BANFF – A scared illegal camper huddled quietly inside his tent for about an hour as a black bear raided his unsecured food just a few metres away.
Charges are pending against the illegal camper, who called 911 just before midnight Wednesday (June 12) when he heard the bear eating his food outside his tent in the woods near Fireside day use area on the Bow Valley Parkway.
“The bear got into all his food – freeze dried, candy bars, high energy bars – so it was a substantial food reward and this bear is at risk of becoming food conditioned,” said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.
“Illegal camping just can’t happen in Banff National Park. It’s dangerous for visitors, it’s dangerous for wildlife and it puts other future visitors at risk if it’s causing food conditioning of bears.”
The area of Bow Valley Parkway where the unidentified man was illegally camped is also closed overnight at this time of year to provide space and security to wildlife, such as bears and wolves.
The camper, who was in Banff for the 2019 Tour Divide, a 4,417-kilometre ultra-endurance bike race from Banff to New Mexico, made no attempt to scare the bear away, but just sat quietly.
“He was huddled in his tent listening to the bear eat his food a couple of metres away,” said Hunt, adding he believes the bear was there for about an hour. “At some point he was worried for his safety and then called 911.”
Hunt said the illegal camper is very lucky.
“Once a bear is finished with the pack, it’s quite possible that they’ll then investigate the tents,” he said.
Parks Canada is confident the bruin, described as cinnamon in colour, was a black bear based on recent sightings of a couple of black bears in that area.
By the time wildlife specialists arrived at the illegal campsite, the bear had moved on. A trap was set up later in an attempt to capture the bear, but with no luck.
“We collected a bunch of the evidence at the site – the food and garbage and litter – and we’re optimistic we’ll get some DNA from that,” Hunt said.
Because bears can become bolder around people once they have developed a taste for human food, Parks continues to monitor this situation. No more incidents or bear sightings in that area have been reported since June 12.
“We will be working hard to try to identify the individual bear,” Hunt said. “We will watch for any future interactions.”
Unlike designated campgrounds, there are no facilities to securely store food or bear-proof bins for garbage at illegal camps in the wood. There have even been reported cases of campfires when fire bans are in place because of dangerous wildfire conditions.
With more than four million visitors to Banff National Park each year, the number of illegal campsites is increasing. Last summer, campers illegally set up a tent at the top of the rock pile at Moraine Lake, one of Canada’s most iconic destinations.
Hunt said Parks Canada has zero tolerance for illegal camping, which he notes likely leads to more issues of food conditioning of wildlife than anything else.
“Even if a bear discovers an unoccupied illegal campsite where there isn’t food, there’s always other stuff, whether it’s toiletries or other things, that attract bears,” he said.
“Bears are curious with new smells and all these wildlife have a very keen sense of smell and can locate an illegal campsite very quickly.”
Law enforcement wardens continue to investigate the case.
“Charges are pending,” Hunt said.
Between May 1 and Oct. 31 last year, 33 files involving illegal camping were under investigation.
Parks Canada asks residents and visitors to immediately report any suspicious activity to 403-762-1470.
“If you see people heading into the bush with large packs or if you find a tent, please report it immediately and we’ll get on it right away,” Hunt said. “We take this very, very seriously.”