Give them space — National Park urges patrons to take steps to reduce wildlife encounters

A bear wanders down Highway 263 in Prince Albert National Park. Herald file photo.

While it may be tempting to give your dog some space to run around in Prince Albert National Park, or to get a little bit closer to that animal to get a neat photo, or to leave your empty cooler out at your campsite for convenience, all three of those things can lead to unwanted conflict between humans and the park’s animal residents.

Those three examples are just some of the behaviours people like Kevin Ferrie try to educate the public to avoid.

Ferrie is the Prince Albert National Park visitor safety coordinator. As a part of his role, he works to keep interaction between visitors and wild animals at a minimum.

“It can be anything from squirrels to moose. Everything should be considered as a wild animal,” he said.

“They might look cute and be in our community, but they’re still wild animals, so we do recommend that people regardless of the animal they’re interacting with, keep a distance. Be respectful of them.”

Animal attacks in the national park are exceedingly rare, but that doesn’t mean that other negative interactions don’t happen. One of the common ways those negative interactions can happen is when a visitor has a dog.

“We see trends, like people not respecting wildlife by letting their dogs off leash. Dogs then interact with the wildlife and sometimes can create some panic or defensive response from the wildlife,” Ferrie said.

“We’re always trying to make sure that we understand what happens in an off-leash dog park in the city isn’t comparable to here in the park.”

One of the reasons dogs, even on a leash, can cause conflict with wild animals, is the presence of a domestic animal can instil a defensive response from wildlife, especially mothers with their young.

That doesn’t mean don’t take your dog with you in the park. All it means is you should keep a respectful distance, Ferrie said.

“What we mean by a good distance is if (an animal) is raising its head and looking at you, you’re a little too close. If you’re far enough back where it’s not really paying attention to you, that’s more of a respectful distance. Stay back, use your zoom lens to get close rather than physically approaching and stay in your vehicle.”

While interactions can occur with just about any wild animal, one species in particular campers and hikers need to be aware of is the black bear.

Even if it looks blond, brown, reddish-tinged or jet black, if you’re hiking or camping in the national park, the species of bear you’ll encounter is the black bear.

For hikers, the main safety tip is to make lots of noise when you’re walking and staying alert by listening and watching your surroundings.

“Bears don’t like to be surprised,” Ferrie said.

“If they hear you coming they’ll get out of your way and you’ll never see them. Most of the time they’re not looking for trouble either. They’ll get out of the way.”

While you can carry bear spray as a defence mechanism, Ferrie said you’ll rarely need it.

“It’s very rare we’ve had anyone charged or even bluff charged,” he said. “It’s more precautionary.”

If you do come face-to-face with a bear, Ferrie said the best thing to do is back away slowly and speak in a calm voice. Don’t run. In the rare case you are attacked, fight back.

While Ferrie advises hikers or drivers to just make their presence known, give bears their space and pay attention, there are a few other safety tips for campers to avoid having a run-in with the furry, four-legged creatures.

“We’ve got hundreds of campers in the park, especially on a weekend, so it’s really important people keep a clean campsite,” he said.

‘When they’re down at the beach, it’s easy to get complacent and forget a cooler out or forget to take the bag of garbage hanging on the trailer hitch. A couple of interactions where bears get into food or garbage is all it takes sometimes for the bear to actively seek that out, and it often ends badly for the bear.”

It’s not just food and garbage you have to be cautious about not leaving out. Anything scented — soap, toothpaste, shampoo and even empty coolers and used cooking equipment — can attract bears.

“Things like coolers are not necessarily (what) people think of as being a bear attractant,” said Veronica Kmiech, a member of the park’s interpretive staff who helped design a bear smart-themed float for the Canada Day parade.

“Anything associated with food and smells bears will find, and because they’re very curious creatures, they’ll come to check things out.”

A bear rummaging through a campsite can do damage to tents, trailers and awnings. Too many human-bear encounters and the animal will be trapped and relocated, or in serious situations, put down.

But people don’t just have to worry about bears. Even more docile creatures, such as elk, can pose a safety risk. People tend to let their guard down around elk, especially the ones grazing by the side of the road. But it doesn’t take much to startle the creatures.

“They get used to traffic and they get used to people because they’re always in proximity, but they still have trigger points,” Ferrie said.

“They’re still unpredictable, something can spook them and they can jump out onto the road. If you see wildlife, we recommend drivers slow down and go a little bit wider around them.”

Startled elk can cause other safety risks, too. If a herd of elk is spooked, they can cause a mini-stampede, which may run through other groups of park visitors.

“That’s another reason to make sure pets are well-managed and people are being respectful,” Ferrie said.

Elk in town cause another hazard. Communications officer Shannon Bond said, especially in the spring and early summer, elk travel around Waskesiu with their newborns in tow, and people can get closer than park staff would like.

“Around town, we’re seeing several of them have sets of twins and everyone wants to get photos. We have to keep reminding people to keep a distance,” she said.

“We’re the ones that can modify our behaviour to make sure we’re safe, but also that they’re safe.”

While many of these safety tips are well-known by those who frequent the area, aside from teaching newcomers best practices for safety, park officials have to also remind experienced hikers and campers to avoid becoming complacent. It’s that complacency that can turn an uneventful trip into one with an unwelcome animal encounter.

“People say they haven’t seen any wildlife, then five minutes later, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Ferrie said.

‘What you haven’t seen all weekend can show up when you’re least expecting it. That’s why we ask people to be prepared and not let their guard down.”

For more tips about staying safe around wildlife, visit

Don’t feed the animals

Another concern park officials have is with good-intentioned folks who see an animal they think is in distress.

‘There’s a good reason not to feed wildlife,” Ferrie said.

“People think they look hungry, but they’re very well adapted to surviving in this environment without intervention.”

Instead of feeding or intervening with an animal that seems weak or hungry, Ferrie recommended people call the experts on staff. The park employs biologists and other specialists to look after issues such as conservation and animal health.

“If there is any concern about the animal’s health,” Ferrie said, “get a hold of the park here and we’ll look into it.”