This is an exclusive interview with Steve Michel. As the Human Wildlife Conflict Specialist for the Banff Field Unit, Steve Michel and his team are responsible for reacting to, but more importantly, preventing conflicts between visitors and various wildlife species, including black and grizzly bears, cougars, wolves and elk. Rather than placing the onus on animals to change their behaviour, much of Steve’s efforts are focused on modifying human behaviour through education and awareness, to responsibly and peacefully share the landscape.
Steve holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.
What bear types are usually seen around RV parks in Alberta?
- Both black and grizzly bears are commonly seen in the mountain national parks throughout Alberta and eastern BC (Banff, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, Yoho, Kootenay, Glacier and Mt Revelstoke National Parks).
What are the top 3 recommendations you have for anyone camping, hiking, cycling, and RVing in the Canadian Rockies or any environment where there are bears?
- Be extremely vigilant with storing all your attractants (food, garbage, pet food, items with odours)
- The best way to manage a serious bear encounter is to avoid having one in the first place – learn about bear safety and how to avoid an encounter before you head out on your next adventure (more information and links below)
- If you plan on venturing out on the trails within the park, once you’ve learned the essentials of bear safety, buy yourself some bear spray and learn how to use it.
What type of scents attracts bears? Is there any way people can avoid attracting bears by putting their food and other scented items in bear safe containers? How well do these containers work to deter bears from ripping through regular food containers or plastic bags?
- The simplest thing for visitors that are travelling in a hard-sided RV is to leave all food/garbage and any items with odours inside your vehicle when you’re not at your campsite. Never leave any of these items unattended – including items like dishes and cutlery, coolers, empty cans and bottles – all of these need to be properly stored where bears cannot access them. You can find more tips and information about Parks Canada’s “BARE” camp site program at this link: www.pc.gc.ca/docs/v-g/oursgest-bearmanag/sec7/og-bm7a.aspx.
How effective is bear spray or any of the bear safety accessories that people should always carry with them like whistles and bangers? Are bangers allowed in National Parks in Canada and the US? What dangers are there with bangers? How well do bangers work compared to whistles?
- Bear spray has been proven to be very effective and we recommend all visitors that are venturing onto park trails carry it with them. Bangers require lots of training as they can present a significant hazard both to those using them and also to bears, so we don’t recommend their use for park visitors. Both people and bears have been killed by improper use of bear bangers as they are explosive devices. Whistles are always a good safety measure to pack along for several reasons.
Should people react differently with grizzly bears compared to black bears or does it depend on the situation?
- It depends entirely on the circumstances of each unique situation, but being able to properly distinguish the species will provide you with good insight into the bear’s behavior and their possible intent. We encourage visitors to review our bear safety brochure, “Bears and People” for more information on how to deal with a bear encounter: www.pc.gc.ca/docs/v-g/oursgest-bearmanag/sec7/og-bm7.aspx.
When being approached by a bear, why do some people suggest playing dead while others recommend fighting for your life? Why does there appear to be a contradiction and what is the best response when being approached and/or attacked by a bear?
- Your response to a given situation depends entirely on whether the bear is motivated for defensive (e.g. protecting cubs or a critical food source) versus predatory reasons. Again, please refer to the above link for much more detail on how best to manage a bear encounter.
How effective is bear spray? What are the top 3 bear spray brands? What are some precautions people should take when using bear spray? Has bear spray ever not worked in some of the bear attack cases you have seen?
- As previously mentioned, bear spray has been scientifically proven to be very effective and we endorse its use by park visitors. We don’t endorse any particular brand, but be sure that you buy it from a reputable retailer and if you purchase it in Canada be sure that it has a registration number listed with the “pest control product acts” on the label. You should also make sure that the expiry date (generally found on a label on the bottom of the can) is approx 3 years from the date of purchase. The biggest precaution people should take is to be careful about wind conditions if they have to use bear spray – it is easily affected by the wind and could drift back towards you. It is advisable to familiarize yourself with bear spray and test fire your canister before you may need to use it in an actual encounter situation.
What are the primary reasons why bears attack? Are you seeing a rise in bear attacks in the Canadian Rockies? If so, why do you think bear attacks are increasing now?
- The primary reason for bear attacks in the mountain parks would be from defensive bears (protecting cubs or an important food source). Bear attacks aren’t increasing, but visitation levels continue to rise in the parks, so naturally we can expect to see an increase in human/bear encounters, most of which are benign. It’s important for visitors to keep the threat in context – we only see about one in 4 million visitors actually come into some kind of negative contact with a bear! Most visitors will get a chance to see a bear alongside the road or while they’re out for a hike, but it will be an excellent visitor experience without any negative consequence to either themselves or the bear.
How should people deal with bears roaming in an RV park compared to an encounter while hiking for example?
- Bears near an RV park or a frontcountry campground will likely be much more accustomed to people and generally will be less reactive to people’s presence than more wary bears that are encountered along a hiking trail away from the campground. In some areas (particularly outside of the national park system where secure garbage storage is less common), bears that visit campgrounds could be conditioned to human food or garbage, presenting a hazard to visitors. It is always advisable to give all bears as wide a berth as possible.
What months are bears usually the most active/inactive and why?
- In the mountain parks we see significant bear activity begin in early May until early summer. If the berry crop is good, then we continue to see bears in lower elevation areas near campgrounds throughout the remainder of the summer and early fall. Although bears can be active until Christmas, in most areas bear activity falls off noticeably after early October.
What are the current fines given by the government involving bear precautions that are not adhered to? How much are these fines?
- In Alberta, violations of the Canada National Parks Act such as ignoring garbage storage regulations or entering an area that has been closed because of bear activity require an appearance in court where the judge determines the appropriate fine – it can be as high as $25,000, so it’s best to adhere to all the national park regulations!
Are there any additional suggestions and information sources you would like to share with the RV community about bear safety?
- Yes I would encourage your readers to visit our Parks Canada bear information website. It will direct you to the links I’ve already provided for more information about bear safety and camping in bear country, and it also has great information on bear ecology and conservation and weekly bear updates on where bears have been observed in the mountain parks. The website can be found at: www.pc.gc.ca/mtn-bears
- Another great website I recommend for people travelling in provincial parks like Kananaskis Country is found at: www.wildsmart.ca.
- The best video produced on bear safety is called “Staying safe in bear country” and can be found at many local libraries or video rental stores.
- The best book on bear safety is called “Bear Attacks: their causes and avoidance” by Stephen Herrero and is widely available.
We hope your readers enjoy their visit to the parks and have a great summer exploring our beautiful country!
Human/Wildlife Conflict Specialist
Banff National Park of Canada