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034 Bear Spray containers, Wildlife overpasses, Bear 148 in trouble, new bear research methods and Waterton Park’s namesake

This past week, bear 148 has been in some trouble around Canmore and we’ll look into her most recent runin with Conservation Officers. I talk about some new work being done on wildlife crossings here and in other destinations. I also talk a little bit about bear spray safety containers and whether they will prevent your spray from exploding in your car. There’s also a new technique for studying grizzlies that is bringing some cool news and finally, I’ll interview travel writer Carol Patterson about the person behind the naming of Waterton Lakes National Park.

Bear Spray Safety Container

Last week I spoke with Lyndsay Kearns about a canister of bear spray that exploded in her car. It was a horrible situation and the damage to her car was significant. If you’d like to hear her interview, check out www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep033.

During the podcast I mentioned bear spray safety containers sold by Kodiak Wildlife Products. I’ve since received one and decided to give it a test. Yesterday I placed it in a car parked in the hot sun with a thermometer inside the canister. I also placed an oven thermometer in the windshield to see how hot the interior of the car became after a few hours in the hot sun.

The outside temperature was a scorching 28C, but the interior of the car, it reached 70C or a whopping 158F. When I picked up the bear safety container it was extremely hot to the touch. When I opened it to check the thermometer, it had exceeded its maximum temperature of 50C.

The website says that it protects against “accidental impact and heat that could damage or discharge your bear spray canister”.

It’s clear from testing that it does not keep the bear spray below the maximum storage temperature of 50C as shown on the label of the Sabre Max bear spray canister.

Will it still protect your car in the case of a canister explosion? I contacted the manufacturer and they said that they had not specifically tested whether it would stop an exploding canister from piercing the container. They are considering using more ‘cooler’ style materials thought to try to reduce the chance that the temperatures keep climbing beyond dangerous levels. I’ll keep you posted as this story evolves.

Wildlife Crossing structures are expanding and changing

The wildlife crossing structures in Banff National Park are an amazing success story of protecting wildlife and people from high speed collisions along park highways. Studies have shown that a properly designed and implemented combination of highway fencing along with under and overpasses for wildlife can reduce animal vehicle collisions by up to 95%.

Banff National Park led the way in terms of building the first series of under and overpasses along a major highway. Their studies have documented more than 200,000 individual animal crossings so there can be absolutely no doubt as to their effectiveness.

The average cost of hitting wildlife can be very high, if not fatal. Deer impacts typically exceed $6,000 while moose average out at around $30,000 or more.

Banff has shown that investing in wildlife is effective for wildlife and dramatically reduces loss of life along highways – both for people and wildlife. I remember in the early 1990s, we used to call the Trans Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise the meat grinder because of the number of people and animals that were being killed.

Thankfully, we can now look at that same stretch of highway as an inspiration for other destinations to aspire to…and that’s what I want to talk about today.

The work that Banff has done has shown that not only do the structures reduce mortality but they dramatically increase connectivity as well. A large highway can have the effect of completely dividing a landscape into two. In the past 20 years, more and more research has shown that good habitat for wildlife is not good enough. We need corridors that allow for a steady stream of fresh genetic material to move through landscapes.

In many cases, a stretch of road with as few as 3.2 deer-vehicle collisions per kilometre per year would actually see a net benefit by building structures. Studies have shown that in cases like this, the cost benefits of building the structures can quickly exceed any costs involved in their construction.

In 2015, Banff saw a total of 19 moderate to large animals killed along the Trans Canada Highway. This was less than half of the 41 animals killed in 2006. The stats in Banff show an 80% reduction in wildlife collisions. Carnivores are seeing a huge reduction in deaths but the real winner seems to be elk. Virtually no elk die in fenced sections of highway in Banff as opposed to 100 or more prior to the fences being constructed.

Today in Banff, there are a total of 44 different crossing structures of which six are overpasses and 38 underpasses.

While Banff got the ball rolling, by 2010 the research had finally led to interest from other jurisdictions. That’s why in 2010, an organization known as Animal Road Crossings or ARC, sponsored a design competition designed to bring fresh ideas and potentially cost savings to the design and implementation of future crossing structures.

Every dollar saved in the construction can help to move the political process towards a yes decision in terms of expanding the use of crossing structures to new destinations. In fact in a 2012 survey of U.S. State Department of Transportation professionals, 84% indicated that their state considers the building of crossing structures to improve safety and connectivity.

