Parks' head office suppressed grizzly strike
Thursday, Feb 05, 2015 10:08 am
The federal environment minister’s office tried to hide the fact a grizzly bear was struck on the Canadian Pacific Railway line in Banff National Park in May 2014.
According to documents obtained by the Outlook under Access To Information (ATIP), local Parks Canada media staff tried to be proactive in getting information out quickly to the media and public about a grizzly reported struck by a train near Carrot Creek on May 11.
However, documents show media managers in Parks Canada’s head office said, “the minister’s office doesn’t want to spread a rumour” based on a report from train crews that a grizzly bear had been struck, which had yet to be confirmed by wildlife officials.
Once confirmed the next day by Banff’s wildlife branch that a grizzly bear indeed had been hit by a train, another bid by local Parks Canada communications personnel to be proactive in letting the media know was denied.
“I just got off the phone with national office and was told that MINO (Minister’s Office) would not grant approval to go forward with proactive communications regarding the grizzly strike,” stated Michelle Macullo, then Banff’s communications officer, in a May 14, 2014 email.
“We are now in a reactive position, and it’s a matter of when, not if the media finds out.”
Train crews reported a westbound train struck a grizzly bear at about 7:20 a.m. on May 11, 2014 near Carrot Creek, east of the Banff townsite.
An extensive three-day investigation by Banff National Park’s wildlife branch determined the grizzly bear likely survived the collision. However, the fate of the bear will never be known for sure.
ATIP documents, which took about six months to obtain, show a flurry of emails between local Parks Canada media staff and Banff’s resource conservation department anticipating media and public interest in the fact a grizzly bear was struck.
The local media office asked Parks Canada’s national office for permission to get the information out to the public. Parks’ media policy dictates all media requests must be approved by national office. The only exception is issues of concern for public safety.
Macullo argued because of the threatened status of grizzly bears and current efforts to mitigate grizzly bear mortality through the $1 million Parks Canada-Canadian Pacific Railway joint action plan, there is much public interest over the protection of this species.
In her emails, she stated that a spokesperson should be ready to answer media questions, noting the news cycle is shorter when Parks demonstrates they are being open and active when it comes to grizzly bear management.
“If we don’t say something, even though unconfirmed, media and interested stakeholders will accuse us of hiding this, when, not if they hear about it,” stated Macullo in a May 11, 2014, email.
“When the Outlook and Herald call and ask us tomorrow about what happened this weekend, we would be lying if we said ‘nothing’. And while the general rule is not to speculate in the media, grizzly bears don’t fall into a clear box – threatened status, joint action plan, Canada’s busiest national park etc.”
In fact, stories of the grizzly bear strike did not hit newspapers until well over a month after the incident.
The ATIP documents reveal a culture of control over what Parks Canada employees are permitted to say.
Internal emails reveal a reporter specifically asked Banff’s human-wildlife conflict specialist, Steve Michel, if any grizzly bears had been struck on the Trans-Canada Highway or railway line in 2014.
“Now that she has made this specific request – I am not sure how we’re dealing with answering it considering that N.O (national office) did not give us approval to discuss the grizzly that was struck at Carrot Cr?” stated Michel’s email, dated June 18, 2014.
“I’m not going to lie – so we better figure out how to answer that question. Her interest is piqued now that I said “I would need to get back to her on that question …”
In a May 15 email to her boss and media contact, Lake Louise, Yoho, Kootenay human-wildlife conflict specialist Brianna Burley states: “Just wanted to ask that you let me know when media lines like the ones below are denied.
“I’ve done three interviews in the last 2 days about the road struck black bear and fortunately didn’t mention the GB (grizzly bear) strike. I thought for sure that had been covered in the media as I had not heard otherwise.”
Grizzly bears are considered a threatened species in Alberta, with estimates there are fewer than 700 grizzlies province-wide. In Banff National Park, there are estimated to be about 60 to 65 bears.
There have been 14 known grizzly bear deaths on the railway in Banff and Yoho since 2000, but that number does not take into account bears that may have been struck but never found.
According to ATIP documents, train crews reported on May 11 that the bear was struck by the front of the train, went underneath and was spat out on the south side of the tracks. The bear was not moving when last seen.
CP reported it was mid-sized, light in colour and had a collar or something around its neck. Parks Canada emails indicate none of the four bears fitted with GPS collars at the time were in the area. Alberta provincial staff also indicated none of their collared bears were there, either.
At the time, it was speculated the bear was the offspring of bear 131 based on size and colour. Parks Canada had hoped to confirm the bear’s identity through DNA analysis from hair collected near the collision site, but DNA samples came back inconclusive.
The emails indicate the train was travelling westbound and was carrying oil, so it would have been travelling relatively slow. Subsequent trains were asked to be on the lookout, but nothing was reported.
Resource conservation staff mounted a search, but failed to uncover anything on the first day. No hair, blood, or tracks were immediately found, but Parks Canada did put up warning signs so a birdwatcher or fisherman didn’t stumble onto an injured grizzly.
An extensive search involved several staff, including dog handler Mike Henderson and search and rescue dog, Kaz.
On May 12, Parks Canada was able to confirm a grizzly bear was struck. Parks Canada pulled a photo from one of the University of Alberta’s remote cameras, which showed a grizzly on the train tracks 20 minutes before the strike.
They also found a clump of hair about 50 metres away from the camera embedded on a tie on the south side of the tracks. In addition, a small amount of bear hair was collected that had been snagged by a branch.
Grizzly bear tracks were found about 200 metres northwest of the collision site, and on May 13, a more extensive search uncovered additional tracks about 600 metres from the strike location.
Dan Rafla, a resource conservation officer and lead investigator on the case, wrote in his report that it appeared the bear swam the main stem of the Bow River to the west.
He said the track size lines up with the size of the bear in the photo from the remote camera. Both tracks match that of a small grizzly bear.
“The direction of travel was NW and its gait appeared to be normal, nor did anything appear to be dragging,” he wrote. “The tentative conclusion is the bear survived.”
Parks Canada’s national office and the environment minister’s office did not return calls or emails by press time.