Our Bear Affair, A Special Relationship Built at the Calgary Zoo
Calgary Zoo, Botanical Garden and Prehistoric Park
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Combine the following ingredients:
- Grizzly bears animals rapidly disappearing from many landscapes unless we take action
- Researchers members of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP) that have spent many years studying the needs of grizzlies
- Docents Calgary Zoo docents that love to learn and share their love for bears with the public
Add in lots of enthusiasm and hard work, and the result is a very special relationship where everybody, including the bears, comes out as winners!
This recipe for a successful relationship raises many questions: Why grizzly bears? What kind of research is going on in Canada and why would docents be interested in working with a research group that studies grizzlies? And what does any of this have to do with relationships and a “Bear Affair?”
All of these questions and more will be addressed in this paper. You will learn a little about grizzlies and grizzly bear research in Canada and share in the excitement of two success stories: “Bear Affair” and “Bears Jubilee.” I hope that a seed will be planted and that you will take home ideas that you can nurture and grow into a conservation outreach initiative like our “Bear Affair.”
First, some background information will help you understand the situation in the Banff National Park area in Alberta with respect to grizzlies and answer the first question: Why grizzlies?
HUMAN NEEDS AND GRIZZLY BEAR NEEDS
Calgary, a city of about 900,000 people, is located in Alberta, Canada. It is a short 1½-hour drive to get to the foothills, the Rocky Mountains, and Banff National Park. Calgarians love to play in the mountains, hiking, skiing, camping, and enjoying the amenities of many parks.
Industry and commercial development want part of this recreational wonderland. Oil and gas exploration and development, logging, cattle ranches, hotels, golf courses, and housing place many competing demands on the ecosystem. This part of the Rocky Mountains also contains major transportation corridors. The Trans-Canada Highway, the Bow Valley Parkway, and the Canadian Pacific Railway all run through the major valley bottoms.
Grizzlies also live in the habitat that people want to play in and work in. They are a fascinating, complex animal and are an “umbrella” species, meaning that if we respect the needs of grizzlies, we maintain the ecological integrity of their habitat for them as well as many other species. However, grizzlies have their own unique needs. They have large home ranges. Females have relatively few young in their lifetime.
Grizzlies are picky about what they eat and when. In this region, bears eat primarily plants and whether or not they have sufficient fat built up before hibernation makes a difference. (Grizzly Bear Basics.) One clear research finding that is unique to our Rockies grizzlies is that, so far, no established adult female grizzly bear has crossed the four-lane portion of the Trans-Canada Highway. This behavior strictly limits female home ranges and has population genetic implications. (Project Highlights.)
If we want future generations to enjoy the environment as a natural landscape, complete with grizzlies living out their natural lives, we have to make choices now. Another new golf course or a natural space where grizzlies can live without conflict with humans? Many Calgarians do not want the grizzly to be extirpated from this area. At the same time, people have needs, too. This is the classic problem facing areas suffering habitat loss all over the world. We need solid scientific information and a caring society to make the choices that can both meet the needs of grizzly bears and people.
Now that you have a better understanding of why grizzlies are important, the second question on Canadian grizzly bear research will be touched on.
THE EASTERN SLOPES GRIZZLY BEAR PROJECT (ESGBP)
The ESGBP was formed in 1994 “to scientifically understand the cumulative effects of human developments and activities on grizzly bears in the area in and around the Banff National Park, and to apply this information in management and conservation contexts.” (Project Overview.) The group has created a forum to link grizzly bear needs with the needs and wants of people.
This project is an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder group, both in funding sources as well as membership in the overall project’s Steering Committee. For example, supporting agencies and groups range from
- Ranching: Alberta Cattle Commission;Industry: AMOCO, Shell Canada Ltd., Spray Lakes Sawmills;
- University of Calgary, and
- Conservation groups: World Wildlife Fund, Parks Canada and the Calgary Zoo.
