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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Female Banff Grizzly Dies

Banff National Park has once again failed to live up to its standards as a protected haven for Alberta's threatened grizzly bears.  On Saturday, May 28th late in the evening/night, a female grizzly bear was struck and killed by a speeding Canadian Pacific train on the edge of Lake Louise in the heart of the mountain parks protected area -- in the heart of the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks world heritage site.

This mother grizzly was killed by a Canadian Pacific train on Saturday, May 28th, 2011.

Less than 36 hours prior to her death, I watched and photographed this beautiful bear with her two yearling cubs as they frolicked on the edge of the forest near Lake Louise early in the morning on Friday, May 27th. She was the first mother with cubs I had photographed this year.

She was one of three breeding female grizzly bears with cubs in the Lake Louise area

To say that I was devastated by the news would be to understate it. I was on my way to Jasper to photograph black bear cubs when I got the call from Parks; and spent the next 24 hours in a state of shock, dismay, and anger, wondering how this continues to happen time and time again.

What will happen now to her orphaned cubs?  Will they also get hit by a train eventually?

All photos were taken on Friday, May 27th, the day before her death, with a
500mm telephoto lens from the safety of my vehicle

For the twenty years I have lived in Banff, I have watched nearly every animal I love meet its' untimely fate at the hands of humans.  It began with Field, the first grizzly I ever saw in the wild. Less than a week after I watched her play and mate with another bear on the Bow Valley Parkway two decades ago, she was relocated to northern Alberta. The next day, she got into an industrial trailer and was shot and killed by a Conservation Officer.

Those of you who have heard my talk, 'A Day in the Life of a Wildlife Photographer', know that the tragic ending to Field's life played a large part in me becoming a wildlife photographer intent on making a difference in the world of conservation.

To this day, thinking about her brings back a range of emotions that are hard to put into writing.  But most of all, remembering those sad days just makes me angry that we are still dealing with many of the same old problems.

Following in Field's grisly footsteps were Blondie, #16 (Skoki), Delinda, #56 and her cubs, Meadow, #0148, and a host of other bears and wolves too long to list.

From 1999 to 2008, there were a staggering 3,580 reported railway and highway animal mortalities (not including mammals smaller than a wolverine) in Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay national parks.  But that figure pales in comparison to what the real numbers may be; as Peter Dettling describes in his book, The Will of the Land, reported mortalities are likely only 25-35 percent of the actual number of mortalities. That means that each decade in the Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks, more than 10,000 large mammals die on our railways and highways.

Grizzly bear 0148 faces an oncoming Canadian Pacific train as he feeds on grain between the tracks.

That is not acceptable in my world, and I hope it's not in yours, either.

That this most recent grizzly bear death has left two orphaned cubs weighing no more than 50 pounds each, means that in all likelihood the Banff grizzly population will soon loose two more members of its already critically endangered population. Banff's grizzly bear population is estimated to be between 40-60 grizzly bears, a population capable of sustaining a mortality rate of 4% annually. If indeed these cubs do not survive, then that means we have just experienced a 6.6% mortality rate for the year, exceeding our threshold for a sustainable rate of mortality, yet we're only four or five weeks into bear season and have no idea if other bears are dying naturally in the park or how many are hit and killed that we don't even know about.  Who's next to die and how many bears or wolves do we need to keep losing before we do something about it?

It's bad enough that we've just lost one of Banff's precious few remaining breeding females (one of just three in the Lake Louise area that had cubs), but to now sit around and wait for the deaths of the two orphaned cubs makes me frustrated at the inaction of Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific.  Will they get hit by a train or on the highway, or will they be predated on by a big male boar like one of #56's cubs now that they don't have the protection of their mother?

So what exactly can be done to help this situation and turn it into something positive? Well, that's where you all come in. I need your help, and I need it in a big way.

First and foremost, I need your help in convincing Parks Canada that something needs to be done immediately to help save these orphaned grizzly bear cubs.  They are too small to survive on their own for long, in fact, Banff National Park has a 0% success rate (yes, ZERO) at having orphaned cubs reach adulthood successfully.  In other words, they all die, whether it happens immediately or in the year or two after the loss of their mother.  Parks' current rationale that it's better to leave them on the landscape as is and let nature take its course is absolute bullsh*t (pardon the phrase), as nature does not generally enlist speeding trains to fly along and mow down grizzly mothers.

