Bears on the golf course, bears by the creek, bears in the campgrounds.
Mid May to mid-June is the time of year when bear sightings in human use areas are common. And although this spring is less hectic than 2022, when two sub-adult grizzlies were using the townsite to avoid larger boars, make no mistake, Jasper National Park wildlife officials have been kept busy responding to, and managing, bears.
Three grizzly families have been frequenting the townsite and Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, plus about eight or 10 other bears that move in and out of the surrounding areas.
“This time of year bears take up about 75 per cent of our time,” said James McCormick, Human-Wildlife Conflict and Coexistence Specialist for Jasper National Park.
Black bears and grizzlies are drawn to the valley bottom because it’s recently greened-up with nutritious vegetation. But springtime adds another choice cut to the bear buffet: elk calves.
Jasper is unique because the from the west gate to town, as far south as Athabasca Falls, and east along highway 16 to just past Morro peak, the valley bottom has a population of about 120 elk which, over time, have been habituated to being around people. Unlike other forested communities, where elk have figured out that getting too close to people can cost them their lives, in the national park, where they’re protected, elk can hang out in the campgrounds, on street medians and in residents’ yards and for the most part remain unassailable.
“Most other towns they’re much more wary,” McCormick said. “Jasper’s elk population is comfortable being in the campgrounds and around the townsite.”
As such, those locations are where Jasper’s female elk tend to have their calves. They’re also where Jasper’s resident grizzly bears have learned they can find an easy, high-in-calories meal.
“Most of the time, grizzly bears can’t catch prey,” McCormick said. “What keeps them here in the valley bottom is the opportunity to hunt.”
Ground squirrels are another springtime menu item for bears, but McCormick says the elk calves are definitely the main course.
“We know of at least three of four this year so far that have caught elk,” he said.
Emaciated cougar put down
Obviously, those bears aren’t going hungry. But that wasn’t the case for a cougar that Parks Canada officials discovered and ultimately euthanized last month.
On May 19, Parks Canada received the first of several reports of a small cougar walking on Highway 93A, near Leach Lake. The animal was in the middle of the road and unconcerned with human presence, according to the report.
In the subsequent days, a Parks Canada staffer working in the area spotted the cat and took a video of it displaying the same behaviour patterns. Wildlife officials were concerned.
“It was emaciated, and indifferent to the presence of humans,” McCormick said.
To mitigate the risk of a negative encounter, Parks put up a closure in the area.
“Our thought was to limit human interactions and give it the best chance of survival.”
Young cougars can be weened from their mothers before they have a chance to learn to hunt, McCormick said.
“Starvation is not uncommon for hunter animals,” he said.
On May 25, with the closure having been lifted, another report came in about a cougar on the road. This time the animal was lying on the road, and wouldn’t move. Parks Canada staff tried to haze it into the forest with noise, pressure and firing chalk balls next to it. When they approached it in their vehicle, it was too weak to move, McCormick said. They concluded it was dying of starvation.
For humane reasons, and so it wasn’t in the public eye, officials decided to euthanize it.
“We felt it was necessary,” McCormick said.
To help reduce the risk of future wildlife encounters, it’s also necessary for residents and visitors of Jasper National Park to manage the unnatural attractants that wildlife seek out.
In homeowners’ yards, fruit from trees should be picked, bird feeders and pet food should be put inside and barbecues ought to be kept clean. On the trail, travelling in groups, making noise and keeping dogs on a leash will help keep bears at bay.
While wildlife officials are still responding to bears in popular visitor and residential areas, bears are now beginning to move into the alpine.
“It’s a busy time of year with all the offspring showing up, but it’s also exciting and rejuvenating,” McCormick said.
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org