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Wildlife experts urge people to take extra caution as persistent snow keeps bears in valley bottoms

Wildlife experts near Canmore are warning about more bears than normal around the Bow Valley as persistent snow has forced some animals to forage for food closer to valley bottoms.

Bears are always common in spring, but there are more hanging around this year

Bears are sticking closer to valley bottoms than usual this year because there's still so much snow on the mountains, say wildlife experts. (Jamin Mulvey)

Wildlife experts near Canmore are warning about more bears than normal around the area as persistent snow has forced some animals to forage for food closer to valley bottoms.

It's not a concerning development, the experts say, but they're asking hikers, campers and anyone else using natural areas to have heightened awareness of their surroundings this spring.

"It's more about respect and less about fear," said Dan Rafla, a human wildlife coexistence specialist in Banff National Park.

"If they're in the valley bottom feeding near a campground, and you leave your food out, just through close proximity, it may give them a crime of opportunity. We have had no behavioural issues, but if they get into food, that's when we start getting quite concerned."

Bears are hyper-focused on finding nutrients after waking up from a long winter slumber, Rafla said. They're interested in fresh greens, roots and dandelions — berries are not in season yet — and currently, most of those can be found on roadsides and on the edges of towns.

Elk are also a common food source. Elk are giving birth around this time of year, and are often found around the valley bottom. 

Their young are immobile for about two weeks, so it's an opportune time for bears to strike. But it also means an added warning for nature enthusiasts.

Elk mothers are giving birth around this time of year, and they are very protective of their young. (Beth Spencer)

"Elk is a dangerous animal. They're not small animals," said Nick de Ruyter, Wildsmart program director at the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley.

"Those female elk are very, very protective of their young, and we need to be prepared for that and be ready for that … there's no reason to approach wildlife ever."

As the season goes on and the snow melts, wildlife will disperse to more areas, but in the meantime, there are safety precautions people should take when heading out into the wild this month.

Bear safety 101

Bears really just want to eat right now, Rafla said, so it's important to let them do that.

"If they are disturbed and pushed by people they may bluff charge or vocalize to indicate that you're getting too close," he said.

So far, they haven't had any serious reported incidents, but they're reminding people to have bear spray around and know how to use it, even on river paths or spots close to town.

"Make sure it hasn't expired, have it accessible on your body, not stuck in your backpack. That's quite important," Rafla said.

While enjoying the Bow Valley this spring, make sure to bring bear spray, keep your dog on a leash and pack up any food, wildlife experts say. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Also try to travel in groups, keep your dog on a leash and if you see any evidence a bear has been nearby, turn around and leave the area.

If you do see a bear, try to stay calm, Rafla said. If it hasn't noticed you, turn around and give it a wide berth. If it has, talk to the bear calmly and move away. Report the sighting too, so wildlife officials can monitor any potential trends.

If you see bears or elk on the side of the road, you should also be cautious.

"We as people are kind of stressing them out and preventing them from getting the food they need because we're trying to take our pictures and trying to get up close and all that stuff," de Ruyter said. 

"We need to give them the space."

With files from Dave Gilson

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