Fortunately, there are a number of out-of-the-box solutions that we can encourage Parks Canada to try.  I have been in touch with a provincial bear rehabilitation organization in British Columbia, the Northern Lights Wildlife Society in Smithers, who has indicated a willingness to potentially take on the cubs, even though they do not normally deal with Alberta bears or with yearling cubs (their specialty is cubs of the year).  They have already experienced a degree of success with rehabbing grizzly bear cubs and getting them through their first year in the wild on their own after a year in rehab fattening them up and teaching them proper wild behaviour around humans.

Right now, the proposal is still up in the air.  Final approval would need to be granted by the B.C. government to make an exception for this particular case, but more importantly, before that can happen Parks Canada will have to show a willingness to take this leap of faith.  And truthfully, Parks' reluctance is not be unexpected.  It is a huge jump to take these bears off to BC and hope that a rehab program works.  However, I want Parks Canada to at least start considering options like this, and most importantly, I want to see some pressure from people like you to get the Alberta government funding a similar project for rehabilitating bear cubs and other wildlife here in Alberta.

Even in the event of this proposal falling through, I have proposed another option for Parks Canada that should also merit serious consideration:  the idea is to extend the seasonal electric fencing at the Lake Louise Ski Area to make a safe zone for the cubs to continue to forage on their own without human interaction or the threat of predation (the safe zone would ideally include a mix of habitat that could provide spring, summer, and fall food as much as possible).  Such a safe zone could then also be used in the future if we run into this problem again (which is almost certain to happen given the recent past and the number of times it has already happened).

Does Parks Canada have the time, funds, or resources to undertake this at this point?  Will that be their argument against such a project?  The fact is, if Parks doesn't have the time, funds, or resources to protect one of the mountain park's most cherished and rare animals at this critical stage, then what do we even have parks for and what do we have an agency like Parks Canada for?!

So how can you help?  You can start by writing an email to the acting superintendent of the Lake Louise-Yoho-Kootenay Field Unit for Parks Canada, Dave Cairns ( voicing your concerns. You might also want to include the new superintendent for the Banff field unit, Pam Veinotte (, as this issue is almost certain to arise in Banff again in the future.

And feel free to tell them that it's time for action, not for them to pass the buck and get one of their wildlife managers to write you back an email or letter. All that does is waste valuable time for these managers and their limited staff that could be spent in the field instead of behind a computer screen.  Tell them that we all really appreciate the hard work they have done to limit wildlife mortality on the Trans-Canada Highway, but that it's not enough.  Tell them we need critical portions of the Kootenay Parkway (Highway 93S) fenced off as well, and that they need to deal with speed and traffic issues along the Bow Valley Parkway to make it a safe place for grizzly bears to feed in the spring.

Ok, still with me?  Because now we get to the meat of the matter.  That is, how do we convince Canadian Pacific Railway that it's worth their time and money to put an end to this slaughter of wildlife once and for all.  We know what is causing the deaths of wildlife on the rail line: trains moving too quickly and too quietly.  We also know why grizzly bears are using the tracks: there is far too much grain spilled on them, and the right-of-ways are proving to be too attractive for bears to pass up, whether it be for food (berries and dandelions growing in the open spaces) or for ease of travel (it's pretty easy to walk along a set of train tracks vs trudging through the dense forest making up much of Banff's Bow Valley).

An unidentified grizzly bear on a dangerous section of track near Lake Louise.  Grizzlies feeding on railway-spilled
grain occasionally get funneled into these narrow sections by trains and have nowhere left to escape.

So we need some serious pressure put on CP.  The million dollars they have put up for research to help curb the number of grizzly bear deaths from trains is admirable, but more has to be done immediately, regardless of whether or not it cuts into CP's vast profit margins (according to Dettling's book, CP had a net income/profit of 19 billion dollars from 1999 to 2008).

It is not rocket science to make grain cars that don't leak grain.  We have all sorts of rail cars that carry fluids and an incredible assortment of other materials, and none of those leak on a regular basis like those grain cars do. So fix the problem. Spend the money, take a tiny percentage of those enormous profits, and fix the problem. It really is that easy and it's something we need to demand of CP.