Unfortunately, those numbers don’t translate into implementation. Funding was the number one reason given for not including them in the planning of highways and upgrades to road systems.

Despite resistance in some areas, other areas in Canada and the U.S. are going full-steam ahead with new projects. Now that the Trans Canada is twinned and fenced all the way through Banff National Park, crews are working hard on expanding the twinning and fencing through neighbouring Yoho. They are already working on both an overpass and an underpass just west of the British Columbia Border.

Perhaps the most ambitious one at the moment is taking place along Interstate 90 in Washington State which runs between Seattle and Spokane.

The first overpass is being built near Snoqualmie Pass, just an hour east of Seattle. Like the overpasses in Banff, it will eventually be a forest covered crossing. When the project is finished, there will be a total of 27 over and underpasses along a 24 km stretch of highway.

Programs have also taken place or been started in Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Nevada. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is also looking into creating a series of structures as well.

Florida has a long history of using crossing structures particularly to protect the endangered Florida panther and California has used them to protect desert tortoises. More and more, the value of these structures are being applied to a wider diversity of wildlife – even salamanders.

In Waterton Lakes National Park, specially designed underpasses were built specifically for the long-toed salamander. In a study conducted in 2009, research showed the salamanders had suffered a 60% loss in population since 1994. By building the underpasses, 130 salamanders were able to safely cross the road, dramatically reducing highway mortality.

Banff should be very proud of the role it has played in helping spread the word about fencing and crossing structures and their role in helping to reduce wildlife mortality. Over the next decade, we can hope to see them spread far and wide as new jurisdictions begin to add them to their normal planning process for highway improvement projects.

After all, 200,000 animal crossings in Banff has to say something about their effectiveness, not to mention an 80% reduction in animal deaths caused by vehicles.

Here is a humorous video on Youtube that looks at one way we could design crossing structures. Let’s be happy that we’ve found a better way.

Bear 148 in Trouble

Grizzly 148, the well-known daughter of Banff most famous bear, number 64, has once again run afoul of provincial conservation officers by leaving the protection of Banff National Park and hanging around Quarry Lake and the Peaks of Grassi neighbourhood in Canmore.

Despite the fact that they are built on a primary wildlife corridor and that they are right on the route that any bear would need to take were it to connect with the (hopefully) soon to be established Three Sisters Corridor, it seems provincial conservation officers have little tolerance for 148.

She has never made contact with people, but she does not do well with dogs. This past week, she bluff charged a man with a child in a stroller that also had two dogs on leash. Any time dogs are involved in bear encounters there is a chance that the encounter may escalate.

In most situations, when bears encounter people, they are looking to see whether we pose a threat or not. Two barking, growling dogs can definitely be interpreted that way and so she escalated to a bluff charge just to let them know that she was in charge.

Bluff charges are just that…a bluff. It’s a way to let something know that she is ready for business if need be. Like most bears, she then left them alone. No injuries occurred, just some shaky nerves.

She essentially just did what she was supposed to do. She warned them to stay away and then she moved on. She is collared and so officials should have known she was in the area.

As a result of this encounter, officials live trapped her and moved her back to her main turf around the town of Banff. They did state though that if she comes back to Canmore and has another similar encounter that they will euthanize her.

As Bill Hunt from Banff National Park stated in a recent story in the Rocky Mountain Outlook: “Female bears are the reproductive engines of the population and she’s lived her entire life in Banff National Park and surrounding area without incident so far.”

There’s also a very good chance that she has mated for the first time this spring. At 6-1/2 years old, she’s right at the age when bears in the central Rockies tend to begin mating. As it is, we have one of the lowest productivity rates of any bear population and so the loss of even one breeding female can make a big impact on the population.

Canmore is her territory, just as much as Banff. As a community we need to find ways to live with bears or we will see more and more of them shot simply for hanging out where people can harass them. Just after closing off the area where 148 had her incident, Conservation Officers charged two people with a dog for crawling under the closure tape and ignoring the closure.

Unfortunately, all it takes is a few more morons like these two that will help ensure that bears are no longer welcome on the landscape. It makes no sense to fight for a corridor along the Three Sisters lands if bears are not allowed to move through the Canmore Nordic Centre, Power Line Trail, Quarry Lake and Peaks of Grassi in order to actually reach it.

