Predators and bears

Waterton Lakes National Park

The glimpse of a cougar or a grizzly in Waterton is always memorable. You are witness to the park's wild nature.

Cougars, wolves, wolverines, as well as lynx, coyotes and foxes, carry out vital roles within the region's ecosystems and are indicators of a healthy environment.

Healthy populations of predators and bears roam over large areas in search of food. Taking care of the habitats they need to survive ensures the survival of many other living things that also live in those places. This is why they are sometimes referred to as 'umbrella species'.

Sometimes we forget that the characteristics of the wildlife we most value, such as deer, elk, sheep and moose, evolved in part from the relationship between predator and prey.

Animals have keen hearing, clear vision, supple well-conditioned muscles and razor sharp reflexes because of this relationship. Even the evolution of the four chambered stomach in ungulates evolved as a result of a need to eat fast in the open and chew later in the safety of cover.

Loss of predators can also have important implications for a variety of other animals, such as ravens, bald eagles and pine marten that may depend on scavenging from their kills. Some birds even take advantage of predator kills for nest building materials such as animal hair.

Large predators, as well as grizzlies, no longer exist in many areas of North America. The Rocky Mountain chain offers one of the last, best opportunities to conserve them. The Crown of the Continent , including Waterton, is particularly important. This area is the narrowest part of the Rockies.

Intense human use, including expanding towns, rural residential developments, wider roads and increased industrial and recreational activity, could easily pinch off wildlife movement between areas north and south of the Crown. Proactive planning and sensitivity to the needs of wildlife can keep this vital corridor open.

Public attitudes toward bears and predators have evolved from indifference or antagonism to concern for sound management. Bears and predators require large territories. For example, a wolf pack may use a territory of 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. km) or more! A male grizzly may have a home range two to three times as big as the size of Waterton.

This poses management challenges, as predators wander outside the boundaries of the park. Lands surrounding the park are crucial to the health of the wildlife inside the park. For the most part, ranchers have taken good care of this land. Meanwhile, the park itself can affect ranchers. Wildlife may cause problems with livestock - notably, hungry grizzly bears emerging from their dens in spring after a long winter fast. An innovative intercept feeding program has helped reduce the losses of bears and livestock due to this situation.

Land near the park is increasingly valued for its scenic views and closeness to a protected area. These qualities are driving up land values and taxes and escalating the financial pressure on ranching. The potential sale of ranches and conversion into more, smaller acreages may lead to fragmentation of habitat and increase conflicts between wildlife, particularly predators and bears, and humans.

These challenges must be addressed to conserve predators and bears, and so that future generations of visitors can catch a glimpse of these intriguing animals.

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