A human-bear relationship expert from a program specializing in wildlife education told a group of Bragg Creek residents last week that to peacefully coexist, one of the two species has to make sacrifices.
It’s the humans.
Nick de Ruyter, Program Director of WildSmart, spoke to the Bragg Creekers gathered on Sept. 21 about reaching the goal of coexistence.
WildSmart is a proactive conservation program based in Canmore that encourages efforts by Bow Valley communities to reduce negative human-wildlife interactions.
While living in a tent on Baffin Island, de Ruyter came face-to-face with a large polar bear. He was inside a small storage shack when the largest member of the bear family came to the window he was looking out of.
“Less than a metre away, there was a big polar bear. He walked over, stopped, looked at me – his face was probably half a metre from mine – and then he kept walking,” de Ruyter said.
Bears aren’t inherently dangerous, he said. But they can be when humans refuse to abide by appropriate guidelines.
“They’re not dangerous, mean, aggressive animals, but often it’s things we do or don’t do that result in the encounters,” he said.
De Ruyter explained how and why removing fruit from trees is now a priority in Canmore. He told the crowd in Bragg Creek that neglecting their trees can have serious consequences.
“If we’re lazy about it, it could cost a bear its life,” he said.
A black bear sow that had been roaming the hamlet for a few weeks was euthanized by Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers on Aug. 28, leaving three suddenly-orphaned seven-month-old cubs to fend for themselves this winter.
Bragg Creek Wild, the Bragg Creek and Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Bragg Creek Community Association presented the event on Wednesday.
De Ruyter’s central message was that humans and bears can only coexist if sacrifices are made by humans to make bears’ decisions easier.
“They’re out there, and they’re lazy. They follow their noses and their stomachs, so the key is to not give them a reason to stop,” he said.
Canmore's new Community Standards Bylaw, which came into effect on Aug. 16, deals with reducing attractants like fruit on trees, bird feeders, pet food, and garbage. Fines for not abiding by the bylaw range from $250 to $10,000.
The Town of Canmore has also brought in a program for residents who need to clean up fruit-bearing trees cleaned, and it offers a Voluntary Fruit Tree Removal Incentive Program.
Sally Beetham Tilley of Bragg Creek Wild said they’re not promoting any kind of bylaw for Bragg Creek to Rocky View County – yet.
“That’s something we have to discuss – we haven’t got there yet,” she said.
De Ruyter said asking people to clean up or even cut down their fruit trees is not a lot to ask.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I love mountain biking’ or ‘I love wildlife’ but they would never change their own behaviour for the benefit of wildlife,” he said. “We don’t have to sacrifice everything, it’s just making smart choices, not being lazy, and doing the right thing and following the rules so we can coexist.”
People who walk dogs off-leash in wildlife-prone areas like Bragg Creek are just asking for trouble, according to de Ruyter.
“The bear, minding its own business, could feel threatened, but if the dog is on a leash, the bear has the chance to either remain still or run away,” he said, adding if the bear decides to chase the dog, it will likely end badly.
“If the dog is scared, where does it go? Back to its owner with an angry bear in tow.”
A 2016 study of data from 1955 to 2014 in North America and Europe found that walking a dog unleashed was the second most common human behaviour associated with bear attacks.
Redwood Meadows Townsite councillor Mike Decore told the crowd about some bear management measures taken in that nearby community.
In 2018, he said the Townsite recorded 11 human-bear interactions. Ten black bears attracted by garbage were trapped in and around Redwood Meadows and relocated by Alberta Fish and Wildlife personnel over 10 days in late August and early September.
Since then, stepped-up bylaw enforcement by the Townsite has meant off-leash and garbage infractions have been reduced. Dogs must be on leash and residents cannot put garbage out the night before curbside pick-up.
Redwood Meadows has also been working on education in conjunction with Bragg Creek Wild, and bear sightings in the townsite have gone down significantly. Decore said they’ve had no bear-human interactions in 2022.
Even with that recent success, Decore said there was push-back to the increased enforcement from some community members.
“There’s still people in town who don’t want us to do what we’ve been doing,” he said.
But council is pushing ahead anyway, he added.
“Not to sound egotistical, but we want to be a success story.”
There is a wide variety in approaches to bear conflicts across North America. Random encounters may lead to voluntary community measures aimed at better garbage management. Then as conflicts escalate or increase in number, more serious policies are considered.
As is now the case in Canmore, Town officials brought in bylaws with fines attached, to enforce bear-smart behaviours.
It may take a serious encounter – or a tragedy – to trigger action. In fact, it was the death of Isabelle Dube near Canmore in 2005 that provided the push to create WildSmart. Dube was killed by a grizzly bear that had been relocated out of the region a week earlier.
She was running with two friends on a hiking trail near a golf course. They rounded a bend and saw the bear about 20 to 25 metres ahead of them on the same path. Dube chose to climb a tree, but was pulled down by the 198-pound grizzly. The bear was later shot and killed by wildlife officers.
Multiple factors – including a buffaloberry shortage as a result of the hot and dry weather experienced this summer – have led to an uptick in bear-human interactions across Alberta in 2022.
On Sept. 11 this year, a sow grizzly bear was relocated by wildlife officers after livestock was reportedly killed at an undisclosed feedlot southeast of Sundre.
On Sept. 16, three black bear cubs scampered through the back door of a downtown Canmore restaurant and wolfed down bags of brown sugar while the mom waited outside. The bears were relocated the next day to an area west of Caroline, about 200 kilometres northeast of Canmore.
De Ruyter noted in his talk that research shows relocations are only successful 30 per cent of the time.
WildSmart is a part of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, a local non-profit, charitable organization that specializes in providing expertise on human-wildlife coexistence and environmental stewardship.
The Alberta Bear Smart Program website provides additional information on living with bears. Dangerous wildlife can be reported through the 24-hour “Report A Poacher” line at 1-800-642-3800.