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Parks Canada working to reduce growing human-wildlife conflicts

“When you think about coexistence from the perspective of wildlife, that means habitat security and connectivity and making sure that wildlife have access to resources and the space to move around without coming into conflict with the people."
Parks Canada is choosing to addresss congestion issues at the Banff National Park east gate.
About four million visitors a year pass through the Banff National Park gates each year, putting growing pressure on the area's treasured wildlife. RMO File Photo

BANFF – Parks Canada’s new management plan for Banff National Park commits to reducing the number of human-wildlife conflicts within the park in two years. 

The goal is to reduce the number of occurrences from a record high in 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic hit after which visitation dropped – as a percentage of total visitation to Banff, which is now at more than four million people each year.

To help achieve this, Parks Canada officials say an updated, park-specific human-wildlife safety management plan that considers current visitor use patterns and monitoring data will be implemented by 2024.

They say the plan will describe proactive activities to reduce risk, including public communication and education, criteria for intervention, the scope of possible actions and the internal protocols for each action.

“Parks Canada’s management efforts concentrate on improving public awareness and minimizing human-wildlife conflict, improving habitat quality, security, and connectivity where possible, and minimizing road and rail mortality,” said Kira Tryon, communications officer for Banff National Park in an email.

Park visitation has grown 30 per cent over the last decade and Banff now welcomes more than four million people a year, putting growing pressure on the area's treasured wildlife. Despite strong education campaigns, there are still countless examples of people approaching wildlife, dumping garbage and leaving messy campsites.

According to park statistics, there were 1,759 human-wildlife occurrences in 2017; 1,936 in 2018; 3,291 in 2019; 2,973 in 2020; 2,570 in 2021; and 2,866 human-wildlife occurrences up until the end of September this year.

Of the 2,866 human-wildlife related occurrences so far in 2022, 396 were grizzly bear occurrences, 879 black bear, 27 unknown identification of bear species, 17 wolves, eight cougar and 50 coyote.

Tryon said it is important to know that some reported occurrences may not directly involve wildlife.

For example, she said wildlife staff may be called to repair a fence to prevent animals from accessing roadways, but it is referred to as an occurrence because it indirectly involves wildlife and may lead to conflict in the future.

“The number and type of interactions between people and wildlife are influenced by a wide range of factors, including public awareness, the number and behaviour of both wildlife and people, availability of wildlife food sources, secure wildlife habitat, and weather, among others,” Tryon said.

“It is critical for all of us to do our part to respect wildlife and follow safe practices when enjoying protected areas like Banff National Park and help protect this special place by learning the wildlife rules before visiting.”

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) supports the development of an updated park-specific human-wildlife safety management plan.

Sarah Elmeligi, the national parks program coordinator for the southern Alberta chapter of CPAWS, said she is glad public education is a big part of the plan, but that must go hand-in-hand with enforcement.

“Those enforcement consequences of not managing a proper campsite, leaving attractants out, feeding wildlife, or whatever, need to be meaningful so that they create behaviour change,” she said.

Improving habitat quality and security for wildlife is also key to reducing human-wildlife conflicts.

Language in the Banff National Park management plan like improving wildlife habitat and connectivity ‘where possible’ has Elmeligi worried given the Canada National Parks Act prioritizes ecological integrity above all else.

“I really struggle with these words ‘where possible’, because in reality anything is possible if you make it a priority and put resources towards achieving it… that priority from the National Parks Act gets lost in language like ‘where possible’, like ‘we’re going to try’,” she said.

“If ecological integrity is truly the priority, then actually improving habitat security, quality and connectivity would be the priority here and the other things should fall out of that.”

Reducing conflict is also about coexistence between people and animals, said Elmeligi, noting people need to be given the tools to reduce the risk and animals need space and security to survive and thrive.

“When you think about coexistence from the perspective of wildlife, that means habitat security and connectivity and making sure that wildlife have access to resources and the space to move around without coming into conflict with the people,” she said.

“That piece around habitat provision and connectivity is actually really critical. You don’t want animals hanging out in an area where they’re going to get into conflict.”

Elmeligi pointed to a growing practice of removing buffaloberries (shepherdia) from busy human-use areas such as campgrounds as a way to reduce conflicts with bears that are seeking out the high calorie-rich food source.

“That makes sense from a human perspective, but if you’re not also enhancing habitat away from human-use areas so that there’s more shepherdia available elsewhere, you’re not actually providing the bear with another option,” she said.

“For the bears, for years there’s been shepherdia in this campground and they’re just going to keep coming to the campground, but ‘oh there’s no shepherdia here’. Well, there’s a bunch of campers with coolers, I guess that will do.”

Elmeligi said enhancing habitat away from busier areas will give bears other options to avoid people.

“I’m not going to go to the campground because it’s full of people and I always get hazed out of there; instead, I’m going to go to this new sweet berry patch,” she said.

“When we do habitat enhancement we’re actually setting wildlife up for success, so they have another choice.  Wildlife never really wants to be around people.”

Depending on the conflict, it is usually wildlife that ends up paying the price.

Park resource conservation officers work hard to make sure this doesn’t happen – but they can only do so much if public safety is at risk, particularly if there's a food-conditioned animal.

Last month, for example, a black bear cub accessed human food and garbage in Banff's industrial compound on Sept. 24 and 25. The young-of-the-year cub and its mother were both relocated to a remote area of Banff National Park.

“Especially when we have conflict with carnivores, carnivores pay the price,” said Elmeligi said.

“They get moved around, they get relocated, translocated, or worse case scenario, they end up dead.”

Human-wildlife conflict statistics

  • 2017: 1,759
  • 2018: 1,936
  • 2019: 3,291
  • 2020: 2,973
  • 2022: 2,866 (as of Sept. 30)

- Statistics from Parks Canada