Thursday, August 14, 2014

What really happened to Grizzly Bear 64?

She was big, she was beautiful, and she was one of Banff's most famous locals. Grizzly bear #64 was a fixture on the Banff landscape for the past decade, particularly on the west edge of the Town of Banff early in the spring, on the Sunshine Road later in the spring, and on the Bow Valley Parkway in the summer each year.

And then, last fall, she disappeared, leaving an unsolved mystery, and three two year-old cubs, behind.

Grizzly Bear 64 with her cubs in June 2011 in Banff National Park

Last week the Calgary Herald published an article, "Grizzly No. 64 leaves a legacy in Banff National Park," that failed to address what likely really happened to bear 64. The first paragraph states, "One of Banff National Park’s most researched grizzly bears hasn’t been spotted since last fall, leading wildlife specialists to suggest she either died of natural causes or was killed by another bear." It also conveniently avoids stating the obvious: that in a national park plagued by train and vehicle collisions that kill far more adult grizzlies than mother nature does, it's much more likely that beloved Grizzly Bear 64 was hit by a car or train and struggled off into the bush to die unseen.

So why wouldn't Parks Canada wildlife 'specialists' even mention that it's a possibility that she died from unnatural causes, particularly given that one grizzly has already died in Banff this year on the Icefields Parkway and another was hit by a train this spring?

64 with cubs in 2008 along the Bow Valley Parkway. Did she die of natural or unnatural causes? We'll never know.

The answer, unfortunately, lies in an underhanded new media policy for Parks Canada coming straight out of Ottawa, reported on recently by the Rocky Mountain Outlook: "New Parks policy limits information." The new policy basically does what it says, it limits information, meaning that we (the media or the public) no longer have instant or direct access to important wildlife mortality news. Everything will now be filtered through Ottawa, so the days of local Banff wildlife managers giving up-to-the-minute updates on bear and wolf mortalities are now long gone.

The wolf that got hit on the Trans Canada Highway near the Sunshine interchange this spring? Never reported because the media never got wind of it. Photographers with a vested interest in whether the wolf survived or not waited and waited for answers, but never got any from Parks. We got our answer when the pack showed up with one less member. The wolf never did appear again. Editor's Note: another wolf was reported hit on the TCH near the Sunshine exit on July 15th. There has been a known weakness in the Sunshine exit's wildlife crossing gate for over five years now, yet Parks has still not fixed it.

What about that grizzly bear that got hit by the train that I referenced above? The CBC article was from July 3rd, reporting on a grizzly that got hit on May 11th, almost two months prior to the article. That grizzly has never been mentioned since by Parks Canada in various grizzly news, particularly any reports referencing how many bears have been killed in the mountain parks this year.

Which brings us back full circle to the story of what really happened to Grizzly Bear 64. Do you we choose to believe Parks Canada and assume she was killed by another bear or died of natural causes? Or do we start looking at all news coming out of the Banff Parks office with a grain of salt and wondering if indeed something else could have happened. A real pessimist might even wonder if she got killed on the highway or by a train and the information has been withheld because of the shit storm that it would stir up in the media (Parks already got a taste of that back in 2008 when the most famous wild wolf in Canada was struck down on the Trans-Canada Highway). Why stir the pot when Parks is already fighting a rash of negative publicity centered around their recent decisions in favour of expanding development in our most cherished national parks (the Mount Norquay summer expansion, the Brewster skywalk, and the Maligne Lake hotel proposal)?

Is the truth about Grizzly Bear 64's disappearance sitting on a desk in Ottawa?

The truth is out there somewhere, but with Parks Canada's new policy limiting our access to information, we will likely never know what really happened to Grizzly Bear 64. Maybe she really did wander off and die alone and we can continue to hold on to our romantic notions that Banff's most beloved bear survived for 25 years in the shadow of the country's busiest national park resort town and passed away peacefully on a hillside.  Or, maybe, the truth is sitting on a Parks desk in Ottawa, never to be revealed.

At the very least, Parks Canada wildlife specialists should not be sugar-coating their statements to the media...it is far more likely that Grizzly Bear 64 died of unnatural causes in this national park than of natural causes.

To paraphrase fellow photographer Hendrik Boesch as this new age of information screening is upon us, we can expect to continue paying our annual fees to our publicly-funded national parks, just don't expect to actually know what's going on in them.

[Note: Grizzly Bear 64 has not been seen since last fall.  It is still possible that she's alive and avoiding humans, but it seems extremely unlikely given her territory and disposition.]

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