Doing this would instantly eliminate the food source for these bears, likely drastically reducing the number of bear deaths.

Along with fixing the grain problem, the next step may be to slow the trains down in a few strategic and particularly dangerous locations. It's not quite as easy as just saying that they need to slow down all trains at all times, because that really will cut deeply into their profit margins and CP is a for-profit company, so instead, I'd be happy just seeing them make concessions to slow down in a few areas, much like most of us slow down when we see wildlife speed zones on the highway.

Yes, slowing down in a few spots will definitely still cost CP a few bucks, but that may just be the cost of doing business in today's day and age where the public demands some accountability for trains going through our most famous national park.

We also need to force CP to take a very serious look at fencing the railway much like the Trans-Canada Highway has been fenced.  This would eliminate the problem entirely, though CP is not going to undertake such a costly project without a significant amount of public pressure.

Big corporations often need to feel the hurt in their wallet or the pressure from the public before a fire gets lit under them to initiate a change.  So let's get some pressure on CP and see what effect we can have.  Call the President and CEO of CP, Fred Green, at 1-888-333-6370, or email the Community Connect Department at and ask them to forward a copy of your email directly to Mr. Green expressing your concerns. We need the grain problem fixed now, and we need trains to slow down in a select few places. The million dollars can still be used to research the rest of the problems that the CP line causes, but right now we have a critical issue that needs addressing immediately before more grizzly bears die. The more negative publicity we can generate, the more likely a positive outcome will be.

In an October 2010 article, The Globe and Mail reported on the million dollars that CP had slated for researching the bear-train problem:

"CPR president and chief executive officer Fred Green said his company is under no legal obligation to spend the money, and expects some shareholders may object to the decision. “But I do know when things are the right thing to do,” said Mr. Green, a Calgary resident who hikes and skis in the mountains."

I think it's time to test Mr. Green on that statement. Will he step up to the plate and do the right thing? Will he be the one to leave behind a legacy of helping save Banff's grizzly bears?

A large male bear eyes up a train behind me as I take a photograph.
Shot with a 500mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter, cropped 50%. 

I would also suggest that you email the Minister of Parliament for the Banff-Canmore-Lake Louise riding, Blake Richards (, and the federal Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent (, to express your concerns there, too. It's time to get something done here to immediately to address this problem in Banff before it's too late.

In the end, it's people like all of you that can make a difference in this.  Please take five minutes and send a couple of quick emails.

Thank you,



  1. This is a tragic story John, I think we all feel your loss. It amazes me that there continues to be nothing done. You would think that the grain companies would be concerned by their product loss. Lake Louise is at least 3 hours from the nearest inland terminal by train. Last year the tracks at Ottertail were the first thing to green up and that's where I saw my first black bear of last year.

  2. This is truly sad news, it makes me so angry to see the beautiful animals I love being killed senselessly, I agree with you John, there needs to be drastic new changes made and soon, I'm so sorry you have to be the one to see all these deaths john I know how much love and passion you have for the wild life in the Rockies, keep up the good fight. Steve Woods

  3. Thanks John

    I will be emailing all the people you mentioned - this is just a disgrace.


  4. Thanks for sending this out and for including some contacts. I will definitely be writing. This is unacceptable and those cubs need action now. I can only hope we won't be too late.

  5. John, I share your pain and frustration. I've sent my emails off and would ask everyone who reads this blog to do the same. In addition, I have forwarded the link to the blog, to friends and family members, requesting that they do the same. I agree, we must get involved before it's too late!

  6. Thank you John for your outstanding photography of these beautiful creatures. And most of all, thank you for spreading the word of urgency to stop this senseless killing. These photos are very moving when combined with the reality of what is happening out there. You and the bears have my support~ Colleen McCrank

  7. This makes me sick and it happens every year. CP made 19 BILLION DOLLARS of profit and only gave 1 million for research and 10,000 animals get hit every decade and still nothing is done? Fix your damn cars so that they don't leak grain. Use some of your profit for that. This is disgraceful. Banff, don't let nature take it's course, capture the cubs and give them a chance to survive. A 100% failure rate of letting them be is not acceptable. Stop passing the buck, grow a pair and save the bears.

  8. The numbers in this article are unbelievable. It's kind of depressing that Parks Canada needs more pressure then those numbers alone to do anything about it.

