Rosie Baillie is a masters student at the University of Edinburgh & fully-fledged Canadaphile. Her trips to Canada inspired her to research tourist behaviour and education around wildlife in an attempt to improve education and reduce conflict issues. If you’ve been to Banff National Park and want to help out with the research, you can take her anonymous survey here.
I’ll never forget the moment I saw a bear for the first time; a black-furred young bear was grazing at the side of the road in Jasper National Park, seemingly unaware of the crowd of people edging closer to get the best photo.
Having lived in the UK all my life, seeing a bear was at the top of my list of things to see in Canada. The country is home to so many exciting species, such as bears, wolves, coyotes, lynx, moose…the list could go on and on (and it does in this handy guide of the best places in Canada to see wildlife) Being able to see them with your own eyes in their natural habitat is sure to be a highlight of your Canadian adventure. With that in mind, here are a few wildlife safety tips to help you responsibly view wildlife in Canada.
Pay attention to information – especially at trailheads
Information will be posted at trailheads or on car parks about any wildlife spotted in the area, trail closures or restrictions. At certain times of year, trails may be closed completely or ask that people travel in groups of four or more if wildlife are regularly using the area.
If you enter into one of Canada’s National Parks (don’t forget you’ll need a park pass) you will probably be given a leaflet about the area. Take a few minutes to read it before you go exploring to make sure you know what species may be in the area and if you need to take any precautions.
Before you go to Canada, I recommend heading to the Parks Canada website and reading about any national parks you’re visiting to find out what species have recently been spotted in the area. Banff and Jasper National Parks are great places to spot bears, bighorn sheep and elk – from a safe distance of course! If you’d like to see Canada’s most iconic animal, the moose, then Cape Breton Highlands National Park could be a safe bet.
Use your zoom to get close, not your feet
As tempting as it can be, getting close to wildlife puts both of you at risk. Wildlife may feel threated (especially if they have young or during mating season) or may begin to lose their fear of people, which can cause them to get into trouble with humans and may mean they are more likely to be hunted.
Parks Canada recommend the safest way to see and photograph wildlife is either from your car or an observation area. When you’re viewing wildlife from your car, make sure it is safe for you to stop first and be mindful of parking sensibly. When you’re hiking, it is recommended you stay at least 100 metres away from bears, 200 metres away from coyote, fox, or wolf dens, and 30 metres away from other large animals.
Even if an animal looks harmless, give them the space they deserve. A lot of incidents occur with species like elk because people think they look graceful and harmless, but they are strong animals and should not be underestimated, especially during rutting season.
Unfortunately, you will likely see people getting too close to wildlife to take photos – do not be tempted to join them. You’ll enjoy your holiday much more knowing that you’re doing your bit to protect Canada’s amazing animals. Help keep Canadian wildlife wild by viewing them from a safe distance and making good use of your zoom (or maybe treat yourself to that telephoto lens you’ve been thinking about getting – you are going to Canada, after all.)
Make noise – don’t surprise wildlife
When you’re hiking, cycling and enjoying Canada’s beautiful scenery, use your voice to alert wildlife to your presence to reduce the likelihood of wildlife in the area being surprised by you. If you accidentally sneak up on wildlife, you run the risk of having a more negative encounter as the animal may feel startled or threatened. By making noise, you won’t scare all the wildlife off but instead will ensure that your animal encounters are safe and positive.
You can do this by talking louder than you usually would or making up a song or a call. When I went, I was told to call out “hey Mr Bear, I’m just passing through, I don’t want to scare you.” If you’ve got kids with you, you could make up a song for them to sing – they’re sure to be on board with letting bears know they’re about so they don’t startle one.
If you’re a solo traveller you can still use your voice, or you could find a hiking buddy, go on an organised hike or play music out loud through your phone.
Bear spray is often recommended if you’re hiking in an area with bears, wolves or coyotes, so make sure you understand how to use it. It’s unlikely you will need to use it but there’s no point having it if you don’t know what to do with it. There are mixed reports about how effective bear bells are (small bells you attach to your clothes or shoes); they cost a few dollars, so if it makes you feel more comfortable then use them – but the most effective thing is to use your voice.
Do not feed wildlife
“A fed bear is a dead bear” is a saying you may see on posters in Canada. It is illegal to feed wildlife in Canadian National Parks. Outside the parks, there are different laws in each Province; regardless, do not feed any wildlife – that includes small, cute-looking species such as squirrels.
Giving animals a human source of food can result if them becoming food conditioned (this means they associate people with food and may act aggressively to get it); which can put you, other tourists, locals, and the animal at risk. Research has also suggested that female animals may teach their young how to access human food, which passes the problem on to the next generation.
Leave no trace
Dispose of all litter in appropriate bins. When you’re out hiking and stop for lunch, double check you’ve not accidentally dropped litter when you’re packing up again (this includes fruit peelings and apple cores) – take your litter back into town with you.
What if I see a bear?
This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions when people are going to Canada.
Bears physically making contact with people is incredibly rare. Animals are smart and most of them probably want to avoid people. That said, it is well worth reading up on what to do if you encounter a bear before you go. Once again, Parks Canada have you covered with some easy to follow information on what to do if you see a bear.
Make a note of the local Parks Canada / local dispatch phone number
If you are visiting an area with bears, you will likely see posters and leaflets with phone numbers on asking you to report any bear sightings. This is so bear movements in the area can be tracked so the local authority can best manage visitor safety. Make a note of the number in case you see a bear or report it to a warden if you can’t use your phone.
Keep your campsite BARE
I’ve experienced few things better than camping next to a Canadian lake; the smell of the fire, the calls of animals during the night, and watching elk drink from the edge of the lake at first light.
Parks Canada operate BARE campsite schemes (and most independent campsites will operate the same / a very similar scheme) which asks that you keep your campsite clean and remove any wildlife attractants. Any food, food waste, food packaging or things with a strong scent should be kept in your vehicle or food lockers. None of these things should be left in your tent or unattended on your pitch for any amount of time.
While a piece of litter or food might not seem like a big deal, it can have huge consequences for wildlife as they may begin associating campsites and places people use with food. This in turn could lead to human-wildlife conflicts. In 2016, two wolves sadly had to be euthanised in Banff National Park as they accessed human food at a campsite.
If you are camping anywhere in Canada, the BARE campsite guide is well worth a read before you go; if you have any questions while you’re there the campsite staff will be able to help you.
If in doubt, ask
Parks Canada produce a lot of useful information about viewing wildlife safely and responsibly. If you have any questions, ask a member of Parks Canada staff, rangers, or go to your nearest tourist information centre.
If you feel a little overwhelmed and nervous after reading this – don’t worry, I felt the same way before my first trip. Canadian wildlife is not dangerous if you give them the space you both need and follow these tips. Remember, we’re sharing this stunning landscape and should respect that. As long as you do, seeing Canada’s incredible animals in the wild will be the highlight of your holiday.
Don’t forget to take some incredible photos and enjoy your adventure! I highly recommend planning your return trip on the flight back to the UK.
If you’ve been to Banff National Park, I am researching how visitors are educated about wildlife and would love it if you could spare a few minutes to take my survey (it’s completely anonymous). If you have any friends or family who’ve also been, share it with them too.
Happy Canadian adventures!