A respected wildlife researcher doesn't give bear 148 much chance of survival after Alberta wildlife officials shipped the female grizzly out of Canmore to a remote part of the province hundreds of kilometres away.
Officials with Alberta Environment and Parks were concerned bear 148 would attack someone, and the final nail in her possible coffin came Thursday (July 27) when she came within three feet of a jogger on the powerline trail near the Peaks of Grassi neighbourhood.
The six-and-a-half-year-old bear was only a short distance away when the jogger came across her. Her behaviour follows a pattern when people get too close to her – to date, she stops short and never harms anyone.
But it was too close for comfort for provincial wildlife officials. They darted and caught her at the Canmore Nordic Centre the following day and relocated her to remote northwestern Alberta near Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park, about 450 kilometres away.
Lori Homstol, an independent human-wildlife conflict specialist who’s been working with grizzly and black bears in Alberta, B.C., Montana and Yukon for 22 years, said she doesn’t think it’s a certain death sentence for 148, but it certainly isn’t good.
“For a young bear like 148, if her behaviour or presence cannot be tolerated or managed in the Bow Valley and more intensive aversive conditioning and monitoring is not an option, then relocation gives her a chance,” she said.
“It's not a very good one, but maybe it's a better chance than letting her try to navigate all the human activity in the Bow Valley.”
Since grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 2010, Alberta has relocated 27 grizzlies and shot and killed one between Kananaskis Country and Cochrane.
When a bear like 148 is taken out of the ecosystem, Homstol said, it would likely be replaced eventually by another bear, because the bear's behaviour is a symptom of a greater problem.
“And some people are left with the mistaken impression that the bear is back in the forest, ‘where it belongs',” she said.
Bear 148 spent most of her time in Banff National Park, but made a few forays into Canmore over the past couple of years because the berry crop is often ahead of the national park.
She was seen with two male bears this spring, raising the possibility she could produce young. This female bear was seen as an important part of the local grizzly bear population.
Provincial wildlife officials, however, believe 148 poses too great a risk to public safety, saying they made a decision on the bear’s future to make sure the situation wouldn’t end in human tragedy or lead to the bear’s destruction.
Paul Frame, provincial carnivore specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, said 148 bear came within three feet of the jogger from a “short distance away,” adding the probability of contact could be low, but the consequences unacceptably high.
“That was the one that got us to decide we needed to relocate her,” said Frame. “If it's not three feet, what is the line? Contact? Well, that seems unacceptable.”
Fish and Wildlife and Alberta Parks came up with an agreement with Parks Canada, whereby national park wildlife crews helped monitor and haze 148 out of no-go zones in Canmore – essentially the developed footprint of town.
There was also buffalo berry removal work along Legacy Trail outside the national park east entrance and in areas near Quarry Lake, off-leash dog park and Rundleview residential neighrbourhood.
But despite this, Frame said there continued to be at least one occurrence a day of bear 148 getting too close to hikers, joggers and mountain bikers, according to provincial wildlife officials.
“With the frequency these were happening, even given our efforts on the ground, the consequence of that type of behaviour is pretty extreme,” said Frame. “We felt we needed to act to remove the possibility of that happening.”
On the other hand, Parks Canada's wildlife experts were comfortable with bear 148 living in the Bow Valley.
Her behaviour and home range was very similar to that of her mother's – a famed grizzly bear known as 64 believed to have died of natural causes at age 24 a few years back.
Parks' experience has been that bear 148 displays a very moderate response, but acts as a bear should when people get too close to her. She's tolerated less than ideal human behaviour time and time again and has never made contact with anyone.
Parks Canada was unable to provide a spokesperson Monday, but sent an emailed statement, saying officials respect the province's jurisdiction and wildlife management practices in deciding to relocate bear 148.
“All government land and resource managers must make difficult decisions to balance the safety of residents with the needs of wildlife,” reads the brief statement.
Homstol said bears don’t just magically know where to find food in a new area once they’ve been relocated. And they don’t often stay where they’re dropped off.
“If she doesn’t return, she’ll need to establish a new home range, learn where to find food, figure out where she is in the hierarchy of local bears, and stay out of trouble with people,” she said.
“It’s unlikely she’ll do better relocated somewhere else, at least not right away.”
Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park is about 150 kilometres east of Grande Cache.
“This site was selected for its remoteness and the distance the bear would have to travel to be around any habituated area,” said Frame.
Bear 148 was transported north by truck and then flown by helicopter to the release site. She is still wearing her GPS collar so her whereabouts can be tracked.
Brett Wittmeier, press secretary for Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips, said the department will continue to work to keep bear 148 safe and monitor her whereabouts.
“As always, we will take a measured approach and look at all relevant facts,” he said.