There’s a cute book in the Jasper Museum called Bears in the Alley.
It’s a compilation of stories, mostly by Jasper old timers, who regale readers with recollections of life living with black bears. Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, not only were there plenty of bears in Jasper’s alleys, but there were bears all over town. Bears got into people’s yards, their baking and their root cellars. Bears got into cars, restaurants and banks. According to the late Jasper chronicler, Nora Findlay, it was rare to not encounter a bear while walking from one’s home to the downtown area.
Of course the reason the bears were always around was because of the easy access to food. Back then, Jasper’s waste removal system was just like that of any other Canadian town not surrounded by 10,000 square kilometres of wilderness: residents and businesses brought their trash to a can in the back alley for a collector to pick up. Not long after Jasper was established as a community, bears learned there was a chance for a free meal at the back of every building. For decades, generations of bears kept up this behaviour. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s, in fact, when the bear-proof bins that are still in use today were introduced, that the wildlife conflict issues surrounding bears and garbage were adequately dealt with.
These days, we’ve got a different problem. Black bears have become habituated to feeding on the fruit which blossoms on trees planted in residents’ yards. Wildlife officials are spending a lot of time dealing with these bears, who appear to be displaying increasingly aggressive behaviour. We all know by now a fed bear is a dead bear. More troublesome yet, the specialists in the field predict that grizzly bears could soon take up a similar pattern.
Like the waste management issue of decades past, this is an entirely preventable issue, should we choose to tackle it head on—and it should be noted there is progress being made. Many homeowners do their best to harvest the fruit in the fall; and there have been efforts to put the apples or cherries or berries to good use. Other residents are being even more pragmatic, making the tough choice to cut down their big, beautiful trees.
“It’s sad to see them go, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Jasperite Penny Bayfield, who had Parks Canada remove two chokecherry trees from her family’s yard last week.
At the August 23 committee of the whole meeting, Jasper municipal council discussed the issue. Councillor Scott Wilson was reluctant to remove the trees and even floated the idea of fencing the entire townsite as an alternative.
“I’m disappointed that there’s this sense of urgency,” Wilson said. “It’s disappointing we have to pull the trigger on the decision to have to remove these trees from our community.”
Unfortunately for councillor Wilson and other sentimental property owners, it’s a decision that has to be made. Choke cherry, crab apple and mountain ash trees are non-native to Jasper National Park. They may have been planted with the best intentions, but with what we know now, keeping them around is another example of human hubris messing with Mother Nature. The Municipality of Jasper’s administration must understand this, because on August 23 the MOJ announced its intention to remove non-native fruit trees from municipal lands, starting with 21 trees in the Cabin Creek area.
The Jasper Local agrees with this tack. While there’s no doubt the trees are beautiful—not to mention aromatic— when the risks are assessed honestly, aesthetics are hardly justification for trees which contribute to bear mortality and pose human safety concerns. As Mayor Richard Ireland said at the meeting, “it would be really upsetting to lose a bear. But it would tragic to lose a child because of our hesitation.”
Bears in the Alley is a cute book—and one day Bears in the Fruit Trees may also be an endearing read. But the time has come for residents to help give these bears the chance they deserve.
Excerpts of this column were originally published in the October 1, 2019 Jasper Local.
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org