LAKE LOUISE – Parks Canada is trying to lure grizzly and black bears away from some of busier areas of Banff National Park in a bid to reduce encounters with people.
The federal agency is experimenting with small-scale habitat enhancements by logging small patches of dense forest near the Bow Valley Parkway to attract front-country bears to forage in those quieter, more secure backcountry areas in the coming years.
Wildlife experts say they will monitor how local bears use these patches with remote cameras and by tracking bears wearing GPS satellite collars, hoping these thinned forests provide an alternative food source to roadside dandelions or spilled grain on the railway tracks.
“We have bears that spend a lot of time in places that are close to high human-use areas or along roadways because there’s high quality food sources at specific times of the year, specifically in spring,” said Jon Stuart-Smith, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist for the Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.
“We have created small openings in the forest to create foraging opportunities for bears in the hopes they spend some time away from places where they may run a higher risk of negative encounters in our townsites, campgrounds, roadside – or risk of mortality.”
As part of the pilot project, the plan is to get GPS collars on at least four grizzly bears and four black bears so their movements can be accurately tracked across a large landscape.
So far, two grizzly bears and one male black bear have been captured in bait-laced culvert traps and fitted with GPS collars, which are programmed to give an animal’s location every hour.
The two grizzly bears include well-known mama bear 142, believed to be about 11 years old, and her three-year-old male offspring, now referred to as No. 171 since being captured and collared for the first time in May.
Bear 142 lost her other cub of this litter in April 2020 to Bear No. 136, nicknamed Split Lip for his disfigured mouth, who killed and ate it near Morant’s Curve along the Bow Valley Parkway.
A prominent bruin in the Lake Louise area, bear 142 caused some anxious moments in summer 2019 when she punched two holes in a tent trying to get a bag of oats that had been left inside.
Stuart-Smith said bear 142 and her offspring were specifically caught for this project because they use busy areas around Lake Louise and along the Bow Valley Parkway that bring them into close contact with people on a regular basis.
“No. 171 did show up this spring with 142, but she did give him the boot and he’s been out on his own for over a month,” he said. “These two bears seem to be perfect candidates for this type of project.”
The focus of this project moving forward will be to catch and collar female bears.
Stuart-Smith said female bears have smaller home ranges, but also tend to stay closer to human-dominated areas, especially when they have cubs in order to avoid larger male bears.
“If we do exclude some of these places from them, we want to know how they react and how they interact with other bears on the landscape, and whether they're able to utilize these patches,” he said.
“We don’t want to create additional problems in the bear population by pushing them away from human habituation, which is what female bears often do when they have offspring. We don’t want to exclude them from that foraging opportunity.”
To get this project off the ground, wildlife staff used GIS layers provided by the fRI Research Grizzly Bear Program and considered a series of environmental constraints to come up with the best locations for these small-scale habitat enhancements.
A contractor was then hired to cut down the lodgepole pine and spruce trees with chainsaws in February and March, an important time to get the work done to avoid the migratory bird and bat breeding season.
There are six habitat patches ranging in size from 0.5, one and 1.5 hectares in areas off the Bow Valley Parkway between Lake Louise and Castle Mountain.
Stuart-Smith said decades of fire suppressions in Banff National Park in the 1900s reduced foraging opportunities for many wildlife species, including bears, as forests grew thick and stamped out other bear foods likes grasses, forbs and berries.
“The over-storey of mature spruce and pine tress that have grown in after the last fire cycle have excluded things like grasses, forbs and shrubs from growing,” he said.
“By opening up the canopy, we allow the light to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of different species that rely on high light environments to thrive.”
It is also hoped the new habitat patches draw bears away from the nearby railway line, where bears like to eat spilled grain.
Since 2000, at least 15 grizzly bears have been killed on the train tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks, which is a significant blow to Banff’s population of about 60 grizzlies.
Researchers from the University of Alberta found approximately 110 tonnes of grain is spilled or trickled from trains across a 137-kilometre stretch of railway in Banff and Yoho each year – enough to feed 50 bears for an entire year.
“There’s unfortunately not a lot more that we can do from a Parks Canada perspective on the issue of grain attractants along the railway,” Stuart-Smith said.
“But if we can create some of these natural food sources for them, we hope that we can get them away from places like the railway as well.”
Stuart-Smith said it will take a few years to see results from this project, noting the collars on bears will give the wildlife team data on whether the animals are using the landscape in and around these patches.
If this approach works, he said Parks would also consider similar projects in places like Olive Lake in Kootenay National Park, where several bears emerge roadside every spring to feast on dandelions.
Stuart-Smith said Parks Canada is also thinking about ways to exclude bears from the unnatural food sources like dandelion patches or reclaimed areas that have turned into grassy fields.
“We’re also proposing we could take away some of these unnatural food sources, once we know we’ve been able to provide an alternative food source for them,” he said.
“We’d look at how we would exclude them from the roadside ditches, but the exclusion can also be things like managing those dandelions, or fencing certain areas.”
Other wildlife are also expected to take advantage of these small-scale habitat enhancements.
Stuart-Smith said remote cameras have been set up at the sites to see what's going on there.
“We have some bird monitoring units we’ve deployed in those patches and outside the patches so we can compare bird use and bird communities in these patches and see how that changes over time,” he said.
“While wanting to reduce conflicts with bears is a big part driving this project, it’s also about trying to manage the landscape for the ecology of all the species within the national parks.”