By Scott Hayes
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Perhaps their job title is a bit of a misnomer. After all, Wildlife Guardians don’t interact with animals as part of their job description much, unless you count tourists as a form of wildlife.
Resource conservation officers do the animal management, while Wildlife Guardians do the people management.
“First and foremost, we’re Park interpreters with a focus on human wildlife coexistence,” said Wildlife Guardian Philippa Gunn.
When there’s a bear in the middle of a Jasper neighbourhood, resource conservation officers are the ones who soon follow to help scoot the beast back into the wild. While they’re working on that, the Wildlife Guardians take care of the human traffic on foot and on bicycle, making sure that no one steps inside their perimeter of safety for the bear to leave the area.
It’s a fairly common occurrence these days. On Friday, Gunn and her partner Erica Gagnon were scheduled to start their shift by doing a rove, a walking chance to meet and communicate with Park guests, at Whistlers Campground.
Just as they had settled into their van, however, a call came across their CB radio about a bear up a white spruce tree at the intersection of Bonhomme Street and Aspen Crescent. The two were needed for “people management” duties and off they went.
Instead of a morning rove, they were now stationed at the street corner of the residential neighbourhood: Gunn on foot to converse with the onlookers, while her counterpart Erica Gagnon remained in the vehicle parked right under the tree, waiting to put on her flashing lights when the bear eventually ambled down.
It was a two-hour wait, but Gunn said it was well worth the time spent.
“We have a lot of new and first-time visitors to this area,” she said.
“Some of them are a little bit worried occasionally about going for a hike and what to do if they encounter a bear, or how to avoid encountering a bear. We try to give them some tools to prepare them for that: hiking in groups, being loud, practicing their bear calls, just sharing the experiences that we’ve had in the park, as well.”
Those are good lessons, especially during berry picking season.
The bears have been more active in town over the last several days, because the berry crop is reportedly lower than usual.
After the scene cleared, Gagnon decided that it would be wise to travel down Pyramid Lake Road. The bear might appear on the road and cause a wildlife jam of motorists stopping to get a good view and some photographs. If so, the Wildlife Guardians would certainly be needed there to manage that as well. It didn’t, so the drive allowed them to do an impromptu rove around Pyramid Island.
There, they interacted with a few dozen people, asking if they’ve seen any wildlife, and advising them of the bear in the area. They offered friendly tips on staying safe and being a good guest in nature’s backyard, gave stickers and activity books to children and cleaned up some litter that might attract wildlife.
If they were doing a rove in a campground, their messaging would have been about keeping campsites clean and ensuring that all housepets stay on leashes.
No day at the office is the same as the next, they say. A lot of that lately is because wildlife is unpredictable.
What Gunn has noticed lately is that, whether because of variance in the season or weather patterns, “things we used to be able to predict in terms of animal behavior have become less predictable.”
In the past, Jasper is busy with wildlife on the roadsides in the spring, with a midsummer lull before the fall resurges with elk rutting season and the bears gathering and harvesting food before their hibernation.
“But this year, because we had such a long, cold spring, we’ve been really busy all summer,” Gunn said. “Now you’re seeing incidents that we usually manage in the fall are starting early as well.”
She stated that there are usually approximately 300 human wildlife coexistence incidents during the past few summers. This summer, there have been approximately 1,500.
“The messaging, I guess, I want people to know from those changing patterns is they just need to be on high alert all season and make sure they know what to do when they encounter an animal,” Gunn said.
With their friendly demeanors and strong communication and public relations skills, they make sure that everyone stays safe while still getting the most out of those wildlife viewing moments. All of the people who passed by Aspen and Bonhomme on Friday seemed to enjoy their experience in conversation with Gunn as much as they did their viewing of a local cinnamon bear.
Gagnon previously worked at the Park Gate, which afforded her many experiences of interacting with the public and becoming more familiar with their questions.
Being on the frontline and offering answers for people with questions is rewarding to her, she said.
“It genuinely has been the biggest thing,” Gagnon added, noting most of her career has been in visitor experience.
She simply loves working with people.
“There is no better job. Absolutely head over heels with this job. It’s been the best summer I’ve had in Jasper, and the team has been incredible. Supervisors have been incredible. And, you know, the animals have been honestly excellent,” she joked, as Gunn chimed in, “The animals are awesome” in the background.
“You get the best of exploring the park; you get the best of interacting with visitors. It’s also probably the highlight of every visitor’s trip is seeing those animals. That’s what they’re here for. It’s what they’re really keen to do,” Gagnon added, as a Pyramid Lake loon offered its telltale call.
“It’s so cool to be a part of that. We’re doing our job (and) we get to listen to a loon. It’s really incredible.”
Scott Hayes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter who works for
JASPER FITZHUGH. The LJI is a federally funded program. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.