Bears in the Mountain National Parks
Our relationship with bears has changed over time, with both good and bad results. Today, we work with partners from around the world to be leaders in bear management, finding solutions—both simple and complex—to protect both bears and people in our mountain parks.
Protecting People Zones
Hamlet of Lake Louise in Banff National Park
The Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks are places for people and for wildlife. Bear management here involves ensuring people can safely see bears in their natural habitat, learn about them, and be inspired to support their conservation. Our wildlife specialists have a number of tools on hand to do just that.
Seeing a bear in the wild is a memory that visitors to the national parks will cherish for a long time.
Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists and Bear and Wildlife Guardians who manage bear jams help motorists have safe viewing opportunities. One hard and fast rule: never leave the pavement to view a roadside bear or any wildlife.
Bears foraging on plants along park highways are not tame. These bears may tolerate vehicles and people at close distances, but only because they need the roadside food to survive. People who approach a roadside bear put not only the bear at risk, they jeopardize their own safety and the safety of others. Bear jams (traffic jams caused by people viewing roadside bears) also create a traffic hazard. People have sustained injuries from being hit by vehicles at bear jams.
Why is it harmful for a bear to be roadside?
Bears in the mountain parks have to make use of the best habitat available. During the short summer growing season, this habitat is often in valley bottoms along roadsides, where the openness and sunshine allow plants like dandelions to flourish. Repeated exposure to vehicles and people may cause bears to become habituated and their wariness of people may decrease. Bears that frequent roadsides are also at a greater risk of being struck and killed by passing vehicles.
During the short summer growing season, this habitat is often in valley bottoms along roadsides, where the openness and sunshine allow plants like dandelions to flourish.
Hazing is a management technique wildlife specialists use to immediately modify an animal’s undesirable behaviour. If crowd control isn’t enough and a bear’s roadside presence is creating an unsafe situation for the bear or for people, wildlife specialists may use deterrents to haze the bear away from the roadside and into adjacent forest cover.
Does hazing harm the bear?
No. Wildlife specialists use deterrents like noise makers, rubber bullets, and beanbags to give the bear a negative experience that it will associate with people. The bear is not harmed, but a rubber bullet does hurt. This teaches a bear to avoid people and busy roadsides. The bear learns to feed roadside at night or to move into cover when people are around. Such wary behaviour helps bears survive.
Habituation starts slowly, but through constant, repeated exposure to people at bear jams and elsewhere, it can rapidly progress until bears become increasingly bold and fearless of people. It can be a dangerous situation for both bears and people.
These bears run the risk of becoming "problem" bears that enter townsites and campgrounds.
These bears run the risk of becoming "problem" bears that enter townsites and campgrounds, places they are more likely to be fed (illegally) or rewarded with improperly stored garbage or pet food. A bear that associates people, vehicles or facilities with food is well on its way to becoming a threat to public safety.
How can you help?
If you see a bear by the road ... slow down and consider not stopping. Bears need to forage undisturbed in order to gain enough fat to survive the winter. Your decision to drive by gives bears the space they need to make a living in this challenging landscape.
Wildlife crossing the road at dusk, like this grizzly bear family, may be hard to see. Drive with care!
At all times ...
- Observe and photograph bears from the safety of your car.
- Remain a respectful distance from the bear (at least 100 metres away).
- Never feed a bear.
If you stop ...
- Be aware of the traffic around you.
- Pull over where it is safe to do so.
- Use your hazard lights to alert other drivers.
- Stay in your vehicle.
- Watch for a few moments, take a quick photo, and then move on!
- If a traffic jam develops, move on. It is unsafe for people and bears.
What else is Parks Canada doing for roadside bears?
Wildlife fencing, electromats, crossing structures, seasonal travel restrictions, research and roving Bear and Wildlife Guardians are all helping to keep bears away from some of the busiest routes in the mountain parks. To learn more:
Electricity is a bear’s best friend. A bear might not think that when it gets a jolt from a brush against an electric fence or electromat, but in the long run, these hot-wired tools can save a bear’s life—not to mention a human’s.
Electric fences are used in the mountain parks to help encourage bears to stay away from people zones and facilities. A ski area, campground, waste treatment site, and backcountry outfitter camps all benefit from the added incentive a bit of electricity provides.
