Humans and animals need not sit on opposite sides of the proverbial fence

(This story originally appeared in the Fall, 2001 issue of Mountain Life Magazine)

By John Geary

As the pressures of modern society increase at the same time as our globe shrinks, increasing numbers of people seek ways to slow down that pace. They desire peace and quiet, a place they can retreat to in order to relax, unwind and restore their spirits.

To many, mountain communities represent a sanctuary that can fulfill that desire. Away from the noise and pace of the city, we can relax, reconnect with nature, sooth our urban-ravaged souls and live a saner, less hectic lifestyle.

Yet this desire to reconnect with nature has ramifications that many people do not consider. With numbers of residents and visitors to mountain communities increasing, wildlife populations already under stress from reduced habitat and increased encounters with humans face additional strain.

As human activity in places like the Bow Valley, the Kootenays and the mountain parks increases, the occurrence of wildlife-human encounters also increases. As those encounters increase, the chances they can produce negative, even sometimes fatal results, also increase.

Last winter, a cougar killed a woman cross-country skiing on Banff's Minnewanka trail. Last summer, a grizzly attacked a human at the Canmore Nordic centre. This past summer, Banff park staff had to deal with a human-habituated wolf killing a domestic pet within the town site.

Focusing on isolated incidents like those can create a skewed picture, however. While some unfortunate encounters do occur, there are many other encounters that do not result in human or animal tragedy. Still, action is needed to ensure they do not increase further. Wildlife managers throughout the Rocky Mountains are taking steps to develop and improve the ways people co-exist with wildlife.

"People like to focus on problems with respect to human-wildlife conflict, and talk about the things that aren't working," says Kevin Van Tighem, manager of the ecosystem secretariat in Jasper, "but it's worth noting the things that have gone well.

"For example, bears are in great shape now compared to what they 10 or 15 years ago, because of some initiatives we've taken."

In the 1970's, a high number of park bears were being killed as a result of improper garbage handling in mountain park communities.

"Bears were quite habituated to our open garbage dumps and minimalistic garbage handling facilities," says Van Tighem. "Basically, we had 'bear-feeders' scattered throughout the communities.

"In Jasper, grizzlies concentrated in the Athabasca Valley because they were locked in on the dump. We had road kills associated with that.

"A lot of things were not going well in bear country."

In the early 1980's, the use of electrified fences around dumps and better solid waste treatment approaches eliminated some of the problems associated with bears and garbage dumps.

"We also brought bear-proof garbage containers," says Van Tighem. "It was a very expensive system to implement, but we now have bears that are using primarily natural foods, so the number of conflicts - and number of dead bears - is way down.

"It's a real conservation success story."

The town of Canmore recently repeated that success, implementing the use of bear-proof bins in 1999.

"In 1998, we had a huge number of incidents of bears getting into garbage," says Clark Merriman, an Alberta conservation officer in the Ghost-Canmore district. "There were no injuries or attacks, but there were many potentially dangerous situations, with bears getting onto decks, into garages. That, combined with a failed berry crop, led to 300 incidents involving about 30 bears in and around the town site.

"Those have been mitigated by using the bins."

Further evidence of the success of that simple approach was provided by increased incidents in other nearby communities. As soon as the Canmore incidents dropped, communities without bear-proof bins, like Exshaw and Lac des Arc, experienced an increase in incidents.

In other words, the bears moved from salad bar to another.

"Bears are not much different from humans," says Merriman. "If I could go into a place where I could eat for free, I'd do so until someone chased me off. When they chased me off, I'd go to the next one."

Since then, bear encounters, for the most part, have decreased in Canmore.

"With the exception of last year (the attacks at the Nordic Centre and near Nakiska, both by the same female grizzly with cubs), we haven't had any serious attacks in or immediately around Canmore."

These examples of humans taking action rather than expecting wildlife to adapt demonstrate a reversal of the way in which we deal with wildlife issues. In the past, we would remove the wildlife, either by re-locating it or, in the extreme, by eliminating it. That proved to be only a short-term solution, however. Re-located animals sometimes returned. If they did not, eventually some other animal would take their place, and the cycle would begin anew.

Re-location to a more remote area does not necessarily mean the risk to humans has been eliminated, either.

"If an animal is habituated as a result of being around humans within a residential community, we can't just take it out and let it loose in the wild," says Richard Hoar, an officer with the B.C. Conservation Service in Invermere. "If that animal then encounters a human in the backcountry, that habituated animal will act like it did in the area from which we removed it. A hiker unaware of that is not in a safe situation."

Re-locating the animal is also no guarantee of safety for the animal, either.

"B.C. conservation officers put a lot of effort into re-locating bears, when absolutely necessary," says John Wieczorek, provincial co-ordinator for the B.C. Conservation Foundation's Bear Aware Program. "But there is a huge cost associated with that, not only in terms of human dollars.

"

When you move a bear from Area A to Area B, odds are, there's already a bear in that area.

