Nestled in the rockies of western Canada, Banff is a town and national park that brings in over three million visitors every year. It isn’t the only mountain town that struggles with visitors and the way that they interact with wildlife. Regardless of location, if you put tourists in contact with species they were never taught to be scared of (teddy bears! deer are so peaceful!) you’re bound to have problems.
“You might assume that taking selfies with a bear is impossible, but Google would prove you wrong.”
Growing up an hour away from Banff, I spent a lot of time in the mountains, and saw my fair share of wildlife. Bears, coyotes, elk, and bighorn sheep were the most common. I consider myself lucky to have never run into a moose or cougar! In all cases, I did what I’ve been taught: stay in the car, watch from a distance, and enjoy the moment while it lasts. For some, this isn’t enough.
You might assume that taking selfies with a bear is impossible, but Google would prove you wrong, and it made news just this last summer in Banff. Groups of people stopped on the side of the road (no doubt causing a “bear-jam,” referring to the inevitable traffic) and walked up the ditch to look at a bear on the other side of a fence.
This wouldn’t be so bad on its own, but many people went right up to the fence, bringing their kids with them, turning their backs, and taking pictures. Not smart. According to Alberta Bearsmart program, when bears get used to locations with humans, the chances for a bear-human encounter increases, and these can have bad endings for both the human and the bear. Does travel insurance cover a $25,000 fine for disturbing wildlife?
In the mountains, it isn’t just bears that visitors get too close to.
When I lived and worked at the Banff Springs for one summer, elk would occasionally wander into the field beside the tennis courts – and each time, I would go out and politely ask the growing swarm of onlookers to keep their distance – a recommended 30 metres. There would always be individuals that got far too close, sometimes with kids, and sometimes even to a bull elk. You know, the big ones with antlers?
“Sad as it may sound, it’s important that the animals remain fearful of humans – for their own protection, and ours.”
Elk may seem peaceful from a distance and don’t often pose a threat to humans, but it isn’t recommended to approach them. Bull elk in mating season can be very aggressive, not to mention females with young ones in spring. Many visitors to Banff don’t realise that even though these animals wander town, they are not domesticated! What’s more, if there was an incident of an animal becoming aggressive towards humans, be it bear or elk, that animal is often put down if rehabilitation isn’t successful or viable. Sad as it may sound, it’s important that the animals remain fearful of humans – for their own protection, and ours.
So what should you do?
The number one rule is don’t feed the wildlife. Anyone caught with their arm out their car window offering snacks to animals can face a fine up to $1,000, and for good reason. Animals that learn to expect food from humans, and lose their fear of us, can become too comfortable in spaces that aren’t natural or safe for them. This can cause the animal to be put down or “destroyed” as they, unfortunately, so often put it. Also, as exciting as it may be to see bears and wildlife from the safety of our car windows, the highway is a bad spot for them, especially at night – and hitting a large animal with a car is extremely dangerous for the driver and any passengers.
For animals like elk or bighorn sheep, if you find yourself close to them (and you very well might during any walk through a town in the rockies), try and keep your distance and stay respectful of their space. I’ve had a female elk charge me after we surprised each other around a corner. Thankfully it was a bluff, and I backed away to find a different route. After all, I’m the one intruding on her space, and she likely had a young one hidden nearby. It was a definite wake-up call to be more careful on my morning walks! I’ve seen elk in groups before, while I was also in a group of people, and had no problems. Being one-on-one with a large animal that didn’t want me there was another story.
There are a lot of resources on bear safety you can find online, but the reality is, you do not want to find a bear while you’re out and about on foot. Instead of carrying “bear bells,” travel in groups if you’re hiking and talk constantly so that any nearby bears know where you are. Our voices carry far! They aren’t interested in humans, and will steer clear. Just in case, always make sure you have bear spray on you if you’re going into the bush. You can use it on any large animal that comes too close if all else fails.
“All of this stems from a bigger problem, one that many of us are guilty for: feeling invincible as soon as you leave home.”
In the case of wildlife in western Canada’s national parks, it’s not always just the tourist that pays the price. It’s the animals, or even other visitors and locals, who have to make up for it. Any animal big enough to pose a threat that becomes too comfortable around humans is at risk of being captured and destroyed. This is doubly heartbreaking considering it’s their home to begin with, not ours. So if you think the elk that’s “playfully” butting heads with a photographer is cute, or you’re doing a bear a favor by passing it cheese from your car window, think again. That elk had to be put down, and that bear is at risk of the same thing if a similar event occurs again.
All of this stems from a bigger problem, one that many of us are guilty for: feeling invincible as soon as you leave home. It does seem that many tourists manage to make fools of themselves for not understanding the country they’re visiting, and this is just another example of a bigger trend. Whether it’s not knowing social customs, misunderstanding the language, or being all-around disrespectful (purposefully or not), a few ‘bad’ tourists can give all travelers a bad rap. It’s important to do your research before you take a trip, avoid potential fines, and respect wild animals and their home.
Have you ever encountered wildlife during your travels? What did you do? Do you have any other tips regarding wildlife safety? Leave them in the comments!
This is part of our “Like a Local” series, a series which features local voices speaking up about their home country or home town, whether it’s to educate tourists about a common misconception or tell them about the best place for local grub. If you’d like to contribute to this series and write about your country, check out our submission guidelines.