Lake Louise Ski Area
Lake Louise is a core area for a number of Banff National Park’s grizzly bears. It’s also a major tourist destination. The Lake Louise Ski Area is a part of the draw. During the summer, a sightseeing gondola takes thousands of tourists up the mountainside for breathtaking views and a chance to see wildlife. The ski runs turn lush with vegetation, attracting both grizzly and black bears. To help keep people and bears apart, an electric fence was built around the base of the summer gondola operation and parking lot in 2001.
To help keep people and bears apart, an electric fence was built around the base of the summer gondola operation and parking lot in 2001.© Lake Louise Ski Area Ltd.
Lake Louise Campground
The combination of human development and the mountain terrain forces wildlife to move closer to people in some places. This is the case at the Lake Louise campground. A steep slope on the western edge of the 220-site tenting area leads bears to travel along the campground’s boundary as they try to bypass the community.
In 2001 and 2002, camping was restricted to hard-sided vehicles only due to significant bear activity in the area and a history of bear-human conflicts in the tenting section. In 2002, an innovative alternative to closing the tenting section was piloted: electric fencing was set up around ten “test” tent sites.
Following stakeholder consultation and a safety assessment, 2.8 km of permanent electric fencing was installed around the tenting section in 2003, enclosing an area of 26.6 ha.
Campground staff patrol the fence each day to ensure it is working properly. Wildlife specialists respond to any intrusion alarms and are responsible for troubleshooting any issues that may arise while the fence is energized. During the winter when the tenting site is closed, the electric fence is turned off and all gates are opened to allow unrestricted wildlife and human movement through the area.
Special design considerations of the electric fence include:
- 1.5 m high, 8-strand, high tensile electric fence
- 7000 volts with low current = an unpleasant shock with no lasting effects
- non-electrified fencing extending into the Bow River to prevent bears from gaining riverside access to the campground
- 10 pedestrian gates, 4 chase-out gates and 1 electrified cattleguard provide human access into the campground and exit points for any wildlife that may end up on the wrong side of the fence
- low-voltage alarm alerting staff to malfunctions or intrusions
- signs with international symbols to alert visitors to the electric fence
- 120V fence charger with built-in performance meters
Electric fence charger.
Fence extension into the Bow River, Lake Louise campground.
Electric fence cattleguard at the Lake Louise tent campground.
Female grizzly #72 has shown increasing comfort foraging adjacent to the electric fence. She sets the limits of how close she and her offspring come to visitors inside the fence. This contradicts current public information on safe viewing distances, and presents new challenges in managing bear habituation in Lake Louise.
Does it work? The Lake Louise campground electric fence:
- safely guides bears around the tenting area as they travel through the valley bottom
- makes the terrain more predictable for bears, enhancing both bear and public safety
- prevents bears from being attracted into the campground to search for food
- enables consistent tenting opportunities, now that repeat closures are a thing of the past
- provides a low cost, low maintenance alternative to closures
- challenges existing approaches to reducing bear habituation
- allows bears and people to continue to share this landscape
Learn more about the electric fence and how to safely tent at the Lake Louise campground. (PDF, 246 KB)
An electromat has been installed in a section of Highway 93 North in Banff National Park, near the junction with the Trans-Canada Highway. This electric equivalent to a Texas Gate delivers a discouraging, but not harmful, electric jolt to any paws or hooves that step on it. It does not affect vehicles travelling over it. The electromat is being tested to see how effective it is at keeping animals like bears from gaining access to the fenced Trans-Canada Highway from human overpasses and road junctions.
Electromat on Highway 93 North, Banff National Park.
What happens when deer, elk and moose are struck and killed on park highways, attracting predators like bears and wolves to roadsides? A serious risk to people and animal safety can quickly unfold. In the past, park staff removed roadkill carcasses to prevent any negative outcomes. Now, a program is underway in the mountain parks that allows bears and other wildlife access to this food source, safely away from human presence.
In the past, park staff removed roadkill carcasses. Now, a program is underway that allows bears and other wildlife access to this food source safely.
What is diversionary feeding?
