It is no surprise that wild animals have a rocky relationship with humans

Whether it be the urban expansion into their natural habitat or individuals simply getting too close for a photo, Alberta’s predatory species will employ their best defensive maneuvers to protect themselves and their spawn. However, recent patterns in the behavior of some of our province’s greatest predators suggest human impacts and conflicts have increased, and show no signs of slowing down.

Tension in the neighbourhood
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This phenomenon poses a critical dilemma facing both humans and wildlife in Alberta, in that the potential for human-wildlife conflicts is growing at an unprecedented rate, with an overwhelming rise in sightings of some of Alberta’s most elusive wildlife.

Tension in the Neighbourhood is a new project examining the uptick in predator encounters throughout Alberta, as well as potential solutions for a healthy co-existence now and in the future.

When imagining a dangerous encounter with wildlife in Alberta, many will picture a hike through a forested path, with a wild animal, such as a bear, suddenly appearing out of the brush and fleeing without leaving so much as a scratch on the humans it stumbled upon. 

Parks Canada photograph of two cougars outside of the Banff Springs staff accommodation.

This hypothetical run-in can certainly get adrenaline rushing, but it is far cry from most typical encounters. 

Despite remote settings still harboring many of these encounters, researchers and first-responders across Alberta are noticing more and more apex predators popping up in the backyards of humans, especially in urban municipalities. 

This is a concerning trend for both humans and predators alike, as these unfamiliar beings and settings are incredibly stressful for the animal, leading to sporadic behavior. 

Kim Titchener is a consultant working out of Banff National Park. Tichener started in the field with a job in the park monitoring the bear population, doing telemetry work, following them around, figuring out where they were, and seeing if they were going to conflict with people. Titchener led a charitable organization called WildSmart whose goal is to proactively reduce human-wildlife conflicts in the Bow Valley. Now, Titchener works full time for the consulting company she founded called Bear Safety & More, where she works with large corporations and helps them reduce conflicts between their employees and wildlife. 

“In North America between 1955 and 2014, there were about 700 attacks, okay. And that’s from species like polar bear, black bear, grizzly, coyote, cougar, and wolf, those species. And what we’re seeing over time is an increasing number of attacks,” Titchener said. “But what’s interesting is that if you look at that, and compare it to the number of people going to state and national parks, there’s a direct correlation. So, it’s not necessarily in most cases, it’s not that there’s more wildlife, it’s that there’s more people going up to these environments where these animals live.” 

Additionally, many individuals have no idea how to properly handle an encounter when a dangerous predator doesn’t choose a flight response. And with the recent substantial uptick in animal encounters, it is more likely than ever to happen.

The numbers

Between 2005 and 2016 in the City of Calgary alone, there were 218 cougar sightings reported to 311 — the city’s non-emergency line — alerting local fish and wildlife of a dangerous animal in the vicinity. However, in the three years following from 2017 to 2019, there was an explosion of 245 cougar sightings reported within the municipality.

A similar trend can be noted with bears, as in the same timeframe of 2005 and 2016 in Calgary, there were 155 bear sightings reported. Alarmingly, from 2017 to 2019, there have been 134 bear sightings reported in the last three years of this recorded data alone. 

With each passing year, more sightings of Alberta’s native fauna are being reported all over the province.

A bear spotted roaming a community in Cochrane. Photo: Facebook/Kari Aiello

This phenomenon poses a critical dilemma facing both humans and wildlife in Alberta, in that the potential for human-wildlife conflicts are growing at an unprecedented rate, with an overwhelming rise in sightings of some of Alberta’s most elusive wildlife

The impacts of human-wildlife conflicts

In an ideal world, encounters with these wild animals would be avoided entirely, with a responsible distance provided between these natural predator habitats and municipalities, hiking trails, and campsites that humans and their pets frequent. Yet as we continue to encroach into these territories, more sightings and conflicts are bound to occur. 

There are numerous ways encounters with these animals can play out — with a vast majority ending negatively for the animal involved. 

If lucky, a face-to-face encounter with a curious bear or mountain lion could result in the predator being shocked by the unfamiliar sight of a human. Following a brief standoff or the animal fleeing the area, individuals would report the run-in to local authorities as soon as possible and the area would be temporarily shut down. 

However, as animals become far more acquainted with the presence of humans, this pattern has become much less frequent, and their reactions have begun to shift. 

Many of these reasons include disturbing trends such as individuals feeding animals, getting too close for photos, and allowing pets to roam off-leash in areas of frequent sightings.

However, if we see the trends continue as they have, it can potentially have dangerous ramifications for humans and wildlife.  

According to research done by the University of Calgary, between 1960 and 1998 a total of 42 serious or fatal bear attacks occurred. As of November of 2021, the Bow Valley has already seen three fatal bear attacks this year alone.

A conflict with wildlife is almost always entirely avoidable. No one wants the conflicts to ever get to this point. Many experts throughout the province have devoted their careers to solving the problem. 

“We had grizzly bears in Calgary, we had grizzly bears in Edmonton. Periodically, we have black bears follow these riverbeds, like the North Saskatchewan, right into the cities. These rivers are corridors of movement. And unfortunately, if I’m a cougar or a bear and I walk down the Elbow River, I end up in the southern part of Calgary,” said Titchener.

“With my work in the Bow Valley, we absolutely had grizzly bears that would walk out to the Cochrane interchange and eat grain that had been dropped by vehicles, and then somehow they end up following one of the river bodies into the Calgary area.”

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Elections editor and reporter for the Calgary Journal.