That can cause hardship for both bears, creating conflict and problems in the search for food."

Managers in the national parks now view the situation of urban wildlife in mountain communities as much a human management issue as it is an animal management issue.

"We leave direct intervention on the animal as a last resort," says Glen Peers, a human-wildlife conflict specialist in Banff. "If you look at the stats for our bear handlings, the numbers have gone way down in the past decade.

"But our hours of effort per individual incident has gone up, which means we're dedicating more time, being far more proactive in our approach."

Garbage is not the only wildlife attractant. Certain types of fruit trees, compost bins, even backyard barbecues all have the potential to attract wildlife into residential areas.

Those are all human elements. Another element that can have a strong influence on the presence of wildlife within a residential area is the presence of other wildlife. More specifically, prey species in a community can attract more dangerous predator species.

Deer, sheep and elk all feel comfortable within town sites. Although those are wildlife elements that may attract bears, wolves and cougars, as opposed to human elements, they are also there as a result of human activity.

Van Tighem says we have created a situation where town sites are more desirable than wilderness.

"If you're an elk, two things are important to you: finding good food and avoiding predators. In the past, any place that held people was another place that held predators. We were predators like bears, wolves and cougars, so ungulates avoided us.

"Since then, there've been changes. In protected areas, we've ceased to be predators. Ungulates recognize this, and so they don't need to avoid us. Other predators do avoid us, so it's safer for prey species to be around us.

"In addition to that, in the communities we've built, we've poured in Kentucky bluegrass, watered our shrubs, and created some very high quality forage.

"It's inevitable these animals are going to turn up in town."

Attracting predators that are normally wary around humans, but are drawn by their search for food, is only one aspect of the problem. Elk, in particular, can pose a problem by themselves, whether they attract predators or not.

In the early 1990s, Banff park staff recognized the growing public safety problems elk represented.

"We were averaging seven contact charges a year up until last year, and roughly 120 aggressive incidents a year," says Peers.

Aggressive incidents range from posturing to bluff charges to charges that result in actual physical contact with people.

"The town site was a predator-free area for them, and they were using it to avoid predators as well as a source of good food. So we had more elk than we should have had, and they didn't mix that well with the amount of people we had here."

The park entered into an extensive elk management program that included a three-year research program.

"The public safety part of the equation is the effect, but the cause is the larger ecological issue," says Peers. "Short-term solutions solve the public safety issues, but the longer-term solutions have to address the ecological issues. The last few years, we've been re-locating elk, hazing them, using aversive conditioning to get them to leave.

"Those efforts have been quite successful, as we went down to zero contact charges in 2000."

As of the end of July, Banff had recorded no contact charges by elks this past summer, either.

They still have some presence in the town site, though, and as long as they live there, there still exists the potential for attracting predators that might otherwise avoid the town.

A wolf pack recently established a territory just northeast of the Banff town site. Last winter, the pack killed an elk at the town recreation grounds. Familiarity with the town site in that type of situation can contribute to new problems later on, like a situation the park had to deal with in late July.

A lone sub-adult wolf, apparently ostracized and picked on by the pack, but already habituated to the town's environment, began making forays into Banff's periphery areas. It killed a pet dog, which is not an unusual situation in terms of wolf behavior.

"What people have to understand is that wolves kill other wolves, it's part of what they do," says Peers. "A dog is just another canid to them."

That means a wolf or wolves encountering a domestic dog may view it as a threat to their territory, or may attack it as a food source, as they would a strange wolf or coyote in the wild.

"Any wolf that shows that level of habituation is a major concern to us," says the human-wildlife conflict specialist. "Because a wolf comes into town and kills a dog, that does not mean it will automatically attack another dog - or a human being - the next time it encounters one in town.

"But at the same time, this animal's willingness to be in and around the town site is of great concern to us."

Peers points out that people living in mountain communities should be a little more aware and cautious about letting their pets out at night.

"They shouldn't be surprised if something happens. You're putting a domestic animal in front of an opportunistic predator that will take advantage of an easy meal."

Even prey species can represent a danger to pets in certain circumstances.

In Waterton National Park, deer and sheep are the main wild species that spend significant amounts of time in the town site.

"We do have some concerns regarding doe mule deer, from early June to late July," says Waterton park warden Keith McDougall. "When they have new fawns at that time of year, they can be quite aggressive toward dogs, which they perceive to be predators."

Like the elk in Banff and Jasper, the deer do occasionally attract predators into the small park community.

"Cougars used to be drawn into town, and are still drawn in occasionally, because there is a cougar-deer affiliation. It hasn't been a problem in recent years, though.

"They used to get under a porch or under a house, but we did a big campaign about five years ago to get people to fence or enclose places cougars could get into. New places that are built now include design features to eliminate that type of situation from developing.

"That seems to have made quite a difference."

Building houses in such a way to eliminate potential problems is another example of people adapting to live with wildlife, rather than expecting wildlife to adapt to us. That approach is crucial if we are to continue to live with wildlife.

