By Sarah Elmeligi
What are the chances that bears and people are on the same trail at the same time? And what are the conditions that lead to a higher chance of encounter? These are just some of the questions that Canmore-based researcher, Sarah Elmeligi, is studying as part of her PhD. In this article, she walks us through the preliminary results of her research, and tells us why people should be prepared for a bear encounter – especially when you’re close to a road or town.
The snow is melting… eventually. And the trails are opening up for boots instead of skis and bikes instead of snowshoes. But, people aren’t the only ones itching to stretch their legs and get in some sweet sunny trails. While you’re getting reacquainted with your hiking boots, mountain bikes or roller skis, bears are starting to wander the valley bottoms and snow-free areas in search of food.
Are you ready?
My PhD is examining how grizzly bears and people share trails in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper National Parks. I’m conducting an interdisciplinary study that uses both biological and social data to figure out how we coexist, and how grizzly bears navigate around this landscape and all the happy recreationists.
Through remote cameras on hiking trails, I’m quantifying when and where people and grizzly bears are using our trail network. I’m also looking at data from bear GPS collars to see how bears use habitat in the national parks.
Bears will use trails to move through the landscape. What are the chances that bears and people are on the same trail at the same time? And what are the conditions that lead to a higher chance of encounter? How do bears retain their access to important habitat while trying to navigate around human use? These are some of the questions I’ll be answering with this work.
The results from remote cameras and GPS data show that an important factor in grizzly bear habitat selection is habitat quality. Basically, bears want to be where they are safe and where the food is. No surprise there.
The remote camera data also suggested that bears are more likely to be captured (photographed) on trails during the dawn/dusk hours and on trails that are closer to roads. The GPS data shows that in the spring, bear home ranges are smaller and contain higher densities of trails and roads, thus increasing their chances of being close to a trail.
The hypothesis I’m working with now is that grizzly bears are more likely to be captured on trails closer to roads and towns because there are more barriers to movement in the valley bottoms. Roads, towns, the highway and railway, the Bow River, steep slopes, and other barriers might be funnelling bears onto human use trails in the valley bottom. The other potential factor is the high-quality forage sources that are available next to roads and trails, such as dandelions in the spring.
Consider that capture probability on camera is similar to the chances of a person encountering a bear on a trail. People have a higher chance of encountering a bear on a trail if that trail is close to a road or town.
But are people more prepared for that?
In another part of my PhD, I did a survey with trail users and found that over 80% of people going in to the backcountry had bear spray with them. Only about 45% of half day or full day hikers had bear spray with them. But, the remote camera data suggests that it is these people who have a higher chance of running into a bear on the trail.
Figuring out the biological reasons why bears are on trails close to town is my next step in analysis. What’s your next step?
Grab your bear spray – every time you go out.
Don’t assume that just because you’re going on a quick dog walk or a run after work on a trail behind your house that you won’t see a bear. If there’s a bear in the area, you have a higher chance of encountering it there than you do in the backcountry.
Check bear reports and trail conditions
Make noise on the trail.
Call out your best “Yo, Bear!”, practice your yodelling or sing your little heart out. Make some noise with your voice. A bear bell can become like white noise to a bear, but the variation in tone and pitch of your voice helps a bear know where you are. Most of the time if the bear hears you coming, he or she will find a way not to run into you.
Put your dog on a leash.
Dogs off-leash can be hazardous for you, your dog, and the bear. Your dog might be well-behaved and a model citizen, but at the other end of this equation is a grizzly bear… and who knows how that bear feels about dogs. Keeping your dog on-leash keeps everyone safe and dramatically reduces the chances of an encounter going wrong.
Check out Grizzly Research in the Rockies
Here you’ll learn more about my research and results as they unfold.
Keep an open mind and be kind.
Remember that bears are just trying to make a living out there and get through the day without running into other bears, cars, bikes, and people. Give our bears a little space and let them have access to the places they need.
Sarah Elmeligi is a wildlife biologist based out of Canmore, Alberta. She is currently working on her PhD examining how grizzly bears and hikers coexist and share hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies.