How not to get mauled by a bear: Jasper wildlife guardians protect animals, tourists
Don't be like the guy that fought a bighorn sheep
Valerie Domaine says the dumbest thing she has ever seen a tourist do in Jasper National Park is fight a bighorn sheep.
"The person saw that male bighorn sheep on the side of the road and thought that it would be funny to wrestle the sheep," Domaine said. "So [he] grabbed the sheep by the horns and, for sure, the sheep started to fight back."
Park staff quickly put an end to the fighting match when they arrived at the scene, she said.
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Domaine is a human wildlife conflict specialist and it's her job to ensure face-to-face interactions between people and wild animals don't happen, though sheep wrestling is a rarity.
She's a liaison for Jasper National Park's wildlife guardians, a seven-person team that facilitates animal viewing along the roads that weave through the rolling mountains and turquoise lakes of the park.
The guardians keep visitors and animals safe by managing what they call wildlife jams — traffic jams that happen when tourists slow or stop their vehicles on busy roads to view an animal.
"Their job is really to spend all day managing those jams and telling people what we expect from them, so hopefully next time they see an animal, if no Parks Canada staff is on scene, they will know what to do," Domaine said.
"They will basically allow people to stop and view the animal if it is a safe road to do so — if there's not too much traffic and if the animal is not stressed."
In a jam
Domaine and wildlife guardian Christina Timms spent Friday morning patrolling the park in their van, keeping an eye out for wildlife. At about 11 a.m., they got a radio call notifying them of a large bear jam just past Maligne Canyon, about 11 kilometres northeast of the townsite.
It would turn into one of the most difficult jams they've ever managed.
Cars, motorcycles and RVs cluttered both sides of the road as tourists tried to catch a glimpse of a female grizzly walking along the shoulder.
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Some people leaned out of their vehicles, car doors open, while others popped out of their sunroofs. A select few people got out of their vehicles entirely.
Domaine and Timms immediately got to work.
Timms hopped out of the van to manage traffic, telling people to keep moving or pull over and wait in line if they wanted to see the bear.
With every person stopping, getting out of their vehicle, it doesn't take long that the animals lose their fear.- Valerie Domaine, human wildlife conflict specialist
Domaine delivered key messages about how to view the grizzly safely.
"If you want to see it, feel free to pull over, take a quick photo and keep moving. But remain in your car, please," she told one driver, gesturing up the road to where the small grizzly was sniffing through lush vegetation.
She spent the next hour and a half repeating the same safety message to visitors.
Seriously, stay in the car
Getting out of the car to take photos of an animal is one of the biggest mistakes people make, Domaine said.
"The animals, they learn very quickly. And with every person stopping, getting out of their vehicle, it doesn't take long that the animals lose their fear," she said, adding that animals get used to cars, but not people as long as they stay inside.
People also shouldn't feed the animals, she said, no matter how hungry they look.
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"With time, they will learn that it's okay to approach people to look for food and this is when it becomes more at risk for them to get into the campgrounds, the townsite," she said. "After that, we are more at risk to get dangerous encounters."
She highlighted one such encounter in Jasper in July, when a black bear charged a woman who got out of her car to get a closer look at the animal.
"That bear has been approached by people so often that it started to be stressed and didn't like people to approach him that much. So it learned that by being aggressive toward them … people back off," Domaine said, noting park staff monitored the bear following the incident to ensure it didn't return to the area.
If an animal gets too aggressive, park staff might have to put it down — something Domaine said can be avoided if people give wildlife space.
Some spectacular wildlife watching from INSIDE the car, thanks to Jasper National Park staff. <a href="https://t.co/F2o9bOBerv">pic.twitter.com/F2o9bOBerv</a>—@annamcmills
A frustrating but rewarding job
On a busy day in the summer, wildlife guardians manage three to five wildlife jams, Timms said. Some can last hours. In a year, guardians and conflict specialists deal with 500 jams on average, though some are more difficult to manage than others.
Friday's jam was particularly tough because the bear was on the move.
"When the animal is also moving and you're moving, then it's hard because all the traffic that backs up behind [makes it] harder to communicate with people," Timms said.
Because traffic was heavy and constantly moving, some motorists managed to sneak past Timms and Domaine before they could deliver instructions. But for the most part, those who did get the safety spiel respected the rules and got a good look at the bear.
"When you get somebody thanking you big time because you've let them watch that bear for 15 seconds and they got the shot that they thought they would never be able to get, it's just such a big reward," Domaine said.
"It makes you forget all the other times where people got mad at you because you could not let them stop."
Both Timms and Domaine hope park visitors can continue to experience wildlife viewing well into the future.
"Hopefully people want to see the wildlife because they like seeing animals out there," Timms said. "And if we want to keep our animals wild and happy and free and in our park, then we need people to respect the rules."