Stay in your vehicle: Tourists still taking risks with Alberta wildlife

It's a message many tourists to Alberta's national parks still aren't hearing: Don't get too close to the wildlife.

'I guess they figure the bear can't get everyone,' says tour operator

Close encounters with bears are dangerous for both the bear and people trying to get pictures of it, says Matthew Paugh. (YouTube)

It's a message many tourists to Alberta's national parks still aren't hearing: Don't get too close to the wildlife.

That's something Matthew Paugh is familiar with.

The Vancouver man drives a tour bus for A.E. Vancouver Private Tours and Charters Inc.

He's been taking tourists through the Alberta Rockies for nearly 10 years.

Paugh was with a group on June 9, 2017 when he saw what he calls a "bear jam" — vehicles stopped on the Icefields Parkway about 30 kilometres south of Jasper, looking at a black bear on the side of the road.

Paugh started recording the encounter and put it on YouTube.

The video shows a number of people out of their cars, camera at the ready, perhaps trying to get a coveted selfie with a bear in the background.

"Tourists and even locals jumping out of their vehicles and walking straight up to what they see as, you know, this cuddly little creature and then having reality completely thrown out the window," he said.

When he saw how close some of the people were getting to the black bear, he decided to become a little more proactive, he said.

He started telling people to get back to their vehicles.

When that didn't work, he started laying on the horn to try and scare the bear away.

"Most people are pretty good once they have somebody kind of jolt them awake," he said. "They wake out of their stupor."

Matthew Paugh shot the video of the people getting close to the black bear in Jasper. (Matthew Paugh)

Not everyone appreciated the warning, though.

There was one man who yelled at him for ruining people's photos, he said.

People think they're safe on the road

It's the time of year when wildlife viewings, particularly of bears, are very common, said Trevor Lescard, general manager with Maligne Adventures in Jasper.

"The bears are still in the lower valley where the food is," he said.

The advent of selfies seems to be a trend that gets more people trying to get a picture of themselves with a bear or other wildlife in the background, he said.

"People seem to have this imaginary thought that if they're standing on the road that they're safe," said "They may be five feet off the road but people think, 'Well I'm on the road so I'm OK,' " he said.

Lescard said there's also a group mentality when it comes to bear jams and wildlife viewing.

"If nobody gets out of their car, then most people won't get out of the car," he said. "But the moment one person gets out of their car ... then everybody starts to flock out.

"I guess they figure the bear can't get everyone."

Dangerous for the bear, too

Paugh said he has often warned people of the dangers of being too close to wildlife when he's been driving through the Rockies.

He said it's important that people understand they're risking both their lives and the life of the bear.

"I've seen people trying to entice bears to the side of the road with food in their hands and then throwing food at the cubs and adults," he said.

Making sure the bears don't get habituated to humans and see them as a source of food is in the best interests of not just the tourists, but also the bears.

"You hear all too often stories about bears having to be put down or relocated because they've become too habituated," he said.

"As I said in the video, I'm not here to protect you guys, I'm here to protect the bear," he said.

The bear has no choice in the situation, but the people do, he said, adding he didn't want anybody to get hurt.

"But it's the wildlife that usually ends up getting the short end of the stick," he said.




Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.