This is a very diverse mix of supporters. The combination of this broad base of support and the balanced research approach (to search out solutions that meet the needs of both bears and people) has contributed to the ESGBP’s success in making things happen. For example, the ESGBP research findings have been incorporated into the Banff National Park Management Plan.
Public outreach initiatives have been an important part of this project’s mandate. The ESGBP wanted to partner with an organization to spread the word about grizzlies.
The Bear Affair Begins
I became involved in the special partnership between the ESGBP and the Calgary Zoo docents in 1997. Linda Wiggins, Public Outreach Coordinator for the ESGBP, facilitated a workshop in January 1997 attended by docents and other people interested in spreading the word about grizzly bears and conservation. Wiggins had already developed the concept of Bear Affair, but needed additional support to make it all happen. The whole concept of this type of conservation outreach captured my imagination and also appealed to a group of committed Calgary Zoo docents.
This partnership between the ESGBP and the Calgary Zoo docents resulted in two events that will be highlighted: Bear Affair (held in April 1997) and Bears Jubilee (1998). Bear Affair was a one-day event with all kinds of activities located primarily on the Calgary Zoo grounds. Bears Jubilee was an evening speaker event located at the Jubilee Auditorium, which also incorporated a diverse array of interactive opportunities for event guests before the speakers and during an extended intermission.
Bear AffairThe Big Day
To give you a flavor for Bear Affair, I will take you on a guided tour of the Calgary Zoo on April 26, 1997, and touch on the events that made up Bear Affair. As penned in the brochure: “Welcome to a rare opportunity to find dozens of people knowledgeable about bears and bear research all in one place at one time!”
Docent Touch Tables
For Bear Affair, docents assembled biofacts and artifacts related to all kinds of bears: grizzlies, black bears, and polar bears. Because the Calgary Zoo has an excellent collection of bear biofacts, has several bears on display, and has many docents keen to talk about bears, this type of docent-public interaction is very powerful. Even though the ESGBP research focuses on grizzlies, other species of bears were highlighted at Bear Affair.
Grizzly Bear Enclosure Displays
The ESGBP prepared many displays on grizzlies and both K-volunteers and docents worked together at the Grizzly Bear enclosure. K-Volunteers were our word for ESGBP volunteers that may or may not be researchers, but were still very “Knowledgeable Volunteers.” As expected, this was a major focus for the dissemination of information on grizzly bear needs.
Calgary Zoo Grizzly Bears
The story of Bear #16 was presented at this enclosure. Bear #16, or Skoki, as zoo visitors now know him, represents all the challenges that bears face in the wild. Skoki is a “victimized” bear that now resides at the Calgary Zoo, one that learned over time that humans represent easy food. As an adolescent bear, Skoki ended up foraging for buffaloberries along the side of the highway in Banff National Park, and his presence was enough to cause traffic “bear-jams.” Over the
next couple of years, Skoki began to associate humans with food and his attitude to people started to change. He was seen passing through campgrounds and some mornings he passed by the back door of a bakery in the village of Lake Louise, reportedly sticking his head in the door on one occasion. He became bolder, and eventually he bluff-charged two vehicles. Park managers could no longer trust Skoki to abandon an area if approached by a human. He was first relocated, but within a couple of days returned to the same area. His next infraction resulted in his relocation to the Calgary Zoo. He had to learn to live peacefully with the two resident grizzlies: Louise and Khutzymateen. Skoki’s genetics are now lost to the ecosystem. However, Skoki’s new role is to assist zoo visitor education about wild grizzlies and to not let any other bears become “victimized.” (Campbell, 1997)
Louise and “Khutzy” are also resident grizzly bears at the Calgary Zoo. Louise was a “rescue bear” that came from the Lake Louise area and has lived at the zoo since 1978. Khutzy was born at the zoo about 10 years ago. Louise has played “nanny” to Khutzy as her mother “Flo” died many years ago.
Black Bear Research
The ESGBP invited a black bear researcher to talk about his research into American black bears in Banff National Park. Conservation messages related to black bear gall bladder poaching were a focus for docents at this station.
