BANFF – A section of wildlife fencing near Banff has been hot wired to zap black bears and keep them off the deadly Trans-Canada Highway.
Bears regularly climb the eight-foot page wire fence designed to keep wildlife off the highway, prompting Parks Canada to fit the existing fence with a single electric wire along a five-kilometre section east of Banff.
Dan Rafla, human-wildlife coexistence specialist for Banff National Park, said fencing has greatly reduced wildlife deaths since the highway was twinned, but black bears continue climbing over the fence.
“Whether it’s to access the new vegetation growing alongside the road in spring, or they’re just trying to travel from one side of the valley to the other, they climb over fairly easily,” he said.
“If they get on the wrong side of the fence, the consequence is getting hit by a vehicle,” he added, noting that wildlife crews have already been out several times this spring to haze bears off the busy highway.
The black bear death toll on the roads and train tracks varies every year, but last year there were several, including three bears that were hit and killed within the span of a week during the summer.
Wildlife specialists, in working with Parks Canada’s highway engineering team, came up with the solar-powered system that sends out roughly 6,000-9,000 volts from the electric wire, located about four feet off the ground, when bears try to climb the fence.
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Rafla said the goal is to deter the bears from trying again, perhaps even along other sections of the fence that aren’t electric.
“It’s a pulse shock, it’s not constantly going through, but it’s enough to give a good shock. There’s no injury and it’s certainly not lethal,” he said.
“Hopefully, it will be a learned behaviour and they will avoid the fence, realizing this isn’t a pleasant thing to engage with.”
Parks Canada has GPS collars on seven black bears in the area, including a male black bear that was hit by a vehicle in this area east of Banff last summer – and survived.
“He was immobilized, assessed for his injuries,” said Rafla, noting Parks Canada is fortunate to have a wildlife vet in the valley. “We put a collar on him and he was given a second chance.”
Along with a few other black bears, this particular male black bear was collared again this spring.
“He’ll be a real good candidate for seeing how well he is responding to the fence, whether he’s climbing over,” said Rafla.
“He was a real nice story because he survived, even though he had been injured. It’s almost nine months sine he was hit and he looks pretty good.”
The other collared black bears, whose movements can be tracked, will also help inform the success of the electrified fence.
“It will help to inform us how effective the hot wire is,” said Rafla,
“It’s secondary, but it also demonstrates how effective some of these crossing structures are east of town, and how bears are navigating the landscape as well, especially since this zone is fairly close to human use areas.”
The area of the fence with the electric wire ends with wildlife underpasses on each end.
“A bear might get shocked and then move along the fencing – this is the intent – and find a wildlife crossing structure,” said Rafla.
“Then you’ve learned, well, this is a spot where you can cross over and get to the other side of the valley.”
The area east of town is not the only hotspot where black bears climb the fence.
Depending on the success of this five-kilometre stretch of electric fence, the experiment may be applied further west in areas near the Bourgeau trailhead and Redearth Creek.
“When you look at the data where we’ve responded to highway fence intrusions, over time we’ve been able to determine some hot spots,” Rafla said.
“We’ll see how well it works here and if it works well, maybe apply it to some of these other hotspots.”
Sarah Elmeligi, a local wildlife ecologist, said managing wildlife in national parks is a very dynamic world.
“Bears are capable of learning, so it’s important for managers to consistently try new tools to deter bears from getting in harm’s way,” said Elmeligi, author of the book What Bears Teach Us due out in October.
“Black bears have gotten pretty crafty over the years to access dandelions on the highway side of the fence,” she added.
“Measures like this keep bears safe, which is great. I look forward to seeing the monitoring data results at the end of the season.”
The fence will be checked regularly, with indicator lights also flashing when there’s low to no voltage.
Rafla acknowledges the electric wire won’t be successful at preventing 100 per cent of bears from climbing over the fence.
“But if we can reduce the chance of somebody hitting a bear and maybe having property damage or getting hurt, or bears getting hurt of dying, it’s a fairly big win,” he said.
Parks Canada urges residents and visitors to call Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470 whenever wildlife are spotted on the highway.
“The sooner we can respond, the sooner we can get that animal onto the right side of the fence,” he said.
“If we don’t get that call, the more chance there is of somebody hitting it.”
In addition to the electric wire, Parks Canada has been working to try to discourage bears from wanting to climb the fence in the first place in their bold search for food.
Last fall, work was done to remove buffaloberries – a calorie-rich food source for bears – from the highway side of the wildlife exclusion fence in various areas, including the hotspots.
“When we have mid summer, late summer fence intrusions, one of the things could be buffaloberries, so we removed a lot of those so there’s less attractants,” said Rafla.
“It’s a combination of things we’re trying to do to minimize any reason for animals to be on the wrong side of the fence.”
Reduced speed limits in the park, such as in the Bourgeau and Redearth areas, are in place because bears have been getting onto the highway.
“We’ve deployed slow down [signs] with bear images,” said Rafla. “They are there for a reason and so please pay attention and slow down in those zones.”
The population status for black bears in Banff National Park has never been quantitatively examined, but some scientists have suggested the Bow Valley may be a population sink for black bears.
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