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Record year for bear encounters in Jasper prompts renewed warnings

With the number of black bear encounters on the rise in Jasper, conservation officials caution that the problem will not be solved by relocating the animals out of town and that grizzlies could soon become part of the problem.

Hungry animals often move in from backcountry to feast on backyard fruit

Black bears, undeterred by hazing, continue to fatten themselves on backyard fruit trees.

The town of Jasper had a record year for bear encounters, prompting renewed warnings about the dangers of unnatural food sources that continue to lure the hungry animals to town.

Parks Canada staff have responded to more than 350 incidents involving bears in the townsite so far in 2023, compared to 281 in all of 2022 and 95 incidents in 2021.

Dave Argument, the resource conservation manager for Jasper National Park, said the record numbers are a reminder that the townsite has become an attractive and increasingly established habitat for hungry black bears.

He cautions that the problem will not be solved by relocating troublesome animals out of town.

"Once bears overcome that hesitation of coming into town, when they learn this habit and develop that lifestyle, the attraction of this food source is overpowering," Argument said.

Nine black bears have been relocated from Jasper in recent months. At least three of them have returned.

One of them, a mother black bear who was captured with her cub, was released into the eastern edge of the national park in late August. She returned to town one month later, alone.

Data from the bear's tracking collar shows she travelled more than 300 kilometres across the Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia, losing her cub along the way.

"We've found through experience that relocating bears out of town often just brings them straight back in again," Argument said.

The community has been dealing with an increasingly bold, urbanized population of bears that have prompted repeated warnings from Parks Canada about the risk to residents, visitors and the animals themselves.

The risks

Recent reports have seen bears feeding in trees near schools and playgrounds, searching for food from bird feeders, coolers and compost bins — and bluff-charging dogs and people.

Argument said hazing efforts, which include spooking the animals with noisemakers and non-lethal ammunition, such as paintballs and chalk balls, often makes the animals more active at night, increasing the risk of surprise encounters.

Argument said without increased efforts to remove attractants, the number of reports will continue to grow and he fears grizzly bears will soon be part of the problem.

Grizzlies often feed on vegetation in the valleys surrounding the townsite each spring but he's worried they could move into town.

If they discover the town's fruit trees, as their cousins have, the community's bear challenges could get much worse, he said.

"One of the things that really concerns me is the number of grizzly bears that we are seeing adopting a valley bottom lifestyle around town," he said.

"If these grizzly bears figure out that fall is actually an even better time to be living in and around town because of the fruit source, then that takes our hazard to a whole other level."

Gordon Stenhouse, a wildlife biologist and grizzly bear research scientist, said the risk that grizzly bears could begin regularly feeding in the townsite should be taken seriously.

He said bears are hardwired to find food, and remember where to find it for years after.

He notes that trap and release programs, also referred to as translocation programs, can successfully introduce a bear to a new habitat, but it's not the right tool for the magnitude of Jasper's bear problem.

"We shouldn't just discount the idea of translocation never working. But it's not a real solution given this problem,

He said, instead, a proactive, preventative approach needs to be adopted in the town.

A black bear in some shrubbery.

He said, either way, there should be an urgency to the conservation approach. He said black bears can be just as dangerous as grizzlies.

"Some people will say, 'it's just a black bear' but all bears showing up around people is serious," he said.

"We shouldn't discount the fact that it's mostly black bears. We shouldn't feel good about that, we should still be concerned."

Irresistible fruit

Much of the focus around Jasper's bear concerns have focused on its bumper crop of backyard fruit trees.

In the four-kilometre span of town there are about 900 non-native fruit trees. About 200 have been removed in recent years but many more will need to be removed before the bears move on, Argument said.

The trees are an irresistible attractant, especially during drought years when the wild berry crop suffers. The problem is also generational. Mother bears who grow accustomed to feeding in town will teach their young to do the same, he said.

"Bears obviously can be very wide-ranging animals but they're also creatures of habit," he said.

"When they know there's a good food source somewhere, they will come back to it."

Parks Canada is asking that these trees be removed from public and private property, and has been helping residents with tree removal. In an emailed statement to CBC News, the municipality is working closely with staff to remove non-native fruit trees on municipal property over time.

Joe Urie, who had all his fruit trees removed some years ago, would like to see a bylaw passed ensuring that none remain in town.

As a longtime Jasper resident and a member of the Métis Nation, he said watching the town's record season unfold has left him frustrated.

He said the current situation is not sustainable. Leaving attractants in the community undermines the work of conservation staff and shows a disrespect for the animals that call the park home.

"What I don't understand is the reluctance," he said. "It's human arrogance in thinking that we are the only thing that deserves the right to this."

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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