"If we're going to have these communities and we want them to be connected to the landscape, integrated rather than in opposition to the landscape, we need to figure out what the ecological dynamics are, then make some adjustments around that," says Van Tighem.

"The real challenge lies in learning how to live in these landscapes. Part of the way to meet that challenge is to create ecological literacy."

Certainly, public education about wildlife has increased in leaps and bounds. However, it is an ongoing, often difficult, sometimes frustrating process.

One of the first facts people need to realize and accept is that wildlife desires the same living space humans desire. The same features that humans find so attractive - rivers, wetlands, lush valleys, forests - also attract wildlife. By deciding to live in areas like the Bow Valley, we are going to encounter wildlife.

Those habitats are not restricted to communities in the national parks. As communities outside the parks, towns like Invermere, Fernie, Kimberley, continue to grow, it stands to reason encounters with wildlife will also increase.

"They're located along rivers, riparian corridors, which are good feeding grounds for bears and other animals," says Wieczorek. "Because of that, the animals do wander through there, and instead of the usual wilderness vegetation, they find homes and gardens.

"As more people move out into wilder areas, there are more interactions, and definitely more of a potential for conflict, as human population increases and animals become more habituated to people."

When implementing public education programs, conservation officers and wildlife managers in Alberta and B.C. find themselves dealing with several different categories of people.

"We have a number of audiences: our own senior management, media, local residents, regional visitors and national and international visitors," Banff's Glen Peers says. "Even within our local audience, we have different groups: at one end, there are long-term residents; at the other, there are seasonal employees in the town, some of them unfamiliar with wilderness environments.

"We've come a long way, but we're always looking to improve."

"The B.C. mountain communities are growing very rapidly, so the demographics are changing," echoes Jennifer Newman, organizer of a Bear Aware program in Golden. "You try to educate the public, and it's such a hard thing to do because there is such a variety of different people.

"It's hard to know who your audience is."

Richard Hoar identifies two main groups at which wildlife education is targeted: residents and visitors.

"Residents are usually quite aware of the local wildlife situations and are easy to deal with," the B.C. conservation officer says. "Tourists create our greatest workload.

"We have to try to educate them as quickly as possible. We don't know how much they know before they arrive. Some know a lot, while others know very little about wildlife.

"Many people coming from cities have little experience with wildlife. They step out here and don't realize once they're out here, they can become part of a predator-prey relationship. That awareness comes if they pick up info or are with a friend who knows about wildlife.

"The residents understand a lot of that stuff, because we can put out info to them in the local papers, but that won't necessarily reach visitors."

Every year at the start of the tourist season, the blitz resumes to try to get information to visitors.

"We try to get materials like pamphlets into high-contact areas, like visitor centres and major resort areas," says Hoar. "We're also looking at ways to try to contact tour groups."

It is just as important, or perhaps even more important from a residents' perspective, that visitors to mountain communities are educated just as much as those who live there permanently. An unknowledgeable visitor may unwittingly create a dangerous situation then leave the area without having to deal with the consequences. Later visitors or permanent residents may be left to deal with the consequences of that first visitor's actions.

Residents are not completely innocent of undesirable behavior, of course. New residents in particular can be unaware of behavior that is undesirable in terms of living with wildlife.

To avoid these situations within mountain communities, a proactive approach is needed to eliminate the circumstances that could create such situations before they become a problem. Education provides a base from which to develop preferred human behavior.

"That's the number one issue: education, and changing our mindset," says Merriman. "We have to develop the type of attitude, where people think, 'As a resident of Canmore, I have certain rights and privileges in using the adjacent wildland areas - but my rights and privileges don't override those of the wildlife.'

"So if a grizzly is feeding in an area near a popular hiking trail, the fact that the bear is there should be enough to influence people to voluntarily find another area in which to hike. If people take the attitude, 'I have as much right to be here as the bear,' and they push the issue and provoke an incident, their safety is at risk, and the bear's safety is at risk.

"In my mind, those are unnecessary risks."

Peers says people who choose to live in mountain communities do have to take responsibility for their actions and decisions.

"With the events of the last year, the locals are somewhat heightened to the fact that they're living in a wild world," he says. "There is an onus on the people who live in a park community that it is different here.

"We're not in the business of guaranteeing total safety for everybody all the time. We'll do our best but there is some onus on people who live and visit here."

Van Tighem says residents faced with that onus do have a choice to make, and that choice will decide the future of wildlife in the mountains.

"If these communities are going to work, if we're going to avoid these wildlife-human conflicts, we've got to stop thinking of the wildlife as a problem and start thinking about the nature of these animals, the eco-dynamics, then use our human strengths - intelligence, humility, creativity - to figure out how we can best co-exist," he says.

"If we're going to live in the best habitat, there are going to be one of two consequences: we're either going to co-exist with wildlife and they're going to have a future; or we're going to displace them and they won't have a future.

"The first option is rich with opportunities; the second one promises a huge poverty of the soul."