The following is a story Hutch did earlier this year for the Canadian Society of Club Managers about the presence of predators and other wildlife on golf courses and how the game gets along with nature:
Director of golf Peter Smith wasn’t even out on the fairways and greens, so pace of play wasn’t an issue this summer when visitors slowly meandered through a parking lot at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in a British Columbia town by the same name, about 25 miles south of Radium.
In such a natural setting with mountains towering all around, the locals are used to seeing wildlife and visitors are thrilled when there’s a deer sighting as there was this day.
“There were two moms with three fawns that were taking their time, walking across the parking lot. They live here, this is their home. Everyone’s sort of respectful in trying to give the a little room and not scare them,” said Smith.
“Then, they run into the Buffalo blower, which is a very noisy piece of equipment that the little ones are bouncing all over the place and running away, but they don’t leave (the property). They’re quite accustomed to that and they’re just part of our everyday life at Fairmont and lots of the golf courses in this region,” he added.
The resort’s Riverside, Mountainside and Creekside courses provide golfers with a picturesque experience. Smith adds the wildlife they are likely to encounter enhances that experience in a big way.
“The value-added to the golfer’s experience when they get in touch with nature like that is priceless,” said Smith.
“In September, we have the salmon run through the Columbia River, We have Kokanee salmon that spawn and the river is just red with salmon for probably three weeks. Great experience, golfers love it. You cross the river six times during your round,” he adds.
“What’s even more interesting to add to this is we have this plethora of osprey and bald eagles that come and feed off these guys because they die after they spawn and the birds come and feed off them. It’s like this buffet on the river,” he said.
“If you’re golfing, you get to witness this and it’s a pretty exciting experience, so our golf, at least at Fairmont, certainly almost includes some kind of wildlife encounter,” said Smith.
One such encounter was better than any advertising money can buy. Three years ago, a video was posted on You Tube of a baby black bear playing with a pin, at times apparently dancing with it, on the 15th green of the Mountainside course.
At times, baby bear bent backwards with the pin in its grip and other times, he circled it before the little entertainer stole the golf ball of one of the players, all while the guy taking the video laughed, describing junior’s act as a circus and he was right.
Baby bear became an internet sensation as the video received millions of clicks and provided the resort with a glorious marketing opportunity. Smith says he hears about it to this day.
“We developed a brand with that. We actually have a product that we sell. We’ve got the dancing bear logo that we put on product – golf balls, hats, shirts – and people instantly recognize it, They see it and go, `Oh, I know what that is,’ and it’s just a caricature. It’s taken right from the video,” he said.
There’s a caveat to this story that some might call a spoiler alert. This story ended well and everyone lived happily ever after, but what might have happened had mama bear shown up and thought her baby was in danger?
Smith points out that mama bear was actually on the other side of the green from where the video was being taken, along with other cubs, adding that the fellow who took the video was experienced around wildlife.
“He does guided tours and stuff like that. He knows what he’s doing. He obviously felt he was at a safe distance and we’ve become accustomed to these bears, so we were kind of aware of them. It’s probably not advisable for everybody to do that sort of thing,” he said.
“We’ve had that going on for years. We’ve never had any conflict between the bears and humans. The bears are quite comfortable around us, which is not always a good thing,” he adds.
“From our golfer’s perspective, it’s huge. We could almost guarantee that when they played a round of golf, they would get to see the bears and we would joke there’s no extra charge,” he said.
Smith says the resort and staff respect that wildlife can be unpredictable, a fact that isn’t taken lightly.
“The worry is always that you turn up without seeing them. As long as we know where they’re at and that’s generally what we try to do is keep an eye on them, As long as we know where they’re at, then we can manage it,” said Smith, adding that the resort works with provincial conservation officers and can quickly evacuate the course if there’s a rogue bear, or anything else.
“We have our evacuation policies and process in place, which we do probably more for lightning storms than anything else,” he said, adding that staff go through wildlife awareness training and, if necessary, will guide guests around bears, even have guests skip a hole and come back later.
In any interaction between wildlife and humans, safety is always a concern, not only for the people, but for the furry animals, as well. Across the country, golfers at the Tamarack Golf Club near Labrador City, as it was with Fairmont Hot Springs, have been charmed by furry entertainers, as well, but this time, it wasn’t a bear.
Since the club’s opening earlier this year, the club has has been home to a family of foxes, including a mom and seven babies.
“We came in here, I think it was about the 20th of May, and she was here at our pro shop and she had her babies there. The pro shop is only about a minute’s walk from the clubhouse and that’s where they were staying at the time,” said manager Pat Lacour, who called wildlife officials.
“They said she would move them when she was ready and sure enough, about a week into our opening, she had them all moved,” she said, adding that the foxes have taken up residence between the sixth and seventh holes.
While foxes are unlikely to harm humans, staff at the golf course became concerned about the well-being of mom and babies, particularly when golfers began feeding them sandwiches, cheezies and other snacks.
“We try to tell them not to, it’s on our website and we posted it here at the club not to feed them, but people aren’t listening. They’re still bringing them some food, but winter’s coming on and they probably won’t be able to fend for themselves if they’re fed,” said Lacour.
