BOW VALLEY –Banff and Canmore are seeing heightened black bear activity this summer compared to previous years.
Wildlife experts suspect the primary reason is a late and wetter than usual spring has kept bears in the valley bottom longer to feast on the green-up, and haven’t headed to higher elevations because they’re now taking advantage of calorie-rich buffaloberries, a critical food source for bears.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot more activity in the valley bottom and certainly in the Bow Valley than we have in previous years,” said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.
Another theory for the overwhelming number of bear sightings and reports around Banff is the fact there is little grizzly bear activity around the townsite this year.
“Without that presence of grizzly bears, it allows multiple black bears to come in and occupy a similar space,” Hunt said.
In addition, Parks Canada has stopped its practice of dumping dead animals killed on the roads and the railway line over the winter months at various carcass pits in the valley bottom throughout the year.
Up until recently, animal carcasses would be put at various sites to try keep critical biomass within the food web.
“What we’re trying now is not doing that in hopes that will allow wildlife to disperse in more natural patterns throughout the summer,” Hunt said.
While black bears are spotted daily, including those that climb the wildlife exclusion fence and get onto the Trans-Canada Highway, there have been no serious incidents.
“There’s been lots of sightings, lots of interactions, but certainly no contact charges,” Hunt said, adding there were two incidents in which people deployed bear spray when bears bluff charged.
In Canmore, there are countless reports of black bears every day all over town, incluyding on the busiest trails. Many of those are at close range.
While the exact number of black bears is unknown, there are two sets of female black bears with two cubs each – one family on the south side and one of the north side of the valley.
Jay Honeyman, human-wildlife conflict specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, said he doesn’t believe the area is inundated with large numbers of black bears, but there are a few individual habituated bears that are seen regularly.
“I think in the past, a lot of the time the heightened bear activity related to one or two habituated bears, and the difference this year may be one or two more bears like that,” he said.
“The place is really busy with people right now, so if you’re a bear in the valley there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to have an encounter with a person.”
In early July, a black bear walked through the front door of Gaucho Brazilian Barbecue on Main Street on a busy Sunday, but quickly retreated and made its way through town to the Bow River by Millennium Park.
Earlier this week on July 27, a black bear charged a person with two dogs at the pond at the Quarry lake off-leash dog area.
“We were playing Frisbee and did not notice it until it growled and came storming out of the bushes,” wrote Manon Platje on a Facebook post to Bow Valley Community Connection.
“Got within two meters of myself and touching distance of one of my dogs.”
So far, two black bears have been trapped and removed from Canmore in the past two weeks, including one that was relocated to provincial lands north of the Bow Valley.
Based on its size and description, it’s believed the bear that walked into the Gaucho restaurant was one of them, while the other is a bear that was fitted with a GPS collar by Parks Canada in Banff in July last year.
On July 16 this year, Alberta Fish and Wildlife captured a large male black bear, known as No. 1804. After consultation with Parks Canada, that bruin was shipped to the Castle Junction area of Banff National Park, but he was back in Canmore within a few days.
Honeyman said they are monitoring the situation, but urges people to play their part in helping keep this bear out of trouble by keeping dogs on-leash and storing garbage properly.
“He’s been in town for over a month wandering around and he’s in places where he shouldn’t be. There’s been no aggressive encounters at all, but more proximity to residential neighbourhoods,” he said.
Last year, the large male bear first showed up in Banff near the Middle Springs neighbourhood, and in the coming days ended up in a tree outside IGA on Marten Street for several hours until dusk on a busy summer day.
“After collaring that bear, it presented no further problems and eventually moved to the backcountry and higher elevations in 2018,” Hunt said.
But it showed up in the Bow Valley this summer.
“It’s definitely habituated, it’s comfortable around people, but has not displayed and signs of aggression towards the public in Banff park,” Hunt said.
Hunt said Parks was happy to have Fish and Wildlife return the bruin to the park.
“We’re not concerned about the behaviour of that animal. We moved it as far west as we could within its known home range,” he said.
GPS data informed Parks Canada the bear was back on provincial land near Canmore on July 24 and Alberta Fish and Wildlife was alerted.
“As we know from past experience, if a bear wants to be somewhere it doesn’t take them long to cover an area,” Hunt said.
Meanwhile, another trap has been set to try to catch a black bear in the SilverTip area of Canmore.
“It’s an individual bear and it’s frequenting residential areas on a regular basis,” Honeyman said.
The bears are honing in on buffaloberries around Canmore, a calorie-rich food source.
“We would encourage folks if they have things like buffaloberries in their yards at the moment to get rid of them,” Honeyman said. “That’s the main attractant for bears right now and following that will be fruit trees in a few more weeks.”
Meanwhile, the closure of a large area on the south side of Canmore that was put in place after a mamma grizzly bear with two cubs charged Olympian biathlete Emma Lunder remains in effect.
The hope is black bears will head to the closed area to take advantage of buffaloberries and keep out of residential areas. Residents and visitors are asked to respect the closure, where there are patrols and remote cameras set up.
“The closure is to reduce human activity in there to allow bears to do what they do and hopefully they start to prefer that than residential areas,” Honeyman said.