Meanwhile, in the wildlife specialists’ offices at the local warden compound,
a team of investigators tracking the dramatic incidents have theorized that the unusual encounters are not the result of an impending animal apocalypse; rather, they are the culmination of a variety of ecological factors which are not only perfectly natural, but—considering the space humans share with wildlife in Jasper’s Three Valley Confluence—more or less predictable. By the same token, five separate aggressive grizzly incidents are thought to be the result of one bear’s particularly randy behaviour.
“Upon investigation, it appears that the [grizzly] charges were potentially from the same bear in a defensive breeding situation,” a Parks Canada update stated on June 11.
On May 24, cyclist Etienne Cardinal startled a grizzly bear on the Pyramid Bench, near Cottonwood Slough. Thanks to a fortuitously-placed can of bear spray, he escaped with only minor injuries, but the incident had Jasper trail users understandably freaked out. Then, eight days later, on May 31, a spate of grizzly-vehicle encounters had motorists on edge: four bluff charges, including one incident where a bear made contact with a vehicle near Moberly Bridge, caused Parks Canada to issue sweeping trail closures as well as fan out multiple bear safety memos. As rumours of crazed carnivores gathered steam, Parks officials wondered about a connection. They knew that since 2011, when unseasonably deep snow in the alpine forced normally-reclusive grizzlies down to the more fertile valley bottom, approximately 20-25 grizzly bears regularly roamed Jasper’s Three Valley Confluence each May, chowing on the green golf course grass, finding elk calves in campgrounds and sniffing out septic fields as prime sources of nutrient-rich food. After the spring seasons subsided and the summers started to bloom up high, the bears would retreat to the hills, but their memories of easy-to-come-by food in the valley during the normally-lean months was not dulled by hibernation; as Human Wildlife Conflict Specialist Steve Malcolm says: “Once they identified some survival benefits they became habituated.”
Add to that recipe another potentially potent behaviour ingredient: breeding. Males weren’t the only grizzlies finding higher food value in lower elevation areas. Says Malcolm: females coming down to the greened-up food source, plus males coming down to breed, spelled a higher chance of unpredictable Ursus activity.
That volatile formula is where the May 31 incidents stem from, in all likelihood—although officials didn’t necessarily put it together at the time. What they knew was that a grizzly (or grizzlies) was bluff charging vehicles—on four separate occasions in less than 24 hours. It happened twice near Jasper Park Riding Stables on Pyramid Lake Road, around 6 p.m., and twice more near Moberly Bridge, two kilometres east of Jasper, at 11 p.m. In all four incidents drivers with fairly extensive bear-viewing experience had “had the hell scared out of them,” Malcolm said.
It’s not until you look at a map of the area surrounding the Jasper townsite that you begin to understand how all five aggressive encounters could be perpetrated by one animal. For two-legged species, the points don’t seem to have a conjoining corridor, however, for a grizzly, navigating the space between Cottonwood Slough, the horse stables and Moberly Bridge is as simple as a golfer walking down a fairway.
“It’s pretty easy for a bear to travel back and forth there,” Malcolm said. “I don’t think it would take him more than an hour.”
Zooming out to consider the five different encounters, biologists now postulate that the aggressive charges were related to the behaviour of one breeding pair, rather than the predatory actions of several animals. In other words, they consider them as five pieces of the same pattern. Seeing such structured behaviour makes Malcolm—whose job could involve putting up trail closures, rigging up wildlife cameras, relocating animals and, in extreme circumstances, destroying problem bears—happy to not have to go down the latter road.
“We don’t move to destruction unless we feel there’s a serious safety threat,” Malcolm said.
Sitting in his office, with a thumbed-through copy of Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks close at hand, Malcolm is scrolling over a digital map of Jasper’s Three Valley Confluence. As Jasper’s human-wildlife conflict specialist, he’s been the voice of reason when the CBC and other large media outlets call looking for comment on the rash of Jasper’s 2014 bear “attacks.” One assumes that Malcolm’s naturally easy manner, which is so effective for talking down a headline-hungry reporter, would also be well-suited for calming a captured grizzly bear after its tranquilizer dart wore off. And since he had only days before set up a bear trap, baiting it with an elk carcass and stringing the area with motion-triggered cameras, it’s not entirely out of the question that Malcolm would have soon been speaking soothingly to a grumpy grizzly.
“With two bluff charges on vehicles, we wanted to get a good look at this bear,” Malcolm said, explaining the reason for the trap. “[We thought] maybe it had an injury, or broken teeth.”
What led them away from that idea and towards the breeding behaviour theory was several sightings of a different grizzly. This was not the charging male described as “big, powerful and athletic,” by corroborated motorist reports, but a smaller, more docile bear. With two grizzlies in play, and considering the timing of the mating season, it was likely that the charging male was reacting to having been separated from a female—first by cars, near the stables, then by a train, near Moberly Bridge.
“That would explain some of his behaviour,” Malcolm said. “And that’s a little more acceptable that he would be so aggressive...breeding behaviour is unpredictable.”
The idea that there were two bears courting and the male had become aggressive when that ritual was interrupted was given more credence seven days after the succession of May 31 bluff charges. On June 5, another grizzly encounter was reported on Highway 16 West. There, about five kilometres out of town, Jasperite Sylvie McKenzie had just witnessed the wrath of an upset male grizzly. After spotting two bears running back and forth across the road, she slowed her Honda Fit to a crawl, inadvertently coming between the two beasts. The male apparently took exception.
“I could see it drooling in my rearview mirror,” she said. “It ran up to the car and—bam! It hit my car with both front paws!”
The bear scratched and dented the rear passenger side door and broke the door handle, causing approximately $4,000 worth of damage. McKenzie was shaken.
“It was so powerful, I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Malcolm, who’s been with Parks Canada for more than 25 years, said he was surprised by the incident, but not shocked.
“Here you have a mating pair that’s been together for quite a while...they were ramped up with aggression during one 24 hour period,” Malcolm said.
Malcolm’s experience has taught him that every bear has an individual personality—some get more “ramped up” than others. More importantly, however, bear behaviour more often than not follows a pattern. That pattern comes down to survival—it’s why they come down from the alpine early, search for grain on railroad tracks, or act aggressively towards a threat to their ability to breed.
Parks Canada has mitigated the risk of human-wildlife encounters by managing food and garbage since 1980, but that management can only go so far. As long as the town of Jasper exists in Jasper National Park, there will still be human-affected areas where bears will find it easier to make a living.
For animal conflict specialists in Jasper, there’s been a lot of lessons in 100-plus years of co-existing with wildlife. Continuous education and enjoying a healthy respect for wildlife will help us all thrive in that dynamic relationship.
“We don’t need to cull every threat to ensure our safety,” Malcolm says. “We’ve seen we can live with wildlife as long as we have clearly defined safety boundaries.”