So what happens after a bear encounter?
Ask Etienne Cardinal, a man uniquely qualified to provide an answer. Cardinal is a human-wildlife specialist with Parks Canada in Jasper National Park, and recently survived a close call with a grizzly bear.
Cardinal’s back still bears fading claw marks that extend from his neck to his waist. Back in May, he was riding a mountain bike on a popular trail when he heard a thunderous roar. The sound was quickly followed by a swipe from a grizzly paw that knocked him right off the bike.
Luckily for Etienne Cardinal, the grizzly that attacked him on a popular trail in Jasper National Park retreated after biting into a can of bear spray in Cardinal’s backpack. Image: Parks Canada
He recalls looking into the grizzly’s eyes as it stood up beside him, its mouth open and far too close. As the bear descended on Cardinal, he dropped to the ground into a protective ball. He survived the attack when the grizzly bit into a can of pepper spray he was carrying on the outside of his backpack. The resulting explosion sent the animal running up the trail. “In 15 seconds, it was over,” Cardinal recalls.
In the days that followed, Cardinal was bombarded by press requests, received immune-boosting injections and a vaccine booster for rabies, and sought counseling. “I wanted to take precautions,” he said. It was exhausting.
Cardinal returned to work five days later, where as part of his job he works to resolve potential conflict situations between humans and bears. In the meantime, the rest of his human-wildlife conflict team had been assessing what to do in the wake of this encounter.
Parks Canada Resource Conservation Manager John Wilmshurst says that bear encounters like Cardinal’s are rare, but admits there seem to be more grizzly bears in Jasper’s main valley at this time of year than there were four or five years ago. He says one theory is that roughly three years ago, a cooler spring and lasting alpine snowpack forced bears to feed in the valley bottoms for a longer period than usual.
It may have been then that many bears discovered the best salad in town: delicious fertilised grasses, the kind found on golf courses and septic fields. To bears, it’s an irresistible green buffet.
“We’re a little bit concerned that bears have learned about this food source in the main valley, and they’re going to continue to exploit it until we make a change,” says Wilmshurst. “Maybe that change is going to be to take some measures to remove that human-caused food source from their access.”
Fertilised lawns, like these on the Fairmont Park Lodge golf course, provide an irresistible meal for the bears in the area. Image: allyhook
It’s not uncommon to have grizzly bears in the valley this time of year. Wilmshurst points out that typically, after emerging from hibernation, bears feed lower down in the valley during the spring until the snow melts higher up, and they can return to the alpine where they feel more secure.
The difference is that the bears are now hanging out in places that are closer to people. “We’re only three years into it, and that doesn’t make a trend,” says Wilmshurst. “But we have had pretty consistent bear activity during those three years.”
In an effort to understand the big picture, Wilmshurst says Parks Canada is helping to support a study by the Foothills Research Institute. The study is designed to help estimate grizzly bear population size in and adjacent to certain areas of Jasper National Park, and may reveal whether populations themselves are increasing or decreasing.
In the meantime, Wilmshurst says Parks Canada has categorised Cardinal’s grizzly encounter as a defensive attack. “He actually didn’t see the bear before he heard it, which is not unusual behaviour for a defensive bear,” says Wilmshurst. “If it was hunting and being predatory, it wouldn’t make any noise.”
Soon after Cardinal’s encounter, a grizzly bear in the same area charged a vehicle. On the chance that it was the same bear, Parks Canada deployed a live bear trap in the hope of being able to immobilise the bear and assess its condition.
A number of options are considered once a bear has been examined. “If [the bear] is starving, or if it is sick, or if it has no teeth left, we might destroy the animal,” says Wilmshurst, adding that in this condition a bear poses more of a threat to people.
If the bear is healthy, Parks Canada considers other reasons for aggression, like mating season, or self-defence. In these cases, they may relocate the bear, or simply collar it and let it go while keeping track of its movements.
Still, at the time of Cardinal’s encounter, Parks Canada estimated there were three to four grizzlies in the general area. How do park officials know they have the right bear? Wilmshurst says bears that interact with people soon get their mugshot on the Jasper National Park Bear Wall of Fame.
The Bear Wall of Fame: Photos are used to identify specific characteristics of bears in the Jasper region. This helps wildlife officials distinguish between different individuals. Image: Niki Wilson
“We’re called out to bears multiple times a day,” he says. ‘We take a picture, bring it back, and compare it with all the others. [The bears] have distinctive marks – a notch out of the ear, a butt patch, [different] colouring. Over a period of a couple of weeks, each bear will get a profile, and we quickly get to know which animals are aggressive, and which ones aren’t.”
A week after he was attacked, Cardinal returned to the scene of the encounter to check on the bear trap. This time he was with two armed colleagues. Though he admits the experience was terrifying, he wishes the bear no harm.
“It was bad timing. Three or four seconds before or after, and it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
So far the trap remains empty. Cardinal says people shouldn’t be more afraid to travel in bear country than before. “They should just be more aware, and take the measures required to keep something bad from happening.”
He is also quick to point out how infrequently these kinds of events occur, and jokes: “What are the odds? I’ve made it safe for everyone else!”