The Park warden’s voice shifted between frustration and fear when he said strongly, “for the last time, the best thing to do if you are afraid of bears is to leave the campground. This is bear country.”

Of course, he was right even though for a novice camper such as myself, it was unsettling to have a bear walk behind my tent and cooler strategically placed a good distance away. The bear moved on to visit the picnic table of another camper nearby. Fortunately, neither of us was home at the time but the thought of the bear in the park and especially at our sites put everyone on high alert.

I slept in the car.

If the warden seemed agitated, it could have been out of a growing concern both for campers and for the bear. Afterall, at least 20 bears were destroyed in the Sahtu region alone this year; two more in the city of Yellowknife and we are not sure of the number in the immediate Yellowknife area. ENR knows it is a sensitive topic and doesn’t advertise the statistics. Sadly, the bear that visited Prelude two weeks ago was also likely destroyed after crashing a few backyard BBQs and trying to crawl into a couple dumpsters. Now habituated to human garbage and anxiously trying to pack on pounds ahead of an approaching hibernation, the bears are more often frequenting the space occupied by humans — enticed by smells and quick meals they cannot resist.

That they are sometimes destroyed for their inquisitive nature is not necessarily their fault. They are doing what bears do – looking for food. Too often, they are killed because humans fail to deal with their garbage properly. Their sad end, which many bewail, are too often caused by humans themselves.

A mother bear scrambles up the trunk of a tree. We live in the black bear’s habitat, not the other way around, columnist Nancy Vail writes. Photo courtesy of Kerry Howard

Last weekend, campers at Prelude kindly packaged dog feces then left the plastic bag at the side of the road. A few feet down, someone had tossed a Tim Hortons ice cap container and nearby lay a beer can – all deposited after many campers had turned in. For most people, it is not a big deal. However, all three attract bears and could result in an attack or another bear death.

Indeed, though almost blind, bears have the best sense of smell of all terrestrial mammals. Black bears in fact, have been known to travel 18 miles in a straight line to a potential food source. The dog poop, the Tim Hortons container and the beer can are enticing smells – thus littering has the very real potential of causing a bear/human encounter ending in the death of the bear. That is not their fault — the bears are doing that which is only comes naturally.

Throughout the spring and summer, a momma and her two cubs have lived on the fringes of Prelude Park, eating the berries and fish found there. It has been a favorite pathway for bears for years. No one wants anything to happen to this family and fortunately, they have only visited the park once. However, we have seen people leave their cars and move in for that perfect close up. This of course, is an invitation to disaster and we all know who would pay the price.

It would not the first time that a momma and her cubs have been killed there. Several years ago, a family of four was destroyed after being habituated to human garbage. ENR says bears generally return to a favored site so trapping and release, though sometimes tried, is not often successful. It is hard on the bear and they too often come home. Why wouldn’t they? Bears have roamed these hills for centuries accustomed to the proliferous berry patches. They were here long before most humans moved in or decided to use these areas for recreational activities. Now that we are spreading like ground cover, the bears are paying an increasingly high price.

Their behaviour has not changed; the practices and spread of the human species has. Recently, someone on Ingram trail killed a bear that had visited her backyard deck undeterred by the bear banger and air horn used to scare him away. Was this kill necessary and should ENR be contacted first or only after the bear has been destroyed? The ending of every life needs to be carefully considered.

If the park warden was so upset that night, it was likely because there was an awareness that this bear too could lose its life—always a sad event.

This is indeed bear country and they deserve to live fulfilled lives too. Living with them does not require a change on their part – it requires more bear awareness on ours. When you are camping in bear country, make sure not to litter. Be aware of the areas they frequent; forget the selfies and put your food far away.

Bears are one of nature’s gift. It is up to us to take care of it.

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