Do you remember your first share house? You might remember those first experiences when you stepped over unknown boundaries into your roommates ‘personal space’. Not because you meant too but because you didn’t know those boundaries existed.
Everyday as humans we have multiple encounters with one another. Even though we are the same species we fumble and make mistakes. When we do so we have the gift of communication in common to help bridge the gap. We can apologize in words and in gestures. We might overstep boundaries but we have the tools to quite easily repair them if we choose.
This can’t be said for our relationship with wildlife.
More and more we are intruding on wildlife’s ‘personal space’. While we have always been roommates, humans are in the process of taking over the house and we don’t have the same communication to make amends so easily. In Canada we are incredibly lucky to still have vast wilderness. However, the growth of urban areas and outdoor recreation is degrading these spaces and putting stress on the wildlife that depend on them. As Tawnya Hewitt, a Wildlife Conflict and Coexistent Specialist for Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Park explained to me recently, “a lot of wildlife are quite adaptable but we are currently encroaching into their wild spaces”.
That is not to say all human encounters with wildlife are bad but even seemingly harmless interactions can be detrimental to the animals involved when they happen repetitively. While you might not intentionally mean to disrupt wildlife, actions such as intentionally feeding them, leaving human food for them to eat or not remaining at an appropriate distance away from them can have serious consequences on their health and ability to survive.
As visitors in wild animals habitat it is sometimes difficult to comprehend how our behavior can be so damaging. Part of the problem lies in our inability to understand their social cues. “Most people don’t know how to read animal’s behavior so they don’t realize how often they are stressing the animal out” explains Tawnya. “When a bear is pinning its ears back, huffing or smacking its lips, that is the bear saying ‘I’m not comfortable’.” While we might have a once-off exciting encounter with wildlife and want to get closer to capture the moment what we don’t realize that this is a stressful, reoccurring incident. In heavily travelled corridors like Banff National Park this stressful encounter could occur on a daily basis eliciting much more than a once-off response.
For example, in Mount Revelstoke National Park following an incident between a male grizzly bear and an off-leash dog in 2018, Tawnya began tracking the bear with a GPS collar. When a similar instance occurred this summer, in which the grizzly chased another off-leash dog back to its owners, Tawnya was able to watch the bear’s instant response. “Right after the incident I started monitoring the bear”, explains Tawnya, “I watched him take off and stay on the move for 12 hours. He then stopped and stayed in the same place for three days not moving. This was not typical behavior for this bear. Encounters like this can result in displacing animals that are trying to meet their survival needs, taking them away from good feeding areas, which in the long run could impact the health of pregnant bears and offspring.”
Photo: Ray Schmidt
When you couple this with the fact that grizzly bears have some of the lowest reproductive rates of all mammals and many die human-caused deaths, you can start to see why it is so integral that we think about how we interact with wildlife.
Parks Canada is especially aware of this issue. Rather than not allowing people to enter areas that are protected they are trying to facilitate a shared space where flora and fauna can flourish and visitors still have the opportunity to enjoy and explore the parks. When I asked Tawnya about the best way to keep our encounters with wildlife positive she kept it pretty simple, “put wildlife first, keep them wild and give them the space they need.”
Keeping wildlife wild is a shared responsibility and everyone has a role to play.
1 - Bring bear spray
2 - Leave dogs at home or on a leash
3 - Respect speed limits and closures
About Nat Segal
Nat Segal is a professional skier and producer. Originally from Australia, she is known for her high energy, adventurous spirit and driven personality. For six years Nat traveled the world as a top competitor in freeride skiing events taking podiums on both the Freeride and Freeskiing World Tours. She has since shifted gears away from competition towards film, writing and ski expeditions." www.nataliesegal.com | @nat_segal