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The Rockies.Life Staff

Last Meal For A Black Bear In Kananaskis Country 

De Ruyter shared a personal experience of the bear inches from his head while sleeping in his tent

Provincial wildlife officers shot and killed a black bear in Kananaskis Country over the Canada Day long weekend, highlighting just how devastating animal habituation is. 

The bear was killed after eating campers’ food at the Spray Lakes West Campground. The black bear approached people, grabbed food from picnic tables, stomped on a car, and ripped a tent.

A campsite at the Spray Lakes West Campground in Kananaskis Country
A campsite at the Spray Lakes West Campground in Kananaskis Country | Campendium 

The bear wasn’t acting out of fear; the reality of the situation is quite the opposite. 

The bear was fearless, a clear indication of habituation, according to Nick de Ruyter, program director for Bow Valley WildSmart, who was at the campsite. 

Habituation happens when an animal is repeatedly exposed to the same stimuli and eventually stops responding to that stimuli. 

For example, you might initially jump at the sound of a car alarm going off, but you will eventually relax as the noise continues. Assuming the car isn’t being stolen

In the same way, if a bear is constantly fed by humans or has access to human food, it will lose its natural fear of humans and start returning to places with easy access to these food sources.  

The black bear killed in Kananaskis had become used to human food sources and began relying on them, which led to a dangerous human-wildlife conflict.  

Most human-wildlife conflicts occur when people make human food sources like garbage, dog food, fruit trees, and camping food readily available for bears. 

Bears change their behaviour to exploit these resources, often leading to property damage or public safety concerns. De Ruyter experienced those safety concerns firsthand. 

A bear spotted in the background eyeing a campsite at the Spray Lakes West Campground in 2021  Alberta Parks  CTV News
A bear spotted in the background eyeing a campsite at the Spray Lakes West Campground in 2021 | Alberta Parks | CTV News

Too Close For Comfort 

De Ruyter was camping around the Spray Lakes West Campground with his friends and family, including his wife and two children, aged 7 and 8. 

“The next morning, the bear was literally inches from my head – because I sleep in a tent – and I could hear it breathing. It also went past a friend’s tent and it actually left what looked like, from the movie The Wolverine, big scratch marks in the tent fly,” de Ruyter told Rocky Mountain Outlook

Nick de Ruyter, WildSmart Program Director  Biosphere Institute
Nick de Ruyter, WildSmart Program Director | Biosphere Institute 

According to De Ruyter, his friends didn’t have food in their tent and didn’t even know about the bear until the next morning. 

In another instance, the bear was less than four metres from de Ruyter’s campsite.

“I was yelling, shouting, holding a chair over my head, and it couldn’t care less about me; it didn’t even flinch and would just stand there staring at me,” he said. 

The bear also damaged the campground manager’s trailer and climbed on the hood of a camper van. 

Wildlife officers were called to the campground on the evening of June 28. The officers set up traps to catch the bear on Saturday, but the bear avoided the traps and continued roaming the campsite.

The bear crossed the line when it approached and took food from a table with people. At that point, officers shot and killed the bear.

“Even after being deterred, even after being sprayed, to be that determined to still continue coming back to the picnic tables and trying to get food from people, a bear can’t recover from that,” said de Ruyter. 

Killing the bear might seem excessive, considering it was non-aggressive. Still, it’s important to remember that bears that are habituated will become bold and ultimately aggressive in getting food from humans. 

A series of tents torn up by a black bear in North Vancouver, British Columbia
A series of tents torn up by a black bear in North Vancouver, British Columbia | North Shores News

Better Safe Than Sorry

Alberta’s equivalent of “when in Rome, do as the Romans” is “when in bear country, respect the bears.” Bears can be found anywhere in the Rockies, and Kananaskis is no exception.

A map of the Bow Valley Provincial Park and the surrounding campgrounds  BCKOR
A map of the Bow Valley Provincial Park and the surrounding campgrounds | BCKOR

People who enjoy the Spray Lakes West Campground accept the risk of a human-bear encounter when they choose to camp there. 

We can enjoy camping in nature, thanks to the dedicated efforts of wildlife and conservation officers and the natural fear of bears towards humans. Their work is invaluable and deserves our gratitude. 

The odds of being attacked by a bear are pretty low, but they aren’t zero. It never hurts to be too careful. De Ruyter recommends keeping bear spray on you at all times while camping. 

Campers should never leave food unattended, even briefly, because it can attract bears and other wildlife. All food should be properly stored where it is inaccessible to animals, like in vehicles or bear-proof food lockers. 

If you’re on a budget or don’t have a car, store your food in air-tight containers like Ziplocs and hang it in a tree. 

“Keep children close by, be aware of your surroundings, look for tracks and scat, and if you see a fresh pile of scat, consider turning around or pulling out your bear spray or making even more noise because there’s likely a bear in the area,” advised de Ruyter.

If campers at the Spray Lakes West Campground weren’t Bear Smart, the outcome could have been very different. De Ruyter states that kids frequently ran into the bear by accident but reacted appropriately. 

“There were kids playing all over the woods and the bear was just cruising around through those areas. But the good thing is these were all Canmore kids, and they all did a good job. They all knew what to do. They were making noise and yelling at the bear to get away,” he explained.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers using rubber slugs and overhead explosives to haze a black bear in Teller County in Colorado, United States  Colorado Parks and Wildlife  KOAA
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers using rubber slugs and overhead explosives to haze a black bear in Teller County in Colorado, United States | Colorado Parks and Wildlife | KOAA

Bear Activity On The Rise

Shortly after the black bear was killed, a black bear bluff charge prompted a bear warning for a portion of High Rockies Trail on July 8.

Two days earlier, the area of Sparrow’s Egg Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park was closed due to a grizzly bear bluff charge.

These incidents speak to increasing bear activity in the province. At this time of year, bears frequent valley bottoms to feed on vegetation, including buffalo berries.  

Buffalo berries are a fruit-bearing shrub and are one of the bears’ favourite foods. Grizzly bears in and around Banff National Park have been known to eat over 200,000 buffalo berries daily. 

Food stored in a tree out of reach of bears and other wildlife | I Heart Pacific Northwest 

These irresistible berries ripen in July, drawing the attention of hungry bears looking to feast on these high-calorie berries. 

According to Mark Benson, acting human-wildlife conflict specialist with Banff National Park, bears are so distracted by buffalo berries that they aren’t aware of their surroundings and are easier to accidentally surprise.

The first buffalo berries to ripen will be in the valley bottoms in open areas like train tracks, picnicking, and campsites like the Spray Lakes West Campground. 

Buffalo berries have been known to ripen faster in Kananaskis than in other areas of the province, meaning we could see increased bear activity sooner. 

However, a 2019 University of Calgary study predicts climate change could cause a berry shortage in the Rockies over the next 60 years. 

“We can expect to see them at times and in places where we’re not used to seeing them. I think it could be argued that we’re already witnessing that,” said Dr. Greg McDermid, PhD, a geography professor and researcher on the study.

Although black bears are considered carnivorous, up to 90 percent of their diet consists of plant matter like berries and nuts. 

A berry shortage might cause a black bear to seek out human food sources out of desperation, eventually leading to habituation and potentially death. 

The latest black bear killing at the Spray Lakes West Campground in Kananaskis is a reminder to be Bear Smart and take precautions to prevent an encounter while in bear country. 

A grizzly bear chowing down on some buffalo berries  Alex Taylor  Parks Canada  CBC News
A grizzly bear chowing down on some buffalo berries | Alex Taylor | Parks Canada | CBC News

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