JASPER PARK, Alta. ---- My family and I zip around a corner on the Banff-Jasper highway and are suddenly confronted by a gaggle of cars and people on both sides of the road.
They are watching a bear cub in a tree, apparently unaware that cubs are one of the most dangerous wild animals. Anyone getting between a cub and its mother will get mauled. Parks Canada has lots of problems with people who treat wildlife parks like petting zoos.
It has devised a professional information campaign to teach people about the dangers of wildlife. Stay ten bus-lengths away from bears, it says. If you're in a car, you should stay in the car.
But some people go ditzy when they see wildlife. Conservation officers are having a particularly difficult time with gawkers this summer.
Drought conditions are forcing some animals to get closer to people in a search for food. This is the case at Grand Beach on Lake Winnipeg north of Winnipeg. Three black bears had to be shot and killed there within six days.
In addition, more people are visiting parks just to see wildlife because they're tired of parks jammed with people. And, finally, some large animals are beginning to like living in the suburbs, particularly in small mountain communities in the West.
"I have a deer in my backyard that won't leave," a Cranbrook man tells CBC Radio." I try to shoo it away, but it puts it head down as though it wants to butt me.
"She was born under my big backyard porch. She thinks the backyard is as much hers as it is mine."
Winnipeg has about 1,200 white-tailed deer, Arielle Godbout tells us in the The Sou'wester. Each year there are about 400 deer-vehicle collisions on Winnipeg streets. Conservationists, to whom Godbout spoke, say don't feed the deer. If you do, they'll get fat, happy, have babies and hang around your yard.
Parks Canada works hard to protect wild animals from humans and highway traffic. We're a world leader in building wildlife crossings under or over major highways. There'll be 44 when construction is complete. There's even one in Waterton Lakes National Park for long-toed salamanders.
Elk used the crossings even before they were finished. Grumpy grizzlies were among the last to figure them out. Wolves, the investment bankers of the animal kingdom, were quick to catch on. Rather than track their dinners through the woods, they hung around the portals and pounced on their favourite meals as they came through.
Last fall, Ottawa and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. agreed to work together to prevent grizzlies being killed by trains. In the past 12 years, 13 have been struck and killed by trains in the Rockies west of Calgary. Only 60 grizzlies are left in Banff National Park, officials estimate.
Much of what I know about bears I learned from some ol' fellas who worked with me on highway construction in the park. Every evening we sat in a circle around a small, wood-burning stove in our shack. They used to tell about silly tourist and animal tricks. The discussions had a rhythm: We were told a stupid tourist story. Someone would comment loudly. "Yeah," we'd all say. For added emphasis, you could lean over and spit tobacco juice into the stove's fire through an open lid.
A favourite story: A guy thought it would be cute to get a picture of a bear behind the wheel of his car. The bear panicked and tore the car's interior apart.
Another story: A woman coaxed a bear into putting its front paws on her shoulders and eating a cookie out of her mouth. The bear ate the cookie (and not her nose), then dropped. Bears don't push off when they drop. The bear got a claw caught in her dress and stripped her as he dropped.
"Those people could'a lost more than their belongings," said Eugene. Yeah. Spit.
My meeting with a grizzly, I told the circle, came when I was alone at dusk on an isolated stretch of highway. A grizzly was four bus-lengths away and lumbering towards me. All the good advice I had learned from my workmates jammed in my head. Only one popped out: Stand tall.
I jumped on a gravel pile, stood on tiptoe and put my clipboard on edge on my head like a shark's fin. The grizzly stopped. He'd probably never seen a clipboard before. He stood up on his hind legs, gave a mighty roar, waved his front legs, then dropped and wandered off.
"That grizzly was not ready to take on the shark-fin kid," said the straw boss. Yeah. Spit.
Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network