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Wildlife expert says animal encounters a risk as visitors return to Alberta parks

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, animals have become more bold and comfortable on roadways and paths. Now, one expert is warning those visiting Alberta's parks and recreational areas to be alert when out hiking and camping. 

Animals were comfortable on trails and roads with less traffic during pandemic restrictions

Animals have become more bold since the pandemic and now, one expert is warning those visiting Alberta's recreational areas to be alert when out hiking or camping. Stuart McKelvie got up close and personal with an Elk outside his Canmore home in March. (Submitted by Stuart McKelvie)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, animals have become more bold and comfortable on roadways and paths and now, one expert is warning those visiting Alberta's recreational areas to be alert when out hiking or camping. 

In March, the province temporarily suspended vehicle access to its parks and recreational areas.

Along with Alberta's plans to restart the economy and slowly open up in May, access to parks was restored though there are still limited services, like access to bathrooms.

Animals need to get used to people

With more human activity coming into parks, Nick De Ruyter, Wild Smart Program Director at the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley says he's concerned.

"Wildlife has been on the roads and on these well-travelled trails more so they're going to have to get used to seeing people again because it's been quiet for two months but really the concerning thing for me is that I want to make sure people are prepared for encounters," says De Ruyter.

Nick De Ruyter, the Wild Smart program director at the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, expects to see more wildlife encounters as more people venture outdoors. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

In Canmore, Stuart McKelvie says although seeing wildlife isn't new, in March he did get a surprise through his window.

"The first or second week of lockdown I woke up one morning, walked out my bedroom window and right here literally looking straight through a window right at me it was an elk," McKelvie said. "Right in my front yard."

He snapped a picture that went wild on social media. 

McKelvie said through the pandemic he's noticed animals travelling in bigger groups. He hopes this whole experience will help people see the importance of co-existing with wildlife.

Physical distancing rules for animals

De Ruyter says it's calving season for elk right now and bears may be out and about with their cubs. So it's even more important to prepare before heading out on a hike with bear spray and by making enough noise to keep wildlife away.

He's advising against planning big hiking trips outside of your own family or those you are isolating with. 

Physical distance between humans should be at least two metres but De Ruyter said animals need distance too.

If you see deer or elk, he recommends three school bus lengths, and for carnivores like bears, cougars or wolves it's best to stay 100 metres away.

Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley Wild Smart Program Director, Nick De Reuyter demonstrates how to use bear spray. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

Bathroom access has been limited in most areas, so De Ruyter says hikers should prepare to pack out what they pack in and don't leave garbage or human waste behind because those too could attract animals to trails and busy areas.

De Ruyter says it likely won't take long for the animals to figure out things are changing yet again.

"One thing I will say about the wildlife is that they're very quick at adapting and so as soon as all the people start coming back on the trails I think they'll quickly go back to their old ways."

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