If you have spent time driving through the mountain parks, chances are you have seen it: a dead animal lying on the side of the road, a victim of a vehicle strike. Diversionary feeding is a program where roadkill carcasses are airlifted to ridgetops in the early spring to provide an additional food source for bears and to try to keep bears out of the busy valley bottoms for a little while longer.
Diversionary feeding achieves three objectives:
- Roadkill carcasses are not wasted, but literally “fed” back into the ecosystem.
- Bears have access to much-needed calories in the spring when they are food-stressed that might keep them from venturing into people zones in search of a meal.
- Public safety is maintained by keeping distance between people and a bear defending a carcass.
Roadkilled moose and deer airlifted to a feeding site away from the valley bottom.
How does it work?
- Roadkill is collected throughout the winter and saved in culvert traps in a secure location until the spring, when bears are hungry and natural foods are in short supply.
- Carcasses are flown a few kilometres away to lure bears out of the valley bottoms.
- Drop sites are monitored with the aid of infrared cameras. This image proves the success of the program.
Carcass management 365 days a year
Springtime diversionary feeding is part of a larger carcass management program that Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists run throughout the year. Hundreds of carcasses are relocated to less busy areas of the main valleys so that people stay safe while predators get natural nutrition that is being diverted from landfills and cycled back into the environment.
Grizzly bear enjoying a roadkill meal away from human disturbance.
Garbage is a big deal. In fact, it gets a lot of attention from Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists. When it comes to wildlife issues in park communities, garbage—and how to handle it—is a top priority.
Residents, businesses, restaurants, hotels, and millions of visitors each year generate mounds of garbage and food waste in the park communities of Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise and Field. When it comes to dealing with garbage in the middle of bear habitat, you have to get it right: bear-proof waste management is essential to the safety of people and the protection of bears and other wildlife.
Getting it right has been a long journey. It wasn’t that long ago when people in the parks made an outing of going to the local garbage dump to watch the dozens of bears who gathered for their daily meal. It didn’t take long for bears to acquire a taste for human food and memorize where they could get it.
Black bears at the Banff garbage dump were a major tourist attraction in the 1940s and 1950s. © Gowen, Sutton Co. Ltd. Vancouver, BC /Malins Collection
“Garbage bears” soon became “nuisance bears”. From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, culvert traps were used frequently to relocate garbage-conditioned bears away from park towns. These bears often returned, and repeat offenders were usually destroyed.
Although many improvements have been made since then in how we manage waste, bears that become conditioned to unnatural foods like garbage remain a serious concern.
In 2008, black bear #133 got into garbage left on a porch in Banff. He liked what he found, and made several appearances in town searching out garbage in residences and businesses, as well as crabapples from backyard fruit trees.
Despite the best efforts of Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists to reverse his behaviour, bear #133 couldn’t be rehabilitated and was destroyed because he became too much of a risk to public safety.
The serious consequences of poorly managed garbage and attractants has led Parks Canada and community leaders to take a hard stance on waste management. These are some of the initiatives in the mountain parks that are showing positive results:
- Local garbage dumps were closed in the 1970s and 1980s.
- Garbage is regularly collected and stored in secure transfer sites until it is shipped to regional landfills located outside of the parks.
- Bear-proof garbage bins designed by Haul-All Equipment are used throughout the parks.
- Park staff conduct regular bin inspections and maintenance.
- Bear-proof recycling and composting programs reduce the amount of garbage generated. Recycling programs are offered in some of the larger park campgrounds.
- Park staff routinely check campgrounds and day use areas to ensure that food, garbage, and other bear attractants are securely stored.
- Education is a priority to ensure park staff, residents, business operators and visitors know how vital it is to properly manage garbage.
- Proper waste management is a legal requirement under both community and National Parks Act regulations and is actively monitored and enforced.
The old way: bear-friendly park garbage can.
The new way: people-friendly, bear-proof garbage bin.
Bear-proof waste management is a team effort that requires Parks Canada, park municipalities, residents, businesses and visitors to work together to stop the loss of wildlife due to food-conditioning. The easiest way we can help protect both bears and people is simple: keep garbage or human food out of the reach of bears.
Recycling van in Jasper National Park.
Learn more: Town of Banff and Municipality of Jasper
Having an abundance of natural vegetation in a national park is usually a good thing. But when vegetation plays a role in heightening the risk of a negative encounter between people and bears, some form of modification is required.
