Wild Animal Encounters and Staying Safe

Last Updated on June 9, 2021

During the summer months, people flock to the outdoors. Help keep yourself and those around you safe and wildlife wild by knowing how to properly respect wildlife. Safety for everyone depends on visitors using good judgment during wild animal encounters and using leave no trace principles to help keep close interactions with wildlife to a minimum. It is important to review your wild animal safety awareness before each visit to the parks.

National parks, Canadian provincial parks, US state parks, marine conservation areas, and national historic sites are all gateways to exploring the beauty and power of nature and an abundance of wildlife. However, that also means that you need to have a good understanding of how to treat nature and wildlife with respect. The more time you spend outdoors, the more likely you are to have wildlife encounters.

Follow these easy guidelines to reduce the risk of human-wildlife conflict:

Table Of Contents

Moose calf wildlife encounter
Moose Calf – Waterton Lakes National Park – Alberta

Know Before You Go

Each Park you visit will have specific guidelines, such as a minimum wildlife viewing distance, and food storage rules. Make sure you familiarize yourself with those rules. We recommend that you can visit the Park website before your visit so you can better prepare. However, you can also ask staff on arrival what animals live in the area.

Give Wildlife Space

Observe wildlife only from a distance. Use a zoom lens to capture great memories. Bring binoculars for another close-up view. If an animal is reacting to your presence, you are too close. The minimum distance is 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators. If wildlife approaches you, start backing away. Wildlife needs to stay unsure of approaching humans, or we will find ourselves in an increasing number of dangerous situations.

A good way to judge if you are getting too close to wildlife is to observe their behavior. If the animal was grazing and stops, it does not appreciate your presence. If it continues to graze, it is not bothered by you being there.

Remember that even though this encounter may be special for you, chances are you are just one of many people that have already had a similar encounter that same day. It must get irritating to be constantly admired!

Keep Dogs On Leash

Dogs can be seen as a threat and trigger aggressive behavior from wildlife. Dogs off-leash is a leading cause of wildlife attacks! If you are caught with your dog off-leash, expect to be fined.

Deer wildlife encounter
Deer – Mayne Island, British Columbia

Do Not Disturb Or Touch Wildlife

You cannot feed, touch, tease or scare wildlife. Wildlife is WILD and they are unpredictable. Do not use wildlife calls or attractants to try to create a wild animal encounter.

Viewing Wildlife From The Car

Always follow the speed limit and keep your eyes on the road. Animals may dart into the road. If you want to stop for a wildlife encounter from the safety of your car, pull your vehicle completely off the road. This will help keep other motorists safe as well. The best way to view wildlife is to slow down, stay in your vehicle and move on.

Wildlife Has The Right Of Way

It may be frustrating if you must wait yet again for the 1,000th deer to cross the road before you can get moving, but you must. Do not try to make your way around wildlife or beat them before they cross the roadway. Obey the speed limits, be extra diligent during dawn and dusk, and during migrations. Use the time to admire their beauty instead of creating roadkill.

Turn Off The Music In The Car

Unlike making noise in the bush, if you are viewing wildlife from your vehicle, you need to turn off the radio noise. You do not want anything a human does to alter an animal’s behavior. When we were bear watching from the car in Waterton Lakes National Park, the Ranger had to go from car to car to tell everyone to turn off the noise as they did not want the bears to get comfortable with it.

It Is Illegal To Feed Wild Animals

If animals are left with easy access to food, they will start to seek it out above its natural food sources and become aggressive toward people. It does not matter if you accidentally leave food out, improperly dispose of your garbage, leave food unattended, or outright feed wildlife on purpose. If you do, expect to be fined for doing so.

Feeding wild animals puts you at risk, and wildlife at risk of being ‘humanely’ killed by wildlife managers. Way too many animals must be put to sleep from no fault of their own, but because of the actions of humans that cause these wildlife encounters.

Keep Your Campsite Clean

You will hear it time and time again that leaving food out will attract wildlife to make an appearance. However, it is not just the food itself that is an attractant. After you are done eating and cleaning up, make sure you put away those dishes, camp stove, coolers, and toiletries. Anything that has a smell to it can be an attractant. Also, keep your tent free of scented products.

You can easily store your scented items away in your vehicle or provided storage locker.

Black bear wildlife encounter
Black Bear – Katzie Marsh Loop – British Columbia

Travel In A Group On The Trails

Wildlife can be one of the dangers of hiking if you do not know how to properly coexist in their home. When you are on the trails, know that most wildlife is most active in the early hours and in the evening. Ensure you make noise to alert wildlife that you are close by. You want to make sure that you are not able to sneak up on wildlife, which would potentially create a dangerous situation. While bear bells are sometimes recommended, we find that making noise yourself is most effective.

To make adequate noise, this also means you should not wear earbuds. By blaring music in your ears, you will make yourself completely oblivious to your surroundings. You would not want to find yourself all of a sudden running into a mama bear and her cub like this guy did because he could not hear what was going on around him.

During our face-to-face wildlife encounter with a black bear, it was helpful that we had a large group with loud kids. If you happen to have children with you during a wildlife encounter, get those kids sandwiched between adults, or pick them up if you can, depending on the situation.  Also, if you are on a trail known for wildlife encounters, stay in a tight group; nobody runs ahead or takes off alone.

Always carry bear spray and know how to safely use it before hitting the trails. Bear spray is also helpful in dangerous wildlife encounters with other animals such as elk, bison, coyotes, cougars, moose, and wolves. The spray will only cause temporary discomfort from the capsaicin in the spray. Capsaicin is a chemical that is found in chili peppers that will irritate the eyes and skin and make the animal back off. You never want to use bear spray on an animal that is not aggressive as it can have the opposite effect and make them angry. We cannot stress this enough: if you are going to bear country, take your bear spray! It can save your life. Know how to protect yourself from wild animals if you have an aggressive encounter.

Always tell someone where you are going and when you think you will be returning.

Bison wildlife encounter
Bison – Elk Island National Park – Alberta

Know What Wildlife Signs To Look For

As mentioned above, it is best to not surprise wildlife. A good way to determine if wildlife is nearby is to look for fresh droppings, claw marks, and tracks. However, sometimes you may not find any indication of wildlife before they appear. This is why making noise is so important to help you avoid wild animal encounters!

No Selfies

It feels a little ridiculous to have to say this, but never turn your back on wildlife. Selfies with wildlife are dangerous.

Speak Up!

If you see something, speak up!  If you see people who are not following these simple rules about wildlife encounters, let them know. Contact a ranger if necessary.

Beaver wildlife encounter
Beaver – Elk Island National Park – Alberta

It Starts With YOU

Remember, staying safe and keeping wildlife wild starts with you. Do not be that person that thinks it is okay to put a baby bison in the trunk of their car or to get too close to an Elk, causing the Elk to charge. Take the time to learn how to handle and react to wild animal encounters.


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