“If there’s a good harvest, they’ll literally just park themselves in a bush and eat it a lot. It goes through their system fairly quickly and sugar is extracted.
BANFF NATIONAL PARK – It’s not just people who enjoy a good berry on a summer’s day.
Parks Canada issued a public alert warning residents and visitors to Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks to be vigilant as bears begin to feed on their main food source in the area.
Buffaloberries — also known as shepherdia — are fruiting shrubs that provide a high-calorie food source for bears as they prepare for hibernation and try to fatten up.
“If there’s a good harvest, they’ll literally just park themselves in a bush and eat them a lot,” said Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist at Parks Canada. “It goes through their system pretty quickly and sugar is extracted.
“They come from a long winter and a cold spring where there wasn’t much greenery until later than normal, which puts them in this state of nutritional stress [buffaloberries] is a pretty important food source.”
The guide warns that encounters with black and grizzly bears are more likely when they are feeding, especially when bears are more focused on feeding and may not be likely to notice people in close proximity.
The food source is essential for bears in Alberta’s mountainous national parks, and they can eat up to 200,000 berries in a day, while large male grizzly bears can eat up to 300,000, Fyten said.
Later in the summer, bears enter hyperphagia, an intense feeding season, when they begin foraging throughout the day to gain weight for the upcoming hibernation.
“This is the time of year when the berries start to ripen and the bears come back down to the valley floor and take over this food source,” Fyten said. “What we’re seeing so far this year – more anecdotally, what we’re seeing – right now it’s kind of a bad harvest.”
He said after a strong bumper harvest in 2020, last year was much weaker because it was hot and dry, resulting in an 80 percent reduction in berries. According to Fyten, this year looks similar to 2021.
He added that when there is a major shortage of berries, bears will continue to graze, looking for other food sources such as animal carcasses. A bigger concern, however, is people leaving litter at campgrounds that could attract Bruins.
Fyten stressed the importance of people securing groceries when camping and making sure they take everything with them when they leave the site.
A 2019 University of Calgary study predicted that climate change could potentially lead to berry shortages in the Rocky Mountains in the months leading up to hibernation over the next 60 years.
The study was published in the journal nature climate change and predicted buffalo berries could ripen three weeks earlier than now and up to 40 days at higher elevations.
Grizzly bears and black bears usually stay outside of towns, but when they feel there is a chance to secure food, they will go where their noses and stomachs take them.
Last spring, when snowpack was well above normal levels, grizzly and black bears were a much more common sight in areas of the Bow Valley. In late June, a young grizzly bear was captured and relocated several hundred miles away, having become a common sight in Canmore.
“Most of the time they stay on the periphery, but if the opportunity arises and someone leaves litter and smells it, chances are they’ll come into town, whether it’s at night or early in the morning,” Fyten said . “So it’s really important not to miss out on wildlife attractants.”
Fyten added that smaller bears – who are threatened by larger predators – are more likely to get closer to urban areas as they feel more protected. In mid-July, a black bear was in the Banff city area, passed the new footbridge and headed towards Bow Falls near the Bow River before being stopped.
“They see it as a sanctuary from these larger bears. It’s no different than the moose that hang around town. It’s a bit like a safe haven in the world with bears and wolves,” he said.
In 2018, the Bow Valley Human-Wildlife Coexistence issued 28 recommendations to reduce human-bear encounters. It contained fruit-bearing trees as a significant attractant for wildlife.
Bears have an excellent sense of smell and those who spot food will continue to return to the site, which can lead to a higher risk of human-wildlife encounters in residential areas.
Grizzly Bear 148 was relocated from Canmore in 2017 after knowing where fruit trees were located and relocated to a remote area in northwestern Alberta. It was later shot by a hunter in British Columbia.
At least 23 bears have been captured and relocated to the Cochrane Fish and Wildlife District, which includes the Bow Valley.
Longtime Canmore-based human wildlife specialist Jay Honeyman also left the province without such a position required by the grizzly bear management plan in each grizzly bear management area.
At its July 5 meeting, Canmore Council supported the introduction of a potential ban on new fruit trees in Canmore as part of the development of a community standards charter.
The potential ban – if approved by council when the statutes are considered – would include new vegetation that attracts wildlife, but there would not be the removal of existing fruit trees such as crab apples or aronia.
According to Fyten, there are about 65 grizzly bears and just as many black bears in Banff National Park.
Parks Canada recommends always carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it properly. To reduce the risk of surprising a bear, Parks Canada encourages people to make noise on trails, travel in groups, and watch for signs of bears such as droppings or footprints.
When people walk or cycle, they should not wear earplugs and drive slowly. If you encounter a bear, stay calm, back away slowly, leave the area, and don’t run.
The Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley also has a weekly bear report that includes safety tips, warnings and closures, and a summary of bear activity.
If a person sees a bear, they should contact Banff Shipping at 403-762-1470 or Kananaskis Emergency Services at 403-591-7755.