Pruning a bit of growth to improve sightlines along trails and removing natural food sources from high human use areas are two examples where a little vegetation goes a long way in helping bears and people share the land.
Improving sightlines involves thinning shrubs and small trees beside trails to make it possible to see what’s coming around the bend. This gives people and bears a greater ability to detect each other’s presence and avoid a close, surprise encounter.
Sightline improvements have been made in many areas of the parks that experience heavy use by both people and bears. If you hike in the Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, Lake Minnewanka or Bryant Creek areas of Banff National Park, for example, take a look around and notice how far you can see down the trail.
Sudden surprise encounters between people and bears are the main circumstance associated with grizzly bear inflicted injuries to people. Improving visibility on high use trails frequented by wildlife such as bears may reduce the element of surprise and a potentially harmful encounter.
Example of sightline improvements:
Removing Buffaloberry Bushes
While human food rewards can be a big incentive for bears to forego their wary behaviour and enter people zones, natural foods can do the same thing. One type of vegetation modification that has proven quite effective has been the removal of a natural food source—buffaloberries—from high use human areas like campgrounds.
Buffaloberry is the single most important source of calories for bears as they enter hyperphagia, a period of intense eating where bears forage around the clock to put on fat for the winter. Bears can devour more than 200,000 berries in a day. Having a good berry year can make or break a bear’s ability to den up, have healthy cubs, and emerge in good shape in the spring.
In the mountain parks, buffaloberry season typically runs from mid-July to September. The bushes thrive in open areas and along the edges of trails, meadows, water courses, and human development. We need to be particularly aware of our surroundings and careful to avoid a bear encounter during berry season.
Because buffaloberries are so important to bears, removing bushes is only done in people areas where bears really shouldn’t be and where the risk of a bear-human encounter is high.
The removal of bushes from the Two Jack and Rampart Creek campgrounds in Banff National Park, the Wabasso campground in Jasper National Park, and the Marble Canyon campground in Kootenay National Park are examples of where this strategy has been successful at reducing bears in the campsites. It is labour intensive, though, as bushes have to be cut for successive growing seasons to make a difference. The end result of safer people and bears is worth the effort.
Changing what we do as humans can go a long way in helping us share the land safely with bears. Sometimes managing human actions alone is not enough. Aversive conditioning is one tool wildlife specialists use if it is the bear’s actions that need a tune-up.
What is aversive conditioning?
Aversive conditioning is a structured program in which deterrents are used on a bear to modify its behaviour. In order to send a consistent message to the bear, deterrents (noise makers, beanbags, rubber bullets) are used each and every time the bear performs an undesirable action. If aversive conditioning is used continually and consistently over a set period of time, the bear will start to identify its action with an unpleasant outcome, and will be less likely to continue that behaviour.
Why is it used?
A bear that has to navigate around people to make a living will sometimes push the boundaries and cross over into people zones (communities, campgrounds, picnic areas, trails, roads or railways). Aversive conditioning can be effective in teaching bears to stay out of these areas and in modifying undesirable behaviour like bluff-charging people or vehicles along roads.
This is where a bear learns to associate people and facilities with a food reward. Aversive conditioning may be able to modify a food-conditioned bear’s behaviour if the behaviour is stopped right away.
If bears pass through people zones and find food such as garbage, picnic lunches, pet food or grain, they may become food-conditioned. This is where a bear learns to associate people and facilities with a food reward. Aversive conditioning may be able to modify a food-conditioned bear’s behaviour if the behaviour is stopped right away. Unfortunately, food-conditioned bears are not usually good candidates for aversive conditioning; it can only take one food reward for a wild and wary bear to become a ‘problem’ bear.
Food-conditioned bears may end up being destroyed as a public safety risk and lost from the ecosystem. In the mountain parks, every effort is made to keep a bear from this fate. A grizzly bear destruction here happens on average once every fifteen years—a low number compared to other places, but one we can eliminate if we all pitch in and keep our food and garbage away from bears.
How does it work?
- To start, an aversive conditioning plan is drafted outlining the behaviour modification techniques to be used and a strategy to teach the bear what it needs to learn (e.g., that people zones are off-limits).
