Grizzly bears, fear & why they’re important to protect

Back in April, I went on a big trip to the Canadian Rockies for the first time. Looking at the calendar, its now July and somehow I’m still blogging about it.

Anyway, on our last day in Jasper, we had a very exciting sighting: my first grizzly bear. It was an incredible experience for the end of our trip. But later that day, it got even better…

We decided to do a picnic dinner at Lake Annette that evening in celebration of our final night in the Rockies. Lake Annette is a lovely kettle lake formed by a remnant block of glacial ice which melted and formed a lake following glacial retreat.

As we had not explored much of the eastern side of the Athabasca River valley yet, after eating, we went on a short tour of the area to complete our Jasper experience. At Lac Beauvert, we gazed into the crystal clear water reflecting the snow-capped mountaintops, the Fairmont Lodge perched on the edge of the lake in picturesque style as we reflected on our trip.

lacbeauvertjasper
Lac Beauvert, Jasper NP, AB

We walked along the lakeside a short distance. Between swatting away mosquitoes, I gazed up and saw in the distance, between two trees, the great hulking brown shape of our second grizzly bear of the day. After the reactions of those we told about our first sighting, we thought we’d never see another, but here he was. Quietly grazing before us on the lush green golf course. He was big and beautiful.

grizzlybear1
Grizzly bear on the Fairmont Golf Course, Jasper NP, AB

 

Feeling quite a bit braver after our first experience, but still respectful, we decided to walk just a little closer to watch. In the quiet evening, we watched the bear from afar, grazing the manicured golf course grass much like a black-tail deer back home on Vancouver Island. The perfectly manicured grass down in the warm valley must be incredibly irresistible after a winter spent hibernating.

 

 

grizzlybear4
Grizzly bear, also known as the brown bear, in Jasper NP, AB on the Fairmont Lodge Golf Course

Watching this bear was beautiful and I felt lucky to be able to do so. Once, grizzlies were widespread across North America. Today, 20,000 remain in Canada, mostly in British Columbia. They are not the fierce carnivores they are often made out to be; only 15% of their diet is meat, which is often in the form of carcasses. The rest of their diet consists of berries and other plants (Parks Canada).

Grizzlies (also known as brown bears) are an important part of the ecosystem and are an indicator of ecological health. They help disperse seeds throughout their habitat and when they dig in the dirt for food, they bring up nitrogen, tooTheir return to areas in their previous range is wonderful news. Because habitat fragmentation is a serious threat to grizzly populations, the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative aims to preserve wildlife corridors in what remains of the pristine Rocky Mountains.

Not only are they beautiful and fascinating creatures, but they also, like every other animal, have an important role in the ecosystem. While they are protected in Alberta and in national parks like Jasper, but park and provincial boundaries can only do so much. In BC, grizzly bear hunting is still, embarrassingly, legal. Even protecting grizzlies in Alberta can’t stop poachers.

People’s attitudes toward grizzlies are mixed. I was afraid of encountering one until I actually did. Somehow facing it seemed to help. I prepared myself for the possibility by learning what to do if you encounter a grizzly and more about their behaviour. I think people are fearful of what they don’t understand or are not educated about, bears included. Only by educating ourselves about grizzly behaviour and survival needs can we learn to live in peace with them.

How you can help grizzlies
Join PacificWild to Stop the Trophy Hunting of Grizzly Bears
Sign a petition to end grizzly hunting in B.C.
Support the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative to protect grizzly habitat from fragmentation
Educate yourself and others on living with grizzly bears peacefully

grizzlybear5
Grizzly bear lucky to be in Jasper, AB where grizzly hunting is banned.

 


Resources
Bear Safety, Parks  Canada
Bear Conservation Strategy, Parks Canada
Grizzly Bears, Parks Canada
The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Initiative

Some things I have to say about the Yellowstone bison incident

I am posting this with a level of trepidation. Its long, I warn you, and full of my opinions and thoughts in a somewhat negative light in a slight departure from my usual posts.

In the wake of the bison incident at Yellowstone National Park and my recent experiences in the Canadian Rockies NPs, I feel like I must say something. I’m disgusted and distressed at the behaviour these two people displayed. Picking up a bison calf and putting it in your car is completely uncalled for. It is against the advice, rules, and laws of the National Parks to even approach wildlife.

The correct course of action in this instance, if they were that concerned about the bison, is to call the Park Rangers and notify them to take care of it. The same action you would take if sighting a bear is to report it to the professionals.

While some people are outraged the calf was euthanized, the Park Rangers really did not have much choice.  What people do not understand is that baby animals are very impressionable and easily imprint onto humans in their early days. Once imprinted, it is very hard to take back and make them wild again.

If the calf had been abandoned by its mother, it would have died slowly on its own and likely ended up as someone’s meal. That is the truth of it and that is the way the ecosystem works. Predators and scavengers have to eat, too.