Bear Culvert Trap
We arranged to have a real bear culvert trap brought on grounds, so that people could have a close-up look at a trap (empty and cleaned out, of course). This also provided an opportunity to discuss the reasons that bears have to be trapped and moved.
Habitat Loss Game
This was a children’s game that focused on loss of habitat. Children experienced firsthand some of the challenges that animals face. Small mats were placed on the ground and the children stood on the mats. Mats were gradually taken away, with a discussion on the reasons for habitat loss. This was a great activity that appealed to a younger audience, but still got across a key conservation message.
Researchers demonstrated telemetry equipment, one of the tools of the research trade, to the public. This was a very popular activity. Small groups of people “searched” for the signals of a radio collar hidden on zoo grounds.
Bear Country Safety Camp
Bear Affair was held before the peak camping season. Many people are concerned about bear attacks and how to avoid unwanted encounters. Accurate spacing of tents, food, and cooking areas was demonstrated. Safe storage of food and proper management of garbage was also discussed.
Bear Signs and Safety Prowls
We set up a “trail” through the zoo grounds, including props that simulated bear field sign. Each “station” along the way prompted the discussion of bear sign and safety. Small groups of visitors were guided along this discovery trail throughout the day. This was a popular participatory activity, with ESGBP researchers sharing their knowledge of bears with the public.
Sitting Wind, a storyteller and Stoney Nation Elder from the Chiniki Band, was invited to share stories that provided a First Nations person’s perspective on bears. This activity represented the spiritual aspect of bears not demonstrated with any other activity.
All the Behind-the-Scene Details that Made the Day a Success
Posters, brochures, and advertising promoted the event. Docents met K-volunteers and made them welcome on zoo grounds. We recognized that we had two different groups of volunteers that shared a common interest–but just needed to get to know each other a little better. Nametags and yellow armbands (made from “yellow bear-in-area tape”) identified volunteers to the public. Signage was used to promote the events on grounds. One central area was established for the event day, where all volunteers could relax and visit “between shifts.” Clean-up and breakdown and the final “thank-yous” are all part of a successful event.
THE “AFFAIR” CONTINUES WITH BEARS JUBILEE
Bears Jubilee was held the next season, in 1998. This was a different style of event and required a different level of participation with Calgary Zoo docents.
The ESGBP invited Carrie Hunt, an American bear biologist, to bring her Karelian bear dogs to Canada and share her approach to addressing human-bear conflict challenges. The goal of her program “is to reduce human-bear conflicts and change how problem bears are handled worldwide.” Hunt has developed a technique she calls “bear shepherding” that teaches bears how to recognize and avoid human territorial boundaries. Hunt uses specially trained Karelian Bear Dogs in combination with other aversive conditioning tools and structured learning situations to teach bears how to recognize and avoid humans and their personal space or “boundaries.” Bear Shepherding includes preventative education where humans are taught how to eliminate the most common cause of conflict such as food attractants, food
conditioning, and habituation to humans and human territory. (Partners in Life Program) Carrie Hunt was the keynote speaker at the Jubilee Auditorium evening event. Other ESGBP field researchers also spoke about their work and findings. Bears Jubilee was a different style of event, because it was not held on Calgary Zoo grounds. However, it provided the opportunity for docents to interact with the public in a different forum. Calgary Zoo docents were involved primarily in working with touch tables before and after the event. We all had the opportunity to hear the speakers and continue to learn more about grizzly bear research.
WHAT MADE THE BEAR AFFAIR AND BEARS JUBILEE A SUCCESS STORY?
It is difficult to say in just a few words what made Bear Affair and Bears Jubilee such a success story. It is just amazing what motivated people can do when they really want something! Some of the things that worked for us are:
Docents that love to learn. Researchers that want to teach. A topic that has local interest. People all interested to learn more and share with others. Conservation Outreach happens! What a powerful combination when all of these elements click!
