As we close in on our first year in our adopted province of Alberta, we’re still learning about the hidden treasures and local quirks that make the region such a unique part of Canada’s federation. But we’re also learning about the province’s politics and its interesting policies that affect the people, animals and areas where we work.
This past spring, many will remember that we worked hard to successfully ensure that three orphaned bear cubs found in a Banff National Park outhouse would be rehabilitated and re-released into the wild. That happy ending almost didn’t come to pass given outdated policies in Alberta (and BC) that created so much red tape and needless roadblocks for Parks Canada that the bears were almost doomed to life in a zoo – or worse.
And in the last month, the high profile fate of a young female grizzly – bear 148 – in the Bow Valley (which includes the towns of Banff and Canmore) has highlighted the challenges with so-called wildlife management in this province.
If you haven’t already heard, bear 148 is the six year old daughter of Banff’s late, famed matriarch bear 64. Like her mom – Banff’s version of Grand Teton’s 399 – she makes her living within close proximity to people. And like 64, 148’s life near human settlement is not the byproduct of habituation, but rather the obvious consequence of building two towns, a ski resort and a golf course, along with a highway and railway, within one of the most productive grizzly corridors in the Canadian Rockies. Her home range also offers female grizzlies a greater degree of security from bigger, human-wary backcountry boars – a perk that will become important if she is due to deliver her first set of cubs next year, as many believe (including us, given that we observed her ‘date’ with bear 126 at Banff’s railway station this past June).
But with more and more people living and recreating in the Bow Valley, bear 148 is increasingly crossing (literal) paths with the public. Though she spends the vast majority of her year inside the friendly confines of Banff National Park, she will wander into the town of Canmore, especially during berry season. And though her encounters with people in Banff have been mostly positive, the few that have raised eyebrows in the media have been decidedly normal bear behaviour, according to Parks Canada.
Yet, for some reason, when 148 has crossed onto provincial land in and around Canmore, her encounters with people have been concerning to Alberta’s Environment and Parks. How concerning? Well, Alberta elected to trap the bear for relocation, before declaring that if she returned to Canmore they might be forced to kill her.
Thankfully, the communities of Banff and Canmore – spearheaded by concerned citizen and friend, Stacey Sartoretto – made their voices heard and helped Alberta rethink their views on 148, agreeing to share management of the bruin with Parks Canada, who desperately wants to keep her alive.
Though the tensions have been eased thanks to the two jurisdictions working together, they haven’t disappeared and the future of 148 remains very much uncertain.
We’ve largely kept quiet on the subject, as the community-driven efforts to save 148 needed to be the focus. But there are province-wide implications to be drawn from bear 148’s story and without addressing them, this situation will keep repeating itself.
What’s the problem?
For starters, just as in the case of the orphaned bear cubs, Alberta clearly views bear behaviour quite differently than their federal counterparts. After all, it’s hard to imagine that 148’s actions on provincial land differ greatly from those on federal land, yet each jurisdiction views the ‘conflicts’ differently.
Moreover, Parks Canada has been transparent about the young sow’s behaviour; Alberta
has been vague. The person involved in the 148 encounter on provincial land that led to her being trapped declared in the media that the grizzly’s actions didn’t merit her being killed, but Alberta clearly disagreed. Alberta Parks told reporters, ominously, that it wasn’t only this encounter that concerned them, it was others as well – and then, oddly, refused to share the details.
For the most part, these off-setting interpretations are the result of different priorities. The federal government is mandated to do all they can to keep the bears on the landscape – as evidenced by the incredible efforts of Parks Canada staff in the case of the orphaned bear cubs and again now with 148. The province, on the other hand, gives less priority to the bears, even though they’re an endangered species in Alberta.
And with unfettered development, hunting, recreation and resource extraction often allowed up to the borders of the national parks set aside to sustain creatures like 148, these conflicting priorities will continue to become a flashpoint. After all, animals can’t understand invisible, human-imposed lines on a map and there will be many more 148’s in the future who won’t comprehend the differing ‘management’ techniques as they go about doing what a bear does. So this is about more than 148, it’s about how we sustain our biodiversity when matters of trans-boundary jurisdiction threaten to unravel good deeds.