But, to be totally honest, I am not all that surprised as much as I am outraged. Human actions led directly to the calf being euthanized, which they intended to “save.” Too many times do human actions (or lack of action in some cases) cause similar incidents. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read about bears being euthanized for becoming habituated with humans, getting into garbage that wasn’t properly secured by people who should really know better.

It reminds me of the people who recently tried to rescue an abandoned bear cub only to have it euthanized by B.C. Conservation Officers. The correct protocol would have been phoning a wildlife rehab center, telling them about the situation and if the rehabbers decided to try to help the bear, they could have taken care of it professionally. Wildlife rehab is really better left to the professionals. I have volunteered with a wildlife rehab center and trust me, it takes a lot of expertise to do it right. Unfortunately, there is a high failure rate.

I am also not surprised after some behaviour I witnessed while visiting the National Parks in Canada’s Rocky Mountains recently. All of it was rooted in selfish and lazy human behaviour and make me lose a little bit more faith in humankind. Here they are…

Continue reading

Respecting the bear in Jasper National Park: my first grizzly bear sighting

050116 (1)
If last week was kind to animals week, this post is appropriately timed although I believe in always being kind to animals every day. Mutts Comic strip, May 4, 2016 by Patrick McDonnell. (From: Mutts Comics)

My partner and I are by no means experienced hikers in bear country. A few years ago, we lived in New Zealand where, well, bears don’t exist. In fact, the biggest danger while hiking there is the ever-changing maritime or alpine weather. I’m from the east, where suburban sprawl has all but pushed out the black bear and seeing one is extremely rare.

Needless to say, Canada is quite a change for us in that regard. I have really only been hiking in bear country in these recent years, but we educated ourselves on what to do to prevent encounters and what to do if you do see one. In the last year and a half on Vancouver Island, I’ve seen four black bear – two from a vehicle and two while outside working. Each was from a distance. The parks recommend staying 100 yards from bear. Obviously its always a good idea to give any wild animal space.

Black bear on Vancouver Island from a great distance. See the small, black spec on the far shoreline? This was my first black bear sighting on the island and my only documented one, shot in the days before I had a camera with higher zoom. It was actually a mum with a cub nearby.

Despite all the education and these experiences, I still get nervous when going out in bear country and going to the Rockies is like stepping into their backyard. I admit, it scares me. We prepare ourselves, we make noise, we watch for signs of bear activity in the area and that’s all you can really do aside from never leaving your house.

It was still a crisp morning when we started the trail, having arrived earlier than many others. I was hoping to see some birds and maybe a beaver, both of which were a good possibility where we were heading. I never expected what we did see only 15 minutes down the trail… a grizzly bear.

grizzly1
My first grizzly bear sighting, easily distinguished from black bear by its hump on the shoulders

I think my heart might have stopped for a minute as I exclaimed for my partner to stop and pointed out the bear in the distance. She looked absolutely huge in the distance on the opposite hill. Once I got over the surprise, I took a photo and we watched in awe for a few minutes. My partner said I was surprisingly calm, but I think everything I’ve read may have helped. Its not a bad idea to educate yourself about something you fear.

grizzly2
Grizzly bear, notice her collar

It was the ideal sighting because we were far away (hundreds of meters), we did not take the bear by surprise, and she was easily visible in the wide open area on the opposite slope from our position. When we yelled and made some noise, she didn’t appear to notice, she was merely grazing on vegetation. However, she was standing very near to where we could see the trail lead and I’m not going to push my luck. So, we decided to respect the bear and turn back. We hadn’t come far and we could return later once she’d moved on.

fivelakes
This is a zoomed out view of where the grizzly was from our position. She was on the other side of the boardwalk just next to the bare tree on the left of the middle. I took this photo when we returned later.

After reporting our sighting to Parks Canada, we were informed she is a “people tolerant” bear and others we encountered on the trail decided to go onward anyway. Because she had a GPS tracking collar and unique ID, they were able to locate her and knew which bear she was. As it turns out, when we returned to the trailhead later on, no one else reported seeing the bear, even a woman who had been behind us by about 5-10 minutes and was really hoping to. So she must have been just moving through, but you never know where a bear might be headed and it doesn’t seem smart to me to knowingly head toward one.

We finished the rest of the hike the second time sans bear sighting. It was our last day and we considered our ideal grizzly bear sighting quite the highlight of an amazing trip! It was certainly very memorable. Seeing something I’d been dreading and fearing turned out to be an amazing experience, seeing this most wild of wild animals, the very symbol of the wilderness.

fivelakes2
Kettle hole at Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta. Kettle holes are formed during glacial retreat when blocks of ice get left behind. These blocks of ice later melt and form kettle holes.
fivelakes3
Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta