Category: Grizzly bears
One could be forgiven for thinking that even the grizzly bears in Banff take a break from their daily routines to appreciate the mountain scenery. While I will never discount the fact that other animals can appreciate their surroundings, what’s more likely is that this bear is smelling the air for any potential threats or food options.
I took this photo last month near one of the most popular places in Canada; Lake Louise. Bear 138 as she is known to park biologists, was feasting on one of the only spring food sources available to the bears; dandelions. Imagine how many dandelions a 150-200kg lactating grizzly bear would need to eat to produce enough milk to feed her two cubs? Needless to say, it’s a staggering amount. When they enter their hyperphagic state later this month, they eat about 35,000 calories a day. To put that in perspective, the average person eats about 2000 calories daily! Almost all of these calories are from berries, with a single bear eating between 200-300,000 berries per day to put on enough fat to survive the winter. That’s the equivalent of you or I eating 63 hamburgers daily! Yet these bears suffer no heart disease or complications association with high cholesterol.
This only touches the tip of the iceberg of all the interesting adaptations of bears, but I hope you agree that these are amazing animals and deserving of our respect and protection.
An adult male grizzly bear plows through 10 centimeters of snow in minus 10-15 degree Celsius temperatures. While the females and young cubs are already tucked away in their dens, these big males are still out looking for food to pack on the pounds so they can compete against the biggest males for breeding opportunities in the spring.
For the past several years I have tried in vain to get a good photo of a grizzly bear in snow. I have run into them as late as December, always either really early in the morning or late at night. All of that changed when this bear lumbered out of the forest in the middle of the day. He wander back and forth following the tracks of a pack of wolves that had been in the area earlier in the morning. Most likely he was trying to determine if the wolves had made a kill. Being the biggest predators in the Rockies, they will follow wolves and steal away their kills through brute force but on this day the bear came up empty handed. With his nose covered in snow, he plodded along weaving a route back and forth through the forest before giving up and moving on.
Many people in Banff National Park know these bears, as their mother is bear 64 who is one of the most commonly seen grizzly bears in Banff. She prefers to make her living in the wilderness areas surrounding the Banff townsite and has successfully navigated this busy landscape for over two decades.
Even now, with her cubs at 3.5 years of age, they are still very reliant on her to keep them safe and to show them all the seasonal food sources in the Rockies. Grizzly bears here have the longest interval between births of any grizzly bears in the world at upwards of 5-6 years. This is thought to be do to the harsh landscape and reduced food supplies compared to other regions where grizzly bears can be found.
This almost adult sized youngster has always stayed very close to her mother and is never far from her side. In a sign of her growing independence she has started to go off and forage on her own but she always tries to keep tabs on where her mom is. On this day, 64 was off doing her own thing and out of her cubs sight, so this youngest stood up on her hind legs and search the area for her. When that didn’t work she started calling out. Within seconds 64 appeared from the bush and came running over to see what she was being called about. Content that her Mom was back in close proximity, this ‘cub’ relaxed and went back to ravenously feeding on berries. In the next few months their independence from 64 will grow and they will likely head off on their own or be sent packing by Mom soon.
I was recently a naturalist with Classic Canadian Tours to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary on the North coast of B.C. The park is the largest remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world, can only be accessed by boat or float plane and was specifically set aside to protect grizzly bears and their habitat. About 50 grizzly bears call this park home, which is the about the same number that live in all of Banff National Park. That may not sound impressive at first, but the Khutzeymateen is 16 times smaller in area than Banff! As such it has one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America and if you time it just right the bears are on almost every beach that you come across.
They come down to the huge estuary almost everyday at low tide from late-spring to mid-summer to feast on crabs, clams, sedgegrass and whatever else they stumble upon. In the 2 hours we were in the park we came across 7 grizzly including a mom and cub that play fought along the shore as we watched from the boat! On the way to and from the park we also saw breaching humpback whales that had just started to return from the north to feed on the abundant herring, lounging harbor seals, stellar sea lions, bald eagles fishing for the salmon and countless other coastal bird life. It was an incredible day of wildlife viewing!
To give you an idea of the habitat I chose this photo of the rainforest and one of the many rivers feeding into the estuary. A grizzly bear appeared at the edge of the river and seemed to be checking it out for any returning salmon. In a few weeks the bears will be farther inland feasting on all the spawning, dead and decaying salmon trying to put on as much fat as possible for their long winter sleep. A truly very unique place.
If you are interested in seeing the Khutzeymateen but can’t afford to be away for very long or the expense of a multi-day trip, Classic Canadian Tours has day tours from both Calgary and Edmonton that are sure to sell out again in 2014. Dates will be announced soon so stay tuned!
During dusk and dawn when wildlife are usually more active, I spend most of my time in the car since it serves as a natural blind that animals are less likely to react to. Obviously, this involves a lot of sitting so after several hours I need to stretch my legs. With some of the best scenery around, it is not hard to find somewhere to hike and take photographs. On this particular day I loaded my gear into my backpack, made sure I had my bear spray and headed out with camera in hand. As I came around a clump of spruce trees I spotted some movement in the thickets about 200 feet away. I immediately retraced my steps back into the shadows of the trees to not be as visible and from there I was able to get a good enough look to figure out that it was a large grizzly coming in my general direction. It wasn’t until I had my bear spray in hand that I called out and stepped into the open to alert it to my presence. Only then did I notice an adult wolf was only a few feet behind the bear! Before I had time to take any photos, the wolf disappeared back into the thicket, while the bear stopped and went up on its hind legs to get a better look at me. Facing the bear, I slowly backed away. The bear went back down on all fours, turned to its right and ambled off while I retraced my steps back the way I came. I’m sure the wolf was watching everything from a distance making sure that both the bear and I continued out of the area.