  9. Check out our new Facebook Group, Save Banff's Wildlife, at!/home.php?sk=group_228925783790469

  10. Hi,
    Thanks for your passion as well as your photographs. I will be emailing and phoning everyone you indicated. One suggestion, though, to get more people to get on the bandwagon may be to have a couple templates, for both CP and Parks Canada that people can use for their emails. Yes, it may be the lazy person's option, but it may help procrastinators take action as well. Also, do you think that a petition, delivered to CP and Parks Canada will have any effect?

  11. An excellent and passionate article. I saw a Grizzly just last night feeding on the tracks between Canmore and Banff. This senseless death has to stop. Parks and CP need to step up to the plate right now to protect these beautiful creatures. Your photos are breathtaking and do so much to remind us of how important it is to fight for these animals.
    Erin Donovan

  12. Thanks for sharing John. I remember bear 56 - one of my favorites up at the Lake. My heart breaks again for yet another animal killed on the tracks.

  13. Thank you John for collecting all the contacts. I will be sending emails to all of the them.

    Mark W.

  14. Enough said. Emails sent.

  15. In the past, I've been told by a few CPR trainmen that they are instructed to not even slow down, much less stop, for any wildlife regardless of what it is (whether in or out of parks). As a result, I was told that they hit a huge amount of wildlife of all sizes, especially in winter. Occasionally they'd slow anyway, but they may be risking their jobs, they say. We might want to ask Fred Green if those instructions are still CPR policy; if so, that's one of the problems. And I'm not sure why rules to keep to posted speed limits and avoid wildlife collisions if at all possible should be any different for trains as they are for truck transports; a trucker's profit margin, besides being considerably less than trains, is no less important, is it?

  16. Hi John; It is horrific that all these beautiful animals are not better protected - resulting in deaths. Perhaps if we (photographers) took more photos of the deaths of these animals and had them posted around and even asked our newspapers to front page these, along with Fred Greens names and the refusal of the CPR to change their policy. With lots of these photos out there this might then (hopefully) force the CPR to change their policies!!!

  17. Hi John. I photographed these bears at 7:30 pm on the Friday before she was killed and consider it one of the best wildlife encounters I have had. You could tell that she was an extremely good mother and the cubs were still very dependent upon her. I was in Jasper about a week later when I heard that she had been killed. Like you I was in shock for a few days. I lay in bed at night trying to imagine a system that might be used to repel bears as a train approaches. Nothing came to mind but there has to be some sound that the trains could emit that would startle the bears enough that they would move. I totally agree that Parks Canada and CPR must get together and come up with a solution to this problem.

  18. I`m sad that the mama bear died by the train. I saw the cubs when we were on the chair lift in Lake Louise yesterday. They were running and playing with each other. My mom and Dad saw them too. The cubs are 2yrs old. I wished someone would have warned her about the train. I wished that the mama bear could stay alive.

    Erika age 7yr

  19. Some o possibly even all of the grain cars are actually owned by the Government of Canad and leased to the rail companies. Fixing the cars hould be thenumber one priority. Forget endless studies of the problem, just spend the money toon fixing it instead of studying it.

    The idea of fencing the rails has been thrown around, but fencing the highway has not worked to reduce bear mortality because they (and wolves) find ways past. Request to see all the data and you will see mortality rates on a given stretch of highway before fencing does not change after fencing. Comparing mortlity between different areas with and without fencing is not really valid since the underlying conditions are so different between location ( obviously Lk Louise-Yoho-Kootenay-Icefields which is fully forested or subalpine is different habitat than Banff-Canmore where there is 'montane grassland', so comparison must be before-after at the same location to be valid. Consider for example that Banff has 150-200 resident elk and a sparse winter snow depth, while Lake Louise has a tiny year-round resident elk population and a deep winter snowpack and it is easy to see major habitat variations between the areas. Fencing would be a grand waste of money in comparison to just fixing the leaky rail cars so there is no longer food on the tracks.

  20. Thank you John. This is very sad. This past August my family and I had a fabulous grizzly sighting while hiking on the Mount Edith Cavell Meadows hike. What a beautiful animal that left us with wonderful memories (and photos)! The loss of any of these animals is a shame.

  21. Letters sent! This hurts my heart. I have also subscribed and shared on FB.