On the Canada Day long weekend in 2012, the Congdon Creek Campground, located on the shore of Kluane Lake near Burwash Landing, played host to a furry teenaged visitor.
A medium-sized grizzly found its way into the campground and proceeded to lounge around in the central meadow, feeding on the tasty flowers. Once the animal had its fill, it took a nap on the children’s slide nearby.
This visit closed the campground on one of the busiest weekends of the summer. In an area with a long history of human-bear interaction—so much so that tenting at the campground had been banned—this was a tipping point.
In 2013, Yukon College partnered with Yukon Parks to explore solutions that would work for both the bears, who are native to the area, and for people who want to camp safely. Scott Gilbert, a Renewable Resources management instructor and former Kluane Lake-area resident, led the charge.
He began bringing cohorts of his students to the campground to explore different ways to mitigate human-bear interactions.
“Students have the opportunity to do some practical research to try and contribute to long-range sustainability,” Gilbert said. “Students enjoy getting out of the classroom and exploring these types of questions, especially when you’re not sure what the results will be.”
Throughout the first few years of the project, the approach relied on hard labour and brute force to remove two types of plants. Gilbert and his students worked on eliminating the natural attractants in and around the campground, such as soapberry (Shepherdia Canadensis) bushes and locoweed (Oxytropis campestris) vegetation—a local yellow weed packed with nitrogen and often found in gravelled areas along Yukon highways.
“We’ve also been using a series of game cameras,” Gilbert said. “So, we know that bears continue to use the area, but we haven’t found any bears feeding inside the campground.”
Weeding and watching certainly helped, but it didn’t solve all of the problems. Tenting was still banned.
In 2017, Renewable Resources management student Brandon Drost, under the mentorship of Gilbert and in partnership with Yukon Parks, began a new approach to the issue. He started to explore whether the installation of an electric fence could allow tent users to return to the campground.
“We know that bear fences work,” Drost said. “My research focuses on evaluating the public’s experience and perception of the fence … will tenters like to use it and use it safely, or will we end up just having people not like it and tent outside the fence?”
Drost asked users to answer survey questions about their experience in the campground, such as: Did they tent inside the fence? What was the experience like? And, did they feel more comfortable inside the fence, as opposed to at another campsite?
From July to September 2017, 56 users answered the survey. Of those responses, 96 per cent used the tenting enclosure, 87 per cent found it was a satisfactory experience, and 82 per cent felt more secure.
Overall, both Drost and Gilbert viewed the fence as a success. With a few small changes in future years, such as a gate that’s easier to lock, a closer outhouse and grey water facilities, the electric enclosure could continue to be used at the campground, allowing tenters to return to Congdon Creek.
This trial project may also be used as a framework for future management decisions in similar areas frequented by bears.
In addition to the mentorship and instruction from Gilbert, Drost also received a $5,000 Northern Residents Award from the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies—to help complete the project. This research was also supported through the Yukon College and Polar Knowledge Canada research funds.
In March 2018, Drost was able to attend the 5th International Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop, which was held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Being in the same room as internationally recognized researchers was an eye-opening experience for him. “It was an amazing experience, especially for someone like me who is just starting out in a research career.”
Meanwhile, Drost is in the process of finishing his Renewable Resource Management diploma. Next, he plans to transfer to the Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Northern Conservation Sciences through Yukon College and the University of Alberta.
“I am interested in the environment, in general.” Drost said. “I like finding practical ways that we can reduce our impact on our ecosystem and come up with options for reducing human-animal conflict, and this research opportunity through Yukon College definitely allowed me to explore my interests.”