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Human-wildlife conflict experts: humans can do better

“As we continue to encroach on their territory we can only expect more encounters,” ~ conservation specialist Kennedy Halvorson.
When it comes to conflicts with humans, the animals usually lose.

As human-wildlife interaction specialists strive to reinforce appropriate behaviours aimed at improving co-existence, a few key messages emerge as encounters inevitably increase with growing populations.

Do NOT feed is on everyone’s list.

For those living on the edges of towns like Cochrane, Okotoks and Airdrie, one of the key words is habituation, and it cuts both ways.

When wildlife becomes habituated (as bears and at least one cougar have done in Bragg Creek recently) the danger level can escalate to the point where some humans need reminding what the ‘wild’ in ‘wildlife’ really means.

And when humans become habituated to wildlife, some assumptions are questionable.

Omnivores like bears and wolves, can also be apex predators. They seek and consume small animals such as mice, rabbits, and squirrels, as well as insects and fruit.

And given half a chance, coupled with the scarcity of other menu items, they will also eat, well, you.

Human-wildlife specialists gathered at a presentation in Cochrane last weekend agreed on a number of points, including the fact that our behaviour may have unintended consequences.

The Cochrane Environmental Action Committee (CEAC) brought in keynote speaker Kennedy Halvorson, a conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association, to discuss how human behaviours affect the animals that surround us.

Cochrane is in the Parkland Natural Region, home to more than 800 wild species.

Halvorson said Bow Valley residents are lucky to live in such “an incredibly bio-diverse region.”

“This biodiversity is woven into the very fabric of Alberta,” she said. “As a result, our towns, cities, and recreational spaces have developed rapidly, with many areas expanding into what was, until recently, natural habitat for wildlife.”

This can be problematic; habitat degradation and fragmentation are the result.

“When habitat is lost, the animals are forced to either relocate elsewhere if possible or remain and risk the danger of living so close to humans. Humans in general need to have more empathy for all the other species, as this was and is their home too,” she said.

She provided a comprehensive overview of all the common species of wildlife in the region, right down to bats (“horribly misunderstood”) and insects (“I love bugs.”)

Her major focus was the interface where humans and animals interact, often on the edges of towns or on nearby trails. Halvorson said conflicts with bears will only increase in the region.

“As we continue to encroach on their territory we can only expect more encounters,” Halvorson said. “When you are hiking, be loud – the human voice is an incredibly effective deterrent for bears, and it can help prevent the worst-case scenario, which is stumbling into a bear who wasn’t expecting you,” she said.

Being aware of surroundings and looking for signs of bear activity are important practices. Evidence they’ve been around is relatively easy to spot – tracks in the winter or in mud, and freshly dug earth (grizzlies love a good ant hill) are good reasons to turn around.

For coyotes, removal is an ineffective strategy, Halvorson said.

“Aversion conditioning is recommended – be loud, calm, and confident, and contact neighbours and wildlife officials.”

For cougar encounters, she said people shouldn’t run or turn away.

“Pick up children and pets, and if the cougar attacks, fight back,” she said.

There were three more cougar sightings in the Wintergreen area (outside Bragg Creek) and nearer Redwood Meadows this past week, according to Bragg Creek Wild.

And people who assume ungulates (deer, moose, elk) are not dangerous, are making a potentially dangerous mistake, as an 83-year-old Okotoks man discovered the hard way last week.

Apparently grabbing a deer by the ear will get you a face full of hooves and a visit to the hospital.

“Elk are one of the most common animals people reported having an aggressive encounter with, according to Parks Canada data last year,” Halvorson said.

More than 122 different bird species have been spotted in Cochrane, and Halvorson said people can do a few things to help them avoid injury or death.

During their spring and fall migrations, birds can be negatively impacted by bright lights that confuse and distract them off course. During these times turn off all non-essential nighttime lighting from 11 pm to 6 am, close blinds at night to reduce the amount of light being emitted from windows and ensure any landscape lighting isn’t focused on vegetation where birds might be resting. 

Manage human behaviour

Representatives from the Cochrane Ecological Institute, Calgary Wildlife, and The Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley were at the meeting, along with an Alberta Fish and Wildlife officer.

The officer wasn’t on the speakers’ list, but offered some real-life perspectives on some unexpected consequences. (Note: at press time, The Eagle hadn’t received departmental clearances to use his name).

He said officers are doing their best to keep up, but given the size of his territory (from Brooks to Canmore) there’s only so much they can do.

There was no mistaking his message on bird feeders. He said they had so many calls about wildlife in yards that the very first question they asked callers was “Do you have a bird feeder?”

He said bird feeders become mice feeders, deer feeders, rabbit feeders, etc. And whatever hunts those species will learn to hang around. Cougars, bobcats, coyotes – they all fit the bill. It’s akin to baiting a trap.

He said letting animals know they don’t belong in an area is the secret. A tin can with marbles in it can be used to make a disturbing noise that lets them know they should move on.

At one time there were seven human-wildlife interaction specialists on the provincial payroll, Halvorson said. That number was reduced to one a couple of years ago, and since he retired, it sits at zero.

Overall, the key to reducing conflict is to make habitat elsewhere more attractive, and support places with existing habitat.

Halvorson said calling for more protected areas would also help reduce the number of conflicts.

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Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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