I drove out to Banff last Friday in the hopes of seeing some wildlife. Almost immediately I knew it was going to be a good day for wildlife spotting. Within a few hours I had spotted 12 mountain goats and seven different grizzlies. It was capped off by seeing and photographing the very shy grizzly mom known as bear 130. I had seen her a few times this year and I couldn’t believe how healthy and big her cubs had gotten. Bear 130 was given that name this spring when she was anesthetized to place a GPS collar on her as part of the CP rail and Parks Canada initiative to study grizzly bear mortalities in Banff National Park. Train strikes are the leading cause of death to grizzly bears in the park and every year a few are lost. Up until this weekend, for this year there had not been any known grizzly bear deaths associated with the trains. However, moose, deer, black bears and just last weekend a wolf pup had all been killed by the train, so it seemed like it was only a matter of time before a grizzly would meet the same fate.
Unfortunately, Friday night around 8:45pm was that time. Less than a two hours after taking this photo, these two cubs were hit by a train and instantly killed. Initially it wasn’t know if bear 130 had survived as she wasn’t seen for at least a day afterwards. However, on Sunday morning I was relieved to spot her walking along the tracks and quickly reported the sighting to Parks Canada staff who were thrilled to hear she was alive and well. That morning, she did not stop to feed on grain spilled between the tracks. Instead, she walked back and forth sniffing the rails, likely picking up the lingering scent of her now deceased cubs. She stayed in the area for days on end, and while we can’t know for sure why, I don’t think it is a stretch to assume it was likely because she was searching for her cubs. While the loss of two cubs is horrible, the loss of a reproductively active female would have been devastating, especially seeing as bear 130 is such a good mother that does an excellent job of staying away from high human use areas until people are not present. A testament to her skills were that both cubs were in excellent condition, and seemed to be thriving until they made a mistake.
It’s hard to know why they didn’t get off the tracks when the train approached. At night, the high powered lights of the train can be blinding. That is all they would have seen. They would not have recognized that it was a train and may have actually charged at it in self defense. Hopefully, with the data obtained from her collar, CP and Parks Canada can formulate solutions to this ongoing problem that has plagued all the wildlife in the Bow Valley. Otherwise, it will only be a matter days before the next body is collected. The only question will be, which species will be next…
A one and half year old grizzly cub stands up to get a better vantage point of his surroundings. This year has produced a bumper crop of buffalo berries which when coupled with the high snow fall at higher elevations has resulted in the bears staying in the valleys for longer than normal. Having such long and powerful claws is of no use when feeding on the small berries. Instead, they use their very dexterous lips to grasp the berries off the stems. In an average day, an adult grizzly can consume about 200,000 berries!
Over a 24 hour period in Banff National Park I came across 6 different grizzly bears within a very small area. This accounts for about 10% of the population of grizzly bears estimated to be in the park. This time of year with snow still present at the higher elevations, the bears are concentrated in the valleys where elk calves and fresh dandelions are numerous. This family of bears is well known in the area. The mom, known as bear 64, is a 23 year old bear that is extremely smart and has adapted to life in the busy Bow Valley. She has three yearling cubs, and has been fitted with a radio collar, ear tag and ear tag transmitter to allow Parks Canada staff to monitor her movements. She makes a living in close proximity to people and so knowledge of her movements will help managers understand how to mitigate any potential problems and will also help them determine ways to keep the bears away from the railway. A more in depth article from the local newspaper can be found here. On this day she had to contend with two large male bears (known as boars) who were in the area. If possible, the boars will try to kill her cubs so she starts cycling again and therefore, the family is always on the lookout for these males. In this photo they are sniffing the air as a big male wandered into the area (though I wasn’t aware of this until about 5 minutes later when he showed up). The family quickly dispersed into the woods and the male was more interested in eating dandelion flowers than the female.
After sniffing the area, this big male decided that the fresh dandelions were more tempting than getting into a battle with an equally large female with cubs.
Although this bear was pretty big he was not the biggest in the area. Later in the afternoon, bear 122 (based on a ear tag), a larger, more experienced bear showed up and quickly displaced this bear (known as “Split Lip” due an old gash over the left upper lip), from the area. If the female had been around and cycling it likely would have been a much more combative fight. Instead, Split Lip sprint down and hill and out of range from 122 before any damage could be done.
My luck at finding bears swimming or cooling off in lakes and streams around Alberta continued this fall. I hiked I short distance to a wildlife corridor passing under the Trans Canada Highway adjacent to the Bow river and couldn’t believe my luck. Just across the river was a big male grizzly walking along the bank. I fumbled with my camera which must have made enough noise and movement that he spotted me and took a few brief quick steps before deciding I wasn’t anything too intimidating. I figured he was going to continue along the bank around the corner and disappear into the thick bushes. I lost sight of him for a few moments and started walking back to my car thrilled that I had seen even just a brief glimpse of him. When I came around the corner I couldn’t believe that he had jumped into the river and was swimming across it! I ran down the bank to try and get some decent photos but I was too high up on the opposite bank and the sun was directly in front of me so I didn’t get very good pictures. This one was taken as he hauled out of the freezing water and made his way into the thicket.