As we’ve often written, it’s not good enough to be against something, we must be for something. And as the rallying cry to stop 148 from being killed spreads from the Bow Valley to all parts of Alberta and beyond (more than 21,000 people have signed a petition asking that she be saved), it’s up to all of us to illustrate what saving this bear actually means – and how saving this bear can help protect all bears.
It’s easy to get frustrated by Alberta (and BC) policy around wildlife management (the wording in and of itself is oxymoronic), but frustration gets us nowhere. So how do we affect province-wide systems change? Start somewhere simple, demonstrate that it works, and scale it up.
In Alberta, let’s start with ridding ourselves of blanket policies that don’t work for anyone on the ground. As Dr. Jane Goodall has long advocated for in Africa, let’s create community-centered conversation plans that combine local knowledge and needs with broader expertise and big-picture impact.
What does this mean?
As Albertans, let’s encourage our government to empower the local citizenry in the Bow Valley to have a voice in what happens in their backyard, rather than be heavy-handed and impose solutions upon them.
Let’s encourage our government to end jurisdictional wars and mandate that different levels of government work together to integrate management techniques and better share information and resources. (Yes, this is now beginning to happen in the case of 148, but there is no long term mandate to continue this work beyond this summer.)
And let’s encourage our government to be innovative with Big Data and use the expensive and invasive radio collar information that 148 provides biologists with to create social media-savvy, real-time public safety updates (some private citizens are already sharing locations to help keep people safe, but there is a need for better information and for it to be more widely shared, something only government agencies can do).
If the hiker in the tragic 2015 bear attack in Yellowstone had carried spray, both he and Blaze would likely be alive today. If the hunter who encountered Scarface in November of 2015 in the mountains outside of Yellowstone was carrying bear spray, Scarface would be alive today. And if everyone living and visiting the Bow Valley carries bear spray, 148 will likely live to raise cubs.
Make bear spray mandatory at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. It’s easy. Hard to enforce? Sure. But can it hurt? No. Might the stick (possible fines) not be more useful in getting people to use bear spray than the carrot (begging and pleading)? Yes.
Maybe if a few Alberta Environment and Parks officers worked to educate and enforce the use of bear spray (rather than going all in on an expensive, unsuccessful 24-hour roadside bear hazing program) real change could be made on reducing human-bear conflicts.
This is the big one. Those living and visiting the Bow Valley – including us – have an obligation to the animals and land we love. We have to take ownership of our actions and realize that really, truly saving bear 148 – and other grizzlies – isn’t up to government, it’s up to us.
The Rocky Mountain Outlook, the Bow Valley’s local newspaper, observed countless citizens ignoring 148-inspired trail closure signs, walking their dogs off-leash, being flippant about their safety while recreating (walking solo, biking while listening to music, etc) and almost entirely failing to carry bear spray. In fact, Parks Canada – while monitoring 148 – noted that they observed only one in fifty people were carrying bear spray while recreating near the bruin.
This isn’t good enough.
Most people are well intentioned, but signing a petition to save 148 is meaningless if we turn around and walk anywhere in bear country without bear spray or disobey closure signs because we feel an attack is something that only happens to strangers.
Living in bear country – beautiful, soulful country – comes with a responsibility of being a good neighbour, a good steward. If being bear aware or bear safe is too inconvenient or if being in bear country is too scary, the Bow Valley and communities like them are not for you. Southern Saskatchewan is gorgeous and doesn’t require anyone to carry bear spray while out for a walk. That’s not the case in Canmore. And doing our part to educate ourselves, our families and our friends is the added tax we must pay to watch the sunset on the mountains day-in and day-out.
Ultimately, 148 might be just one grizzly, but she’s an important one. As we’ve argued before, individuals matter and this individual really matters, given that she stands a chance of being a breeding sow for many years to come, helping the region’s – and the province’s – fragile grizzly bear gene pool. And as is often the case with high profile animals, their fate can be a canary-in-a-coal-mine moment. Without a better plan for coexisting with grizzlies, the 148 controversy will be but the first of many – and most will end in tragedy.
We all need to do our part to help save 148, but it starts with each of us defining what saving means: Being good stewards (friends don’t let friends hike without bear spray); working towards mandatory bear spray; taking the time to actually write personal letters and to make phone calls to our representatives to advocate for thoughtful policies, like community-centred conservation plans.
The final chapter of the 148 story has yet to be written. How will you help write it?