Banff Grizzly Bears take another hit
I wrote that first paragraph a week ago, intent on writing a full blog post immediately after Bear 108's death while the impact was at its most forceful. But something was nagging at me, some feeling that wouldn't let me complete the blog post until I had the full story.
As most of you know, I've been photographing bears in the Canadian Rockies for over twenty years now. In fact, if you count the crappy pics I took of little black specks along the Icefields Parkway when I was six, then I've been doing it for thirty-five years now. So it seemed strange to me that I would not have run into Bear 108 before, that I wouldn't have a library of images of her from one of Banff's many bear haunts. After all, it's not like she was a ghost of the forest -- this year alone, she was sighted daily in the Lake Louise area from the beginning of June until her untimely death last week and was often the cause of massive bear traffic jams along the Trans Canada Highway.
The nagging feeling I had about knowing more about Bear 108 than I could recall had hit me last year, too, when Bear 109, Bear 108's twin sister, was tragically run over by a train near Banff in June. Again, I found it hard to believe that I didn't have any pictures of 109, a habituated and 'friendly' four-and-a-half year old female.
So when media outlets started calling me on Wednesday night asking if I had images of Bear 108 and information about her, I was uncommonly reserved. I told a few stories about seeing her on the Trans Canada this spring and wondering then if her fate would be met on that deadly piece of pavement, and I passed along a few photos of her at the center of big bear jams with people clustered around her like she was a tame circus bear.
|Bear 108 on the side of the Trans Canada Highway in late June 2011|
But really, I didn't have any good photos of just her, alone on her own. The truth was that I'd avoided her for the most part this spring and summer. I knew that wherever she was, there was likely to a fully regaled Rocky Mountain tourist gong show going on, with people getting way too close and her, being the loveable bear that she was, tolerating it. So I looked elsewhere for other bears.
When I heard she had been hit by a vehicle last Monday night and that Parks officials were looking for her body in the woods by Castle Mountain, I immediately felt regret that I hadn't spent an early morning one day trying to get better photos of her so that her story could be properly told and illustrated.
By Friday, with the nagging feeling still enveloping me whenever I thought of finishing this blog post, I decided it was time to start doing some sleuthing. I could not shake the feeling that I had indeed photographed both 108 and 109 before, but I just couldn't place when or where that may have been. I began sifting through all of my mother and cub pictures from Banff over the past five years. I had two things to go on: one, the cubs would have been born in 2006, so they would have been young of year in '06, yearlings in '07, and two year-olds in '08. And two, their mother, Bear 64, had a radio collar and an ear tag saying 64 on it.
There were a number of bear series that fit the bill for the first criteria: Banff bear families with two cubs, yearlings in '07 and two year-olds in '08, but none of them had a mother with a collar. It was a dead end.
So Monday morning I opened up my blogging site to once again attempt to finish this post, but something made me look at my archives of grizzly images one more time. This time, to my astonishment, I noticed a very subtle yellow tag in the left ear of one of the mother grizzlies. Zooming in, I could make out a 4, but the number left of it appeared to be a 5, not a 6. Bear 54? I'd never heard of it, so I started making some calls. Was there a Bear 54 or had I just stumbled upon shots of Bear 64 without a collar? Did she ever not have a collar? My interest began to build...I seemed to recall that Bear 64 had been recollared in 2009, so did that mean her previous collar had fallen off prior to that?
|The mystery tag...54? 64? Which bear was it?|
Finally, yesterday afternoon, after a conversation with Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife conflict specialist with Parks Canada in Banff, I got the confirmation I was looking for. There had been a Bear 24, a Bear 54, even a Bear 84, but they'd all been male. The only bear it could be in my photos was Bear 64, and she had indeed gone several years without a collar.
And so, with that new knowledge, I began my blog post, this blog post, all over again:
On the evening of Monday, July 11th, grizzly bear #108, a five-and-a-half year old female grizzly bear, was hit by a car on the Trans-Canada Highway near Castle Junction between Banff and Lake Louise. While park wardens that were on the scene were hopeful she would survive the impact of the collision (she sat roadside for an hour after the accident before slowly moving off into the forest), her body was found on Wednesday less than 200 metres from where she was originally hit.
I first saw Bear 108 late in the spring of 2007. She was a scraggly, ruffled, yearling cub, rolling around in the dirt with her sister, Bear 109, while their mother, Bear 64, ate grass on the edge of a meadow. It was just a fleeting encounter, with time for only a few shots before the family walked up a closed side road and wandered off into the backcountry for the summer.
|Bear 108 or 109 as a yearling cub rolling around on the ground|
The next year I ran into Bear 108 and her family again a number of times. On the first, she was munching dandelions with her sister and mother on a peaceful, quiet morning in the heart of the park. For almost an hour, I watched the bears alone from my car, and like many of my bear experiences over the years, that early morning still sticks in my mind: the roadsides were lush and green, rich with colour, and the valley was quiet, so much so that I could literally hear the cubs chomping off the dandelion heads and tearing them from their stalks. It was a magical morning -- I remember the bears moving along the roadway past my vehicle, too close to photograph with my big lens. Rather than starting up my engine and disturbing them, I sat in silence, watching and listening.
|Bear 108 or 109 as a two year old cub|
|Bear 108 or 109 in June 2008|
Two days later, I had another incredible encounter with the family. I watched from afar as the bears slowly chowed their way across a meadow of grass and dandelions until they were less than fifty metres away. Mom would glance in my direction occasionally, but for the most part the bears treated me as if I wasn't there. I watched and photographed them for two hours without disturbance before finally saying a soft "thank you" and leaving them alone.
|Bear 64 with her two twin female cubs, 108 and 109, at the edge of a meadow in the Bow Valley, June 2008|
|Bear 64 moving closer as the cubs graze in the meadow|
|A grizzly family portrait|
|Bear 64 and one of the cubs watches a train go by through the Bow Valley.|
Then in 2009, I had another brief encounter with the family, watching Bear 64 shepherd her three year old cubs across a park road in front of a few tourists.
For three straight years, I had watched Bear 64 teach her cubs how to handle themselves in and around traffic, roads, and humans without incident. She had done her best to leave them with the tools they needed to survive in the dangerous Bow Valley, and in the late spring of 2009, the family finally separated and went on their individual ways.
It should have been a glorious moment in Banff National Park's treasured history: a venerable mother grizzly bear living in the heart of the busiest valley in our national park system successfully raising two female grizzly bears to subadult-hood to eventually replace her on the landscape. But a train got in the way of that dream in May 2010, when Bear 109 was struck and killed.
Still, Bear 108 survived 2010 and came into this year as a healthy, good-looking five-and-a-half year old adult female. Better yet, she spent a good portion of the spring with Bear 8, a breeding age male, near Lake Louise, and there was a strong hope in the valley that she had mated and would have her first cubs next year.
Sadly, that dream, too, ended sometime between Monday and Wednesday last week when Bear 108 finally succumbed to her injuries.
And so we're back to where we started. Bear 64 has a new litter of cubs, and the question now becomes, will any of them survive to fill the hole that's been left by the tragic deaths of Bear 108 and Bear 109?
I sincerely hope so, because Banff's grizzly bears can't afford to take another hit.