Banff National Park hosts up to three million visitors annually. The Trans-Canada
Highway, and the Bow Valley and Icefield Parkways funnel high volumes of vehicles
through prime bear habitat in valley bottoms. Important food sources, such
as emerging vegetation in spring, and berry bushes in late summer, mature
first at these lower elevations. These plants attract bears roadside. Adolescent
bears and adult females tend to be most willing to tolerate human presence
to gain access to food resources, possibly to avoid dominant adult males who
typically occupy home ranges more remote from people. This young and reproductive
segment of the population is key to maintaining a healthy bear population.
They are often the bears visitors see roadside. They are bears at risk.
The sight of a bear at the side of the road quickly results in
a knot of traffic or ‘bear jam’ around the bear. With
high traffic volumes on park roadways, bear jams occur frequently
over the summer, often around the same bear. Bear jams expose visitors
to danger from traffic as well as from potential bear conflict.
Many visitors, unaware that these are wild animals that need space,
often get out of their vehicles and crowd closer and closer to the
bear for a picture. This creates an extremely dangerous situation
for both people and the bear!
With respect to the bear’s survival, the consequences of frequent ‘bear
jams’ are bears that become used to or habituated to people through
this constant, repeated exposure. This is a concern because it results in
a bear becoming bolder and bolder around people and human developments such
as campgrounds and townsites. The altered behaviour puts these bears at greater
risk of dying a human-caused death: they are run over on our highways, or
railway, or become public safety risks and are destroyed. The end result is
that bears are lost from the ecosystem. This human-caused mortality threatens
park and regional bear populations, especially grizzly populations as they
have a very low reproductive rate; the regional population cannot easily offset
an increased rate of death.