- The bear is captured and chemically immobilized. Wildlife specialists examine and weigh the bear, and attach an ear tag and radio collar. The collar will allow park staff to closely monitor the bear’s location, while the ear tag allows quick visual identification.
- While the bear recovers from the immobilization drugs, wildlife specialists prepare to do a hard release at the site where the bear got into trouble. Several park staff are enlisted and precautions for bear and human safety are outlined. Some staff wear street clothes, as bears learn to avoid uniformed staff and park vehicles.
- During the hard release, the area is closed to the public to ensure safety. The bear is released under extremely negative conditions. Park staff holler at the bear to add the human voice to the mayhem created by noise makers. Beanbag rounds and rubber bullets also deliver a painful stimulus to teach the bear that this is a bad place to be.
- As soon as the bear leaves the people zone and crosses into its natural habitat (e.g., nearby forest cover), all conditioning actions stop. This reinforces the boundaries and teaches the bear that it is safe to be outside the people zone, but not in it.
- The bear is monitored closely (ideally, 24 hours a day for 3 to 7 days). Any undesirable behaviour will immediately result in an aversive conditioning ‘refresher’ course.
Wildlife specialist examining an immobilized grizzly bear, Banff National Park.
Is it successful?
Aversive conditioning takes a lot of time, dedication, and consistency on the part of park staff. When the management decision is made to destroy a bear like #8, the public often isn’t aware of the magnitude of the effort that goes into trying to prevent such an outcome.
Since its introduction in Banff National Park in 1991, aversive conditioning has been used numerous times with varying results. To be effective, aversive conditioning must be applied in a consistent and sustainable manner at the onset of the undesirable behaviour. Results also depend on a bear’s personality, how long a bear has been exhibiting the undesirable behaviour, and, in the case of a food-conditioned bear, how close it will come to people to gain a food reward. Not all bears are suitable candidates and this costly, resource-intensive technique does not always work. The end result may be the rare case where the bear becomes too great of a safety risk and has to be destroyed.
How you can help
It is a serious offence to feed, entice, or harass bears and other wildlife in the national parks.
Never let a bear get human food or garbage
Take a few minutes to bear-proof your campsite
If you see a bear in the campground...
Grizzly #8: A Case Study
Grizzly bear #8 was the six-year old male offspring of well-known Lake Louise bear #72. He was raised in the main valley bottom near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. His mother, a valuable reproductive female grizzly, is tolerant of people and has found a niche in the habitat surrounding Lake Louise where she raises successive litters of young.
Grizzly bear #8, September 27, 2011 © Parks Canada/A. Taylor
As an independent sub-adult, #8 became increasingly used to being near people. He was a frequent visitor to the rail yard in the community of Field in Yoho National Park, campgrounds in Kootenay National Park, and facilities in Lake Louise. His demise began when he received his first food reward. Incidents of #8 obtaining human food were recorded three times. Roadside bear jams often involved #8, who learned to bluff-charge vehicles and people.
After he had developed a lengthy rap sheet of coming too close to people and facilities, #8 was trapped and fitted with an ear tag and radio collar. In the summer of 2011, he spent a lot of time in and around the communities of Lake Louise and Field. Countless hours were spent by wildlife specialists monitoring his whereabouts and keeping him out of harm’s way. In August, he was subjected to a seven-day aversive conditioning program to try to modify his food-conditioned behaviour. At first, Grizzly #8 seemed to have gotten the message and stayed away from people, but this behaviour was short-lived. The pull of the human food reward was too strong. His testing and aggressive behaviour escalated.
It’s September, and Grizzly #8 trees two hikers and obtains food from their packs. Wildlife specialists close the area. Two staff are dedicated to following #8 closely to ensure public safety. The bear exhibits aggression toward the wildlife specialists.
Parks Canada managers meet to discuss options. They can leave him where he is, relocate him to another location within his home range, translocate him outside of the territory he knows, or move him to a zoo-like facility. After much deliberation and consultation with experts, it is decided that given the nature of the bear’s behaviour and the risk to public safety, the unfortunate but necessary action to destroy the bear has to be taken.
After three years and hundreds of hours dedicated to keeping this bear on the landscape, it is with heavy hearts that wildlife specialists trap #8 for the last time on the CPR tracks near Lake Louise at the end of September.