They are all connected. We already have the most developed landscape in the world where grizzlies still exist and unless we as a community vow to share the mountains with bears than the bears will simply be shot one after the other.

Let’s hope that 148 stays put in Banff, but the buffaloberry season is now upon us. I spotted my first ripe berries last week, right in the heart of Canmore. Even if 148 stays away, bears WILL be moving into the valley bottoms to feed on these berries.

A bear like 148 can eat up to 200,000 buffaloberries every day. That’s the equivalent of you eating 75 Big Macs, every day for the next 6 weeks. It’s the one food that allows them to build their fat layers for winter.

The safety concern is that the berries need sunlight to grow. That means they need an opening in the forest canopy…which is exactly what a trail or a road provides. This means that almost all low elevation trails in the area are lined with grizzly bear buffets.

If there are buffaloberries, there will be bears nearby. If you learn to identify just one plant in the central Rockies, make it this one.

This summer, instead of complaining about the closures that will be coming as bears gather to feed on berries, forget about the low elevation trails. This is a great time of year to do some of the higher ridgewalks like the Mount Allan Centennial Trail or Sunshine Meadows.

You can avoid the bears simply by avoiding the berries. It doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a bear, but you can dramatically shift the odds in your favour by avoiding areas with large patches of buffaloberries.

If you’re a mountain biker, sloooooow down. The bears are so focused on feeding that if you scream down some of the nordic centre trails, you may find yourself with a very close encounter.

Everyone needs to carry bear spray, even along local town trails. Make sure it is on your belt and not strapped to your pack or your bike. If you get separated from them, you will still have your spray only if it’s on your person.

Bears are an amazing part of the mountain landscape. They are one of the key reasons that visitors state for visiting this area. We all rely on tourism for the lifeblood of the valley and we need to do our part to make sure that the grandchildren of today’s visitors will still be able to see grizzlies 50 years from now.

I hope to be around to see bear 148s great grandchildren as well.

New Method to Count Bears

Biologists have developed a new method to estimate bear populations and densities in the mountains. By placing hundreds of remote wildlife cameras along trails throughout the mountains, and combining this with radio collar data, they can get a much more accurate estimate of grizzly populations.

Historically, they would need to do extensive field work to collect DNA from hair and scat samples. As biologists look at the cost of another DNA study in Banff, the estimate runs at almost a half a million dollars and hundreds of man hours in the field.

During the study, researchers Jesse Whittington and Mark Hebblewhite trapped and collared 22 grizzlies. This was followed up by placing 214 remote cameras they were able to track the collared grizzlies as well as unknown individuals as they were captured on the cameras.

Without the help of cameras, they would have come to the conclusion that the population had dropped by as much as 51%.

The use of cameras makes it much easier for researchers and land managers to estimate population densities for animals like grizzlies. Parks Canada cameras have captured more than 2,000 images of bears in just the past 3 years. They are also regularly capturing photographs of five females and their young.

The important thing in this method is that the combination of collar data and cameras is what allows them to estimate density. In the central Rockies, they estimated around 13 bears per 1,000 km. These are fairly stable numbers and compare well to studies done 10 or more years ago.

However, this stability relies on keeping breeding females like 148 on the landscape. If we start to lose the reproductive engines of the population, we could see a steep decline in numbers. Let’s all do our part in not just staying away from bear prone areas during buffaloberry season but also reporting violations like off-leash dogs that could result in a very negative interaction with a grizzly.

If a bear has to die because you thought it was your God given right to have your dog illegally off-leash, then you should not be living in a community that prides itself on being bear aware. And I would hope that  everyone around you would report that violation to the appropriate authorities.

Let’s celebrate that our bears are doing well, but maintain our vigilance so that the trend continues.

The Naming of Waterton Lakes National Park

Carol Patterson has spent the last two decades traveling the world. She writes and speaks extensively about reinventing your business and your life with travel. Her writing has been featured in BBC Travel, Avenue Magazine, Roadstories.ca, Alaska magazine and more.

More recently, one of her stories won second place in the Best Sustainable/Responsible Tourism Feature category at the Travel Media Association of Canada Conference.

In June, Carol presented at the Waterton Wildflower Festival about the naming of Waterton Lakes National Park and about the park’s namesake Charles Waterton. Recently she was nice enough to share some of her story with me in an interview. I hope you enjoy it.

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