Spring is officially here and in Banff National Park that means that Alberta's bears are about to come out of hibernation.
There are over 100 bears that call the area home and it's important to stay informed on how to protect both ourselves and the bears. We're all just hungry, sleepy creatures trying to do this thing called life, after all.
In an interview with Narcity, Dan Rafla, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist with Parks Canada, broke down everything we need to know about the bears that live in the area.
He told us that they'll be showing their faces "any day now" and gave us the lowdown on how to be prepared.
When will the bears come out of hibernation?"
"We are not aware of any bears that are awake. The only way we would know that is because somebody’s reported seeing a bear or because there’s still a lot of snow on the landscape we come across bear tracks in the snow or somebody’s reported those," Rafla explained.
He said that it's not unusual that they haven't emerged yet as they could come out anywhere between the end of February and the beginning of April.
"The first bears that we see are going to be the big, dominant males. The biggest bears come out the earliest and then, through time, adult females without cubs will come out, sub-adults will start popping out, and usually, the last ones we see are mothers with young of year cubs," he continued.
"Even though we haven’t seen one yet, this is the time for people to put their mindset that bears are going to be on the landscape soon."
They have been hibernating for months. "These bears haven’t fed for six months. They’ve been living off all of their fat reserves from the previous summer and fall so they come out having lost a ton of weight. They’re going to be hungry. They’re in a fairly sensitive state," he shared.
Where are the bears?
Rafla told us that there are between 60 and 70 grizzly bears that live in Banff National Park and about the same amount of black bears.
He said they typically hibernate high up in the alpine, though some black bears may make their dens closer to the valley bottom in root beds or caves.
He explained that you can find a bear report on the Banff National Park's website to learn about where bears might be, but the information is delayed. "We don’t want to let people know where the bears are in realtime. They’re not here just for us to go see. They’re here to survive and thrive."
"If there’s ever a concern, then we would put measures in place. If we thought there was some sort of elevated risk we may put a warning in place. Or, if it was even higher elevated risk, we’d put a closure."
He urged that once bear season is upon us, you can see a bear anywhere.
These big animals are food motivated in spring. "When they emerge, they will seek out food. They actually learn the landscape through their nose. They can smell for great, great distances, better than any dog.”
Bears go where things green up first, so you can expect them in the valley bottom right when the snow starts to melt.
How do you practice bear safety?
"Check your bear spray, make sure it’s not expired, start carrying it when you’re out recreating, pay attention to signs like tracks. Be a bit more aware, make more noise, travel in groups," Rafla advised.
He said to always have your dogs on leash when in the park and to really work to respect the space and needs of the bears.
When trying to make noise, Rafla said that the human voice is the best tool.
"Bears do make an effort to avoid you. That’s why making noise is critical. Your voice can travel, bears know the human voice."
Be sure to stay up to date with warnings and advisories, too.
Also, your bear spray should be accessible so you can grab it, so it's best on your belt rather than in your backpack.
What do you do if you see a bear?
Now, what we're all wondering is what do we do if we actually bump into a bear.
"First and most importantly is to remain calm," said Rafla. "If you’re in a group of people, stay together. Make sure you have your bear spray out and ready. If you have a dog with you, you want to make sure that it’s on a leash and controlled," he continued.
"If the bear is at a safe distance, doesn’t seem bothered, but is aware you’re there, speak calmly to it, gather, back up, and turn around to where you were coming from."
If the bear comes too close, using your bear spray is your next move.
"If a bear were to charge you and make contact with you in a surprise encounter, they are only seeing you as a threat because they were surprised. If you don’t have your bear spray or you weren’t able to dispatch your bear spray, play dead as though you’re no longer a threat," he said.
Rafla explained that bears will only get aggressive if they think you're a threat. While playing dead should never be your first instinct, it will show them that you're not a threat if you've exhausted all other resources.
Now, there is the very, very rare circumstance that it persists with an attack after you've started playing dead.
"If that bear were to persist attacking you, now that you’re no longer a threat, then you have to consider fighting back with whatever means you have," he said.
Above all else, we need to peacefully share this landscape with the bears who also call it home. Therefore, we need to stay informed, be prepared, and report any sightings to ensure everyone else can do the same.