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Banff visitors support human use restrictions to protect grizzly bears

“I was really pleasantly surprised at how many people were very supportive of prioritizing grizzly bear needs over their own recreational needs.”
20210726 Grizzly Bear 0105
Visitors to Banff National Park want to put grizzly bear needs over their own, according to a new study. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – Visitors to the mountain national parks are OK with restrictions or human use limits in order to protect treasured wildlife, particularly mama grizzly bears with cubs.

That’s according to a new peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism by Canmore biologist Sarah Elmeligi, who surveyed trail users to quantify visitor expectations and attitudes towards grizzly bear management as part of her PhD.

Elmeligi said most trail users were amendable to changing, or restricting, their recreation plans to prioritize grizzly bear habitat security and recovery over human use in the mountain national parks.

In particular, she said the survey indicated that closing a trail, limiting group sizes to four or more people or banning dogs were supported, but that support was even higher if a female grizzly bear with cubs was in the area.

“Overall, the supported management options were to do with managing people and managing the trail itself,” said Elmeligi.

“Conversely, the research also showed that the most opposed management options were the ones that managed bears, like relocation and aversive conditioning,” she added.

“I was really pleasantly surprised at how many people were very supportive of prioritizing grizzly bear needs over their own recreational needs.”

As part of the research, Elmeligi and a team of volunteers asked hikers heading out on the trails about their support for management options regarding grizzly bears in Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho national parks.

In total, 696 surveys were completed to form the results outlined in the new paper, called Visitor Attitudes and Expectation of Grizzly Bear Management in the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks.

The survey findings contradict assumptions brought up in previous multi-stakeholder planning sessions focused on grizzly bear management that restricting visitors will negatively impact their park experience.

“My research showed me that we should probably put some more management energy into managing people, rather than putting management energy into managing bears,” said Elmeligi.

“I’ll say that with a caveat that this research did focus on trail users, so we might not see the same results if we start talking about bears in town.”

Parks Canada officials say they are reviewing Elmeligi’s academic research paper.

Justin Brisbane, public relations and communications officer with Banff National Park, said the findings will be considered within the development of wildlife management strategies, visitor communications and the draft Banff National Park Management Plan.

“Parks Canada is committed to exploring insights that could help the agency better understand visitor perceptions of wildlife management strategies and tactics,” he said in an email statement.

In this study, backcountry users were significantly more supportive of trail management options, such as trail opening times, rerouting the trail, limiting the number of people per day, or requiring people to book in advance.

The results, however, showed that local residents were less supportive of restrictive management than visitors were, particularly not allowing dogs on trails, limiting group sizes, or implementing trail opening times.

Elmeligi said one potential reason to explain the differences between residents and visitors is perceptions of risk and associated fear, which also can be a factor in predicting people’s attitudes towards bears.

“There is quite a bit of research about how fear impacts our perception of risk, and then that perception of risk can feed into what kind of management options you’re more supportive of,” she said.

“My hypothesis, I guess, is that locals might have less fear of encountering a bear – maybe they’ve encountered one before or they recreate on these trails all the time and they’ve never had a negative encounter,” she added.

“Or locals can also feel like ‘I am not really doing anything, I’m just out walking my dog so what’s the big deal? This isn’t a huge hike or anything’. That perhaps contributes to a sense of complacency amongst locals.”

A study in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado showed many visitors consistently supported management efforts that restored habitat or monitored mountain lions, and consistently evaluated hazing techniques as unacceptable in all situations.

In Elmeligi’s research, relocation of bears and aversive conditioning were both highly opposed, although people were not as against these actions when a solitary bear was in an area as opposed to a bear family.

Ideally, aversive conditioning is designed to reduce conflicts between people and bears and to prevent bears from entering developed areas like townsites and campgrounds to forage on human food or garbage.

The aim is to ensure a bear makes a strong connection between people and an uncomfortable stimulus, like noisemakers or non-lethal projectiles, to modify the bear’s behaviour and teach them that coming into development areas yields no positive reward.

Elmeligi said aversive conditioning is used in Banff and Jasper within this context in order to discourage bears from seeking food within town boundaries and to ensure public safety.

“Having a bear near a hiking trail is a different situation, however,” she said.

Elmeligi said future research could examine the difference in support for aversive conditioning when a bear is within human developments, towns or campgrounds compared to when a bear is in less developed areas feeding on more natural sources, for example near hiking trails.

“When aversive conditioning or relocation is deemed necessary, it should be accompanied by studies to monitor its effectiveness as well as public education programs explaining the reasons for the management action,” she said.

In Banff National Park, Parks Canada has directly managed human use to protect grizzly bears. For example, a popular ski touring area in the Jimmy Junior-Hidden Bowl area near Bow Summit was closed for the past two winters to protect a denning female grizzly bear.

Seasonally, a section of the Lake Minnewanka shoreline trail is off limits to people to give grizzly bears space and security as they feed on buffaloberries, a calorie-rich food source for bears in Banff.

Elmeligi said as North American society becomes increasingly urbanized, there is a corresponding shift in the way people perceive and value wildlife, and this has significant implications for the public’s response to wildlife issues.

Based on this research, she said managers in the mountain national parks can be better informed about management support for decisions that prioritize grizzly bear habitat use over human use – and restrict human access to certain areas when bears are active.

“Trail closures could be applied much sooner if managers deem it necessary for bear or public safety,” she said.

“Rather than reduce trail user satisfaction, this management action may actually meet trail user expectations.”

In Alberta, grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species.

Within the four contiguous mountain national parks, population estimates by Parks Canada put grizzly bear numbers in Banff at 65, at 109 in Jasper, between 11 and 15 in Yoho and anywhere from nine to 16 grizzlies in Kootenay.

While there is potential for Alberta’s protected areas, including national park, to act as a source for the recovering provincial population, Elmeligi said the amount and type of human activity within these spaces can affect grizzly bear habitat security and access to high quality forage.

“As human recreation within bear habitat increases, so does the potential for human-bear conflict,” she said.

“Protected area managers must also aim to reduce the potential for negative human-bear encounters.”

Determining the extent to which trail users will prioritize grizzly bear needs over their own recreational needs, and their threshold of tolerance for various restrictions, is an important aspect of grizzly bear management.

Elmeligi said previous research efforts have detailed perspectives from environmental organizations, commercial operators, local businesses, and management agencies, but little work has been done to assess trail user opinions – and this omission is arguably problematic.

She said her research addressed this gap by assessing trail user support for various management options pertaining to grizzly bears, adding that effective grizzly bear management requires an understanding of trail users’ perspectives.

“In this case, we explored what trail users believed park managers should do in response to a bear being in the vicinity of a trail,” said Elmeligi.

Elmeligi said maintaining the possibility of safe bear sightings, such as roadside areas where additional impacts to habitat are minimal, may be important to get public support for management options, particularly those that restrict human use in more environmentally sensitive areas.

“Our research findings may have implications for multi-stakeholder management-related discussions where views on grizzly bear management are assessed against the impact of various restrictive management actions on visitor experience,” she said.