As human-wildlife encounters become increasingly common in Cochrane, Alta. some locals are concerned that not enough is being done to educate complacent or uninformed trail users.
With more than 70 kilometres of connected pathways, the town is weaved around much of the natural territory, including a section of the Trans Canada Trail that runs along the Bow River.
The trails provide the perfect opportunity for interpretive signage about the local flora and fauna, and there is plenty – but not much exists for the larger wildlife that’s been known to roam into town.
Quinn Jacques, a resident of Cochrane, was walking along a trail near his home in the neighbourhood of Bow Ridge last fall while on a work conference call, when he noticed rustling in a nearby tree.
At first, he thought it was the neighbourhood kids who had set up a fort in the area.
“I heard crashing in the bush and I looked up from my phone call, and it was a black bear charging towards me.”
The bear stopped after getting within 15 to 20 feet, and began to pound its paws into the ground, huffing at him.
Luckily the bear took off in the other direction after Jacques backed away a short distance, breaking the line of sight.
“It was a fairly harmless encounter. But it startled me. I didn’t expect to run into a bear on an established trail,” he said.
“What worries me is that in the area where this encounter occurred, there’s kids that had built these little BMX jumps and tree forts.”
“It’s just kids being kids,” he said. “But I doubt they have any bear awareness or their parents know where they are. So that’s kind of concerning. That’s what prompted me to call Fish and Wildlife when I did.”
As the community continues to grow, it inevitably encroaches more into wildlife habitat.
About two weeks ago, a woman photographed a black bear eating out of a bird feeder in her backyard in the neighbouring area of Jumping Pound.
Both the Bow River which runs all through Cochrane, and Jumping Pound Creek, which connects to the Bow, are natural wildlife corridors.
More sightings were later reported in the new developments of Riversong and Riviera further down river, prompting Fish and Wildlife to issue a notice of there likely being more than one bear in the area.
With temporary warning signs put up in some areas, trail users can be expected to exert more caution. But having more permanent signage in place can also help to create better awareness so that safe choices are made every day, instead of just when there’s been a recent sighting.
“People probably have the feeling that it’s kind of like a one-off thing. It’s not like Banff, where there’s definitely wildlife in your backyard,” said Angie Basha, parks and open spaces coordinator with the Town of Cochrane.
The town revitalized Riverfront Park after the 2013 floods. Some of funds involved went toward new interpretive flora and fauna signage and bear-proof garbage bins.
One sign tucked away along a trail that branches away from the river and into a wooded area, covers the ecology of some species. It mentions black bears, which have been seen in the area.
But it’s the only such sign along an extensive trail system that runs alongside the river, where bears and other large wildlife such as cougars and moose have been seen in the farthest stretches of town from west to east.
I heard crashing in the bush and I looked up from my phone call, and it was a black bear charging towards me. – Quinn Jacques
Jay Honeyman, a human-wildlife conflict biologist with Alberta Parks and Environment, says that much of the budget towards wildlife education and enforcement has to come out of the town’s pocket. They’re limited in their capacity to help every community that has bears.
“For the town of Cochrane, this probably hasn’t been on their radar. Ten or 15 years ago, it was like ‘whatever.’”
Ten years ago, the population of Cochrane was about 17,000 people. The latest census from 2019 recorded nearly 30,000 people.
“Signage would probably help some people who just plain don’t know, they appreciate the information. And then there’s other people that are just going to look at it and go, ‘BS, I’ve lived here for over 45 years, and I’ve never had a problem with bears,’” said Honeyman.
“But as more and more of these incidents with bears occur in and around the town of Cochrane, the heightened awareness happens.”
“And at some point, the town goes, should we be doing something on our end or not?”