Residents in Banff, Alta. and nearby towns say far too many tourists are approaching bears and other wildlife in order to get photos, and they worry someone will get hurt — or killed — during the peak tourist season this summer.
"It scares me," said Carol Picard, a Canmore resident who has lived in the Bow Valley area for the past 25 years. "Something very bad could happen this summer. And I don't know that it's entirely preventable."
Parks Canada, Alberta Parks and other organizations concerned with wildlife safety routinely warn visitors to keep their distance from wild animals, but that advice is often ignored.
Picard, a former editor of Canmore's Rocky Mountain Outlook newspaper, worries the situation will only get worse as summer progresses and the number of visitors grows.
Close encounter with grizzly
With national park entry fees waived for Canada' 150th birthday this year, Banff is bracing for record-setting tourist numbers.
"To be honest, I think the federal government's rolling out of that free-pass system didn't really comprehend the implications at the granular level," Picard said.
On Sunday, a Banff National Park visitor walked right up to a grizzly on the side of a road in an apparent bid for a closeup photo, and the encounter was caught on video by another photographer operating at a distance with a telephoto lens.
Several people who live in the area have since contacted CBC News to say that type of behaviour is all too common.
'This is not a good idea'
The issue has also been a hot topic of discussion on local social-media groups, where several other photos have been circulating of mountain visitors getting out of their vehicles and walking within mere metres of grizzly or black bears.
Jarold Ketterer took one of those photos on Tuesday morning when he was driving to work in the Lake Louise area and spotted an older man getting out of a vehicle to approach a grizzly on the side of the road.
"He would have been maybe 20 feet from this bear," Ketterer said.
"I pulled over and told him: 'Just get back in your car. This is not a good idea.' And he just looked at me like I was stupid ... and then there were other people getting out of their cars, walking up behind him."
Ketterer has lived in Canmore — a town of about 13,000 people just east of the Banff park gate — since 1988 and said area residents are growing frustrated by how often these types of things occur.
'Have some respect'
"People are just sick of it, to be honest," he said. "If you're going to come here, have some respect for the wildlife."
He said this was the fourth or fifth incident he had personally witnessed so far this season.
Overall, he doesn't believe tourists are more aggressive toward wildlife than they were in the past — he just thinks there are more and more tourists for animals to contend with.
Stephen Legault, a program director with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, also said the main issue right now is the growing number of visitors to the mountain parks.
He said most amateur photographers mean no harm — they simply don't understand the danger they're creating for both themselves and the bears.
Can result in animal death, too
Aside from the immediate risk of provoking a defensive response from the wild creatures, Legault said it's harmful in the long run for animals like bears and wolves and cougars to become too accustomed to having humans so close by.
"It can result in the animals being destroyed, and that's an incredibly sad thing to have happen," he said.
"And my guess is that anybody who gets close to wildlife and is trying to take a picture of them … probably doesn't want to see that happen."
Resource conservation manager Bill Hunt said Banff National Park has spent "a considerable amount of effort" trying to educate visitors about safe wildlife viewing.
"It's certainly a challenge and it's one that's increasingly frustrating for us," he said.
He said the messages to visitors go out online and through tourism agencies, accommodation providers and guiding services, as well as on signs at the gates and throughout the parks.
Managing 'bear jams'
Some Parks Canada employees also deliver messages in person.
"We have a significant number of people out roving day-use areas," Hunt said.
"We have wildlife guardians that travel in vans — specially marked vans — up and down our secondary roads to help manage bear jams and help offer advice and guidance on safe wildlife viewing."
Parks Canada advises photographers to stay 30 metres away from elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats — and 100 metres away from bears, wolves and cougars.
When taking photos of animals from a vehicle, visitors are asked to pull over only in locations where it is safe to do so, use their hazard lights to alert other drivers and not linger too long.
Hunt said there are enforcement options for serious breaches.
The maximum penalty for for disturbing wildlife can theoretically run as high as $25,000, but Hunt wasn't aware of that ever actually happening.
He said some people have been issued fines "in the thousands of dollars."
Time for 'shock messaging'?
Picard said there's only so much Parks Canada can do to communicate with the millions of visitors that Banff receives on an annual basis.
She wonders, though, if it's time to ramp up the "gentle education" approach to something more attention-grabbing.
"I just think we need to get some shock messaging out there," she said.
Legault said national parks have developed an increasingly commercial atmosphere over the years and there needs to be more emphasis on "developing a respectful relationship with nature" in the messaging visitors receive once they get past the gates.
As a wildlife photographer himself, Legault said he understands the urge to take pictures of nature's most majestic creatures but, at the same time, all photographers have a "principal responsibility" to not harm the animals.
"If you can't get a shot without allowing those animals to remain safe and undisturbed, then don't take the shot," he said.
"It's better to have the animal still there in the future than put it at risk by, frankly, a selfish desire to get a photo."