The mom is likely doing some hunting for her babies, says Lacour, but she says the babies will follow golfers around looking for scraps, not the natural situation she’d prefer to see if the foxes were hunting on their own.
Wildlife sightings aren’t unusual in natural settings such as the Fairmont Hot Springs of Tamarack Golf Club, but they are also becoming more common in urban centres, where development is chewing up more and more land.
In places such as Toronto and surrounding area, coyotes and even bear sightings are now occasional, but once unheard of in the ever-growing city.
Kevin Thistle, who worked with the Windmill Golf Group in Calgary before becoming CEO of the PGA of Canada recently, says wildlife appears often, even at courses within the city.
“We see a lot of coyotes, a lot of deer. The great thing about Calgary, almost every golf course, because they’re corridors, there’s so much wildlife,” said Thistle, adding one of his members caused a tizzy when he tweeted that he’d made a surprise sighting off a highway, near where the new Mickelson National is in its final stages of construction.
“Everyone was giving him a hard time, going `Oh sure, you saw a big dog or something,’ and sure enough, it was a bear,” said Thistle.
Another incident took place alongside the Country Hills Golf Club in May and ended sadly when a man and the family dog he was walking along a well-used path were rushed by a pair of coyotes and the dog was killed.
Another predator made headlines in July when a cougar was shot and killed by an Alberta Fish and Wildlife official with Calgary police officers on hand near the Willow Park Golf and Country Club
After multiple sightings, Willow Park was cleared of golfers and people in nearby homes were told to stay inside. The cougar not only charged two police offers but chased a man into a nearby strip mall, even bumping its head as it tried to get into the store.
“I’ve certainly been at golf courses where we’ve had moose and we’ve had coyotes and foxes and bobcats, but nothing as dangerous as a cougar,” said Willow Park head professional Cathy Burton.
She wasn’t the only one in a state of disbelief.
“Our superintendent, we sent him out right away and he actually thought we were joking that there was a cougar on the golf course and I said no, I think the member was pretty serious when he called in and said there was an actual cougar on the golf course and I said just be careful,” she said.
“He sort of laughed, like what are the odds of a cougar being on the golf course? So anyway, he went out to the sixth tee, which is quite a way from (the clubhouse) and when he got off his golf cart, he said he took a couple of steps and didn’t see the cougar right away,” said Burton.
It turns out the big cat was hiding under a bush and when he did see it, he was on the phone immediately to Burton, telling her to evacuate that side of the golf course.
The police arrived as Burton was organizing the staff to evacuate the golf course and members of the grounds crew, who had been cutting out on the course, were hustling people off the course as they came in.
Using police helicopters and heat sensors, they tracked down the cat and, as Burton points out, when such a predator is loose in a residential area, it doesn’t turn out well for the cat.
Evacuations at golf courses are not an unusual thing, especially if there’s dangerous weather in the area, but some are slower than others to move.
“The problem is that people, they’re not quite sure what to do and when you say you need to get off the golf course, some people just stand there and want to watch,” said Burton upon reflection of the incident.
“I think from our standpoint, member awareness as to what to do in terms of procedure, maybe informing our members better as to when you’re asked to evacuate the golf course, don’t ask why, just do it,” she said.
“I think it all depends on your club policies. I know some clubs, when the sirens go off, it’s mandatory, even though it can be a blue sky,” she added.
“Anytime something new arises, you’re creating policy somewhat after the fact sometimes. A cougar, for us, is a very unusual occurrence,” says Burton.
Almost a month later, almost to keep members, staff, police and Fish and Wildlife officials on their toes, the course had to be evacuated once again, but what was thought to be another cougar turned out to be a bobcat.
Burton says the course is taking precautions and encouraging protocol to deal with wildlife, medical or weather incidents. For one thing, the phone number and address of the golf course have been put on the scorecard, with the 911 emergency number.
In incidents involving predators, the safety and well-being of humans are the first consideration, but some don’t look at it that way in the aftermath of such an event.
“I think there were a lot of people who were quite upset about the cougar having to be put down and certainly on social media, there was a lot of anger about, `Oh, the golfers have to get back on the golf course – that’s why they couldn’t tranquilize it,’” said Burton.
“That’s sort of uninformed opinion as to to what really happened, criticizing the police for being here when they could be out catching criminals, but the police are here to make sure that everybody’s safe and they went around the whole neighbourhood on their speakers, telling people to get their kids indoors, that the cougar had been sighted,” she says.
Thistle agrees that it can be quite professionally handled by police and wildlife officials, yet still turn into a public relations nightmare.
“Depending on the situation, they might have to use lethal force, but I’m sure they’d rather use tranquilizer guns first, They’re professionals – they know what type of force they have to use,” he said.
“People are in love with wildlife. It’s a very sensitive topic, for sure,” added Thistle.
In the cases of the dancing bear at Fairmont Hot Springs and the baby foxes at Tamarack, it’s easy to see why wildlife is such an enhancement to a round of golf, but there’s the occasional incident that doesn’t end well.
That’s the reality and it’s critical to be prepared for all possibilities.