When the Neighbors Are Grizzlies, Live WildSmart

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The WildSmart program was born out of a grizzly bear attack in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Pat Kamenka).

In June 2005, Isabelle Dube and two friends were running on a hiking trail near a golf course in Canmore, Alberta, when they spotted a grizzly bear about 65 feet ahead. Dube, a competitive mountain biker and mother of a 5-year-old daughter, climbed a tree and shouted to scare off the bear. Her friends backed away and ran for help.

When wildlife officers arrived on the scene, Dube, 36, was lying dead on the ground with a 198-pound bear standing guard over her mauled body. This was the same 4-year-old male that had been relocated to nearby Banff National Park a week earlier after approaching but not hurting a woman who was walking her dog. Although the bear hadn’t shown any aggressive behavior then (and in this case, many argued he acted like any bear whose prey instincts are triggered by someone fleeing), officers killed him with a single shot.

From this double tragedy, residents of Canmore agreed that the grizzlies, elk, cougars and coyotes living among them had every right to be there. In fact, they were a key part of the area’s scenic charm. But something had to give if they were going to coexist harmoniously with these wild — and often dangerous — neighbors.

“Out of that, the WildSmart program was born,” said Tyler McClure, head of the group’s education and outreach efforts. “We’re showing people how to live with the wildlife that’s here instead of against it by avoiding potentially dangerous situations and following certain precautions if they do find themselves in one.”

Clash of species

Canmore is a gorgeous town of about 13,000 nestled in Alberta’s Bow River Valley and surrounded by the breathtaking Canadian Rockies. After hosting the Nordic events during the 1988 Winter Olympics based in nearby Calgary, this former coal-mining town transformed rapidly into a sprawling home base and resort mecca for those who love extreme wilderness and winter sports.

Black bear

The area is also home to some exotic species, including about 200 grizzlies and black bears in Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country (nearby provincial parklands).

It might sound like a slice of paradise. But with so many people and so much development, bears and other wildlife are finding it increasingly tough to secure adequate food and habitat. Consider the 20,000 grizzlies still inhabiting less-developed areas in western Alberta, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and British Columbia. By comparison, Canmore’s grizzlies are food stressed from lack of prey and relatively scrawny — most max out at 600 pounds because of their mainly plant-based diet versus 1,500 to 1,800 pounds for their meat-eating kin to the north and west.

No wonder, then, that bears, elk and other critters often wander into Canmore seeking easy people food — and raising the risk of more fatal encounters like the one that left Dube and the young grizzly dead.

Where the wild things shouldn’t be

The idea behind WildSmart, a program of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, is that humans and wildlife are vital to the larger community.

“One small part may seem inconvenient or scary, but it plays a huge part in the world of which we are also a part,” McClure said. “Bears in particular are an umbrella species. When they’re healthy, we know everything underneath them is also healthy. For us to disturb the balance too much could have consequences that we just don’t comprehend.”

But how do you live safely with food-crazed bears in your backyard and rutting elk parading in the streets?

WildSmart’s first line of defense is avoidance. One way is to remove things that attract wildlife to human communities. For instance, Canmore has banned bird feeders, eliminated curbside garbage pickup and requires bear-proof garbage containers.

WildSmart also recommends replacing fruiting trees and shrubs with alternatives that produce lovely flowers but no bear-pleasing berries and fruit.

Unfortunately, even with fewer enticements, some bears and other creatures insist on visiting human spaces anyway. For them, WildSmart recommends more persuasive — though not lethal — deterrents.

Karelian bear dog
Wildlife officials use Karelian bear dogs to scare ursine intruders from public areas. WildSmart

One is called bear shepherding, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Wildlife officers patrol high-use human areas, including campgrounds and roadsides, with specially trained Karelian bear dogs that scare away bears by barking and chasing them.

For repeat offenders, WildSmart encourages something tougher called aversive conditioning. In these cases, officers usually relocate bears that won’t take no for an answer and subject them to a “hard release” by shooting them with rubber bullets or firing off noisy exploding projectiles called bear bangers so they get the negative message permanently, McClure said.

Incidentally, if you come face-to-face with a grizzly, shooting bear spray can be a particularly potent DIY aversive-conditioning method. It prevents most bear attacks and does it more effectively than shooting bullets.

A different ending

By most accounts, WildSmart’s efforts have made a difference — meaning fewer harmful human-wildlife encounters since Dube’s death, with only one human fatality, which occurred this past September when a bear-savvy hunter named Rick Cross was mauled to death after accidentally stumbling upon a mother grizzly feeding on a deer carcass with her cub.

“He was a very knowledgeable individual, and I assume he was making noise and moving around, but he wasn’t carrying bear spray,” McClure said. “It’s unfortunate it had to end this way, but in all honesty the bear had a completely natural reaction. She was doubly protective and defended her food and her cub. Then she got scared and left the area.”

For this reason, she was spared. “A big step forward,” McClure said.

“We’ve probably significantly reduced the number of bears and other wildlife that have been destroyed by reducing attractants and increasing their options when they do enter human areas,” he added. “It means more animals on the landscape, which leads to a more sustainable wildlife population in the Bow Valley.”

Feeding frenzy

During the run-up to winter hibernation, bears go into food hyperdrive. Here’s a breakdown by the numbers:

  • Berries eaten per day = About 200,000 (four times more than normal and equivalent to humans scarfing down 30 to 35 daily Big Macs).
  • Hours spent gorging per day = 18
  • Daily calorie intake = 22,000 (up from about 5,000 normally)