When Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno goes out for a run in her Alberta mountain town, she wears a vest holding a can of bear spray, makes noise and keeps an eye out for wildlife.
The town in Banff National Park has strict rules around how to dispose of garbage and has recently renewed an effort to offer its residents free fruit tree removal in an attempt to reduce wildlife attractants.
“We know that you need a healthy wildlife population in the national park and we take that really seriously,” she said in an interview. “We also know that, for visitors, seeing animals safely – from a safe distance – is a vibrant and special experience.”
DiManno, a long-term resident who has been the town’s mayor since 2021, said it’s all part of co-existing with bears in the Canadian Rockies – a reality that took a terrible turn in late September when an Alberta couple and their dog were killed by a grizzly bear during a backcountry camping trip in the national park.
Parks officials have said it will likely never be known what led to last month’s attack, but they and other bear experts noted those types of attacks are extremely rare.
“It’s just heartbreaking and that definitely weighs in your mind, because of how we live in the national park,” said DiManno.
Nearly 8,000 residents live in the town and more than four million people visit Banff National Park annually.
Parks Canada posted a warning Monday for the entire town of Banff as several grizzly and black bears were in the area looking for food.
The warnings are common throughout the national and provincial parks in Alberta during the fall when bears are trying to put on weight before winter hibernation.
Directly east of Banff, the Town of Canmore also issues warnings when bears and other wildlife wander into town and has worked to remove its fruit trees and other bear attractants.
Caitlin Van Gaal, supervisor of environment and sustainability in Canmore, said the town is getting public input on a plan to help residents co-exist with wildlife.
“We’re surrounded by provincial parks, national parks. The Bow Valley corridor, as it is for humans, is a major transportation corridor for wildlife as well,” she said.
“We need to do our part to ensure that we’re not impeding on that as much as possible.”
The town’s plan followed a round table with Banff and other municipalities, as well as the national and provincial parks, in response to multiple bears getting into human food and having to be relocated or put down.
Jay Honeyman, a human-wildlife conflict biologist who worked in Kananaskis Country, a cluster of provincial parks and recreational areas west of Calgary, said provincial and national parks are getting the message out.
“When I go into the parks, lots of people are carrying bear spray. I don’t mean the people who go to the edge of Lake Louise and take their selfie shot. I mean the people who are in the backcountry or biking or hiking,” he said.
“That’s a huge change from 10 or 15 years ago.”
Honeyman said it’s become clear that the two people who were killed in Banff National Park were experienced in backcountry travel and did everything they could to prepare.
“If anything, it was the wrong place, wrong time,” he said.
“In general, if people are going into bear country, they should do those basic things: bear spray, groups if you can, managing dogs and … securing food.”
Honeyman noted there have been several other fatal bear attacks outside the national park in the Sundre and Waiparous area northwest of Calgary, including two in 2021, which aren’t that distant from the latest one.
“That’s an area where 100 kilometres to the west we have some of the most habituated bears on the planet,” he said. “We don’t generally see that kind of behaviour in places like Kananaskis Country or the front-country regions of Banff where there’s more people.”
A grizzly bear researcher who studied GPS-collared bears in Banff National Park agreed there are bears that appear to be more tolerant of people, but parks officials have said that the 25-year-old female bear responsible for the attack had not been collared, tagged or previously known by wildlife staff.
“This bear does have the hallmarks of a bear that was very hungry at what is already a very hungry time of year for bears,” said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta.
“That might mean it was a predatory attack, but it may also mean that that bear was highly defensive of a territory that she was desperate to defend.”
Backpacking in remote wilderness areas involves “a degree of risk that is low frequency but high consequences,” said Cassady St. Clair.
She said some people, herself included, are likely questioning those risks now but noted there are also benefits to backcountry travel.
“It’s thrilling to be in wild places with wild animals seeing beautiful sights that are absolutely unaltered by human presence and human infrastructure,” said Cassady St. Clair. “It’s worth a degree of risk and it’s worth the preparation it takes.”
Parks Canada has said there have been three recorded non-fatal encounters with grizzly bears in Banff National Park in the past 10 years, and no fatalities in decades before the two last month.