native fruit trees entirely. The local food share is also a great resource to make the most of edible fruit.
Otherwise, his best advice is to keep your distance and always follow the instructions of Parks Canada staff at the scene of any bear incursions in Jasper. If you are asked to move out of the way, move calmly – don’t run and don’t panic.
“These bears are generally not exhibiting aggression,” Argument said. “You just need to walk out of the way, give them a free space to move and they’ll find their own way out of town.”
People should travel in groups and make noise when they are in spaces where there is a risk of surprising a bear, such as in alleyways or around vehicles. Residents should check their yard before entering it or letting their dog out.
Keeping your ears open is also as important as keeping your eyes open, Argument added.
“We really discourage the use of people walking around with their headphones on or their earbuds in,” he said.
“You wind up losing a lot of situational awareness when you’re tuned out and checked out like this. This time of year, situational awareness is also very important.”