It is important to identify the needs and wants of the groups you want to work together. For example, docents thrive on learning and learning from an expert is an added bonus. Docents love to share what they have learned with the public. The ESGBP values public outreach. How to meet both group’s needs? We coordinated a seminar for docents, K-volunteers, and zoo staff before Bear Affair. Steve Herrero, ESGBP Research Supervisor and Chair of the Steering Committee (an internationally recognized grizzly bear researcher), talked about the ESGBP, grizzly bear research in Alberta, and about grizzly bears in general.
This investment of time and energy in outreach both improved the quality of information presented by the Calgary Zoo docents and reinforced the relationship between the ESGBP and the Calgary Zoo.
Lots of Volunteer Involvement
By the end of the day, over 100 volunteers donated time, talent, and energy to Bear Affair. About 60 docents and 40 K-volunteers (including researchers and other ESGBP volunteers) participated. The energy was incredible. Bears Jubilee involved about 60 volunteers, 20 of them docents. Each volunteer talked to lots more people, so the sheer numbers of people that know a little more about bears and the challenges that they face is amazing.
Recognize What Volunteers Do Best (and appreciate the limitations)
Both docents and K-volunteers would rather talk to people than make elaborate displays, so the display construction was kept simple and focused. The number of volunteers was carefully matched with the number of events, so that we had good coverage without straining volunteers. The date of Bear Affair was even selected to accommodate the field researchers, because they would all be out in the field for the summer months.
Each of the Bear Affair and Bears Jubilee events were carefully selected, planned, and executed. This did not come together by accident. Planning started with the formation of an Event Steering Committee made up of docents and K-volunteers. Hours were spent discussing the philosophy of Bear Affair, methods of presenting key messages, and coordinating display materials. The backbone of the event was well established before we asked for assistance from a wider group of volunteers. This level of organization was critical to the success of the day.
Special efforts were made to inform all the docents and K-volunteers of event details, sign-up opportunities, and work in progress. The Event Steering Committee circulated “Key Messages of Bear Affair” and docents had access to a resource binder on grizzlies that key docents and the ESGBP prepared just for this event.
Hours and Hours of Work
A project this size requires hundreds of hours of volunteer time. Both Bear Affair and Bears Jubilee were planned for the second quarter of the year, a period that is traditionally the “off-season” for researchers and docents that like to be involved in this style of event. A “peak-season” event would not have got the time and attention it needs.
Hours of hard work and energy were invested in these events, but I can testify to the friendships between the zoo docents and the research community, the new information about bears that I now share with the public, and the fun that we all had.
This is a success story, not only about how events as special as Bear Affair and Bears Jubilee can come about, but about the power of collectively coordinated conservation outreach initiatives. The more people that are touched with the messages about grizzlies, their needs and challenges and how we have to make informed choices if we want grizzlies to survive in the Banff National Park area, the stronger the probable impact will be on decision makers. After all, that is what it is all about, making sure that there are still enough natural spaces available for grizzly bears to survive into the future.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND REFERENCES
Grizzly Bear Basics (1999). Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project. Retrieved June 18, 2000, from the World Wide Web: http://www.canadianrockies.net/grizzly/gb_basics2.htm
Project Highlights (1999). Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project. Retrieved June 18, 2000, from the World Wide Web: http://www.canadianrockies.net/grizzly/highlights.htm
Project Overview (1999). Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project. Retrieved June 18, 2000, from the World Wide Web: http://www.canadianrockies.net/grizzly/what_is_esgbp.htm
Project Supporters (1999). Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project. Retrieved June 18, 2000, from the World Wide Web: http://www.canadianrockies.net/grizzly/supporters.htm
Campbell, Colleen. (April 1997). Grizzly Bear #16 a.k.a. Skoki.
Partners in Life Program (2000). Wind River Bear Institute. Retrieved June 18, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.beardogs.org/wrbi2a.html
I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Linda Wiggins, ESGBP Outreach Coordinator. The slides that you will see in October 2000 were taken by the following photographers: Ken Beitel, Doug Connery, Steve Herrerro, Ken Meisner, Charlie Perry, and Bo Semchyshyn.