The relocation of a famous female grizzly bear far outside her home range of the busy Bow Valley has shone a light on bigger issues in Canmore, from bear management and wildlife connectivity to people’s behaviour and sense of entitlement.
Bear 148, a well-known grizzly bear that mostly lived in Banff National Park, has been relocated from Canmore to remote northwestern Alberta near Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park, about 450 kilometres away.
Provincial officials beyond the regional level of Alberta Environment and Parks felt they were left with little choice following several close range encounters bear 148 had with joggers, hikers and mountain bikers on the south side of the valley, where recreational use is intense.
Parks Canada, however, was comfortable with bear 148 living in the Bow Valley based on wildlife managers’ experience with her behaviour inside the park. Her run-ins with people were fewer in Banff, but she let people know when they were too close, but stopped short without hurting anyone.
Now, Canmore Mayor John Borrowman wants to lead a round table discussion with all parties, including local, provincial and federal levels of government and community members to look at a better path forward for both wildlife and people, including discussions on human use.
Further, the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative is again calling on the province to lead a cumulative impacts assessment on all current and future development to ensure wildlife connectivity is maintained throughout the Bow Valley.
Stephen Legault, program director with Y2Y, said bear 148’s relocation highlights the challenging circumstances surrounding survival of grizzly bears and other wide-ranging species in the mountains here.
“We believe Parks Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks field staff worked tirelessly in protecting public safety while making a focused effort to keep the breeding-age female grizzly alive,” said Legault.
“Removing 148 from her home range in the Bow Valley emphasizes the real challenge development and the exploding popularity of recreational activities have had on the ability of grizzly bears to survive here.”
Local staff with three provincial government agencies made a consensus decision last Thursday (July 27) to close a large chunk of land on the south side of the valley near Quarry Lake and the power line to better manage 148 and the risk of human-bear conflict.
However, that decision by local staff from both Operations and Parks divisions of Alberta Environment and Parks, and Fish and Wildlife, was reversed when the order came down from officials beyond the regional level to relocate bear 148.
On Friday, following the last-minute order, 148 was tranquilized with a free-range dart at the Canmore Nordic Centre and relocated.
Local wildlife advocate John Marriott is saddened and angered by the outcome of 148’s relocation because he believes it could have been avoided, noting that although she is one grizzly, her fate shines a light on a much bigger problem in Canmore.
Marriott has called on Borrowman and Banff-Cochrane MLA Cameron Westhead to help form a community and political discussion on provincial bear management and what residents need to be doing to help bears live here.
“It’s not acceptable for us to move bears from a population that’s threatened in Alberta. If they’re not able to survive in Canmore, where everybody loves wildlife, how will they do in other communities up and down the foothills?” he said.
“We need to be asking, as a community, how badly we want to have bears on the landscape and what we are willing to do to change the way bears are currently managed and for people to put wildlife ahead of our self-entitled needs once in a while.”
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.
By comparison, in Banff National Park, one grizzly bear has been killed in the same time. Parks Canada has not relocated a bear outside of its home range since.
With the low reproductive rate of the regional bear population, preventing human-caused bear mortality and relocations from the ecosystem is considered essential to the long-term sustainability of the grizzly bear population in the Bow Valley and Kananaskis.
Bear 148 has been well known in Banff since emerging from the den with two siblings almost seven years ago. Like her mother – bear 64 died of natural causes in 2013 at age 24 – she captured the hearts and imagination of residents as she was regularly spotted going about her business.
With her mother, 148 travelled toward the Canmore region on a couple of occasions, but in the last two years 148 has consistently come to Canmore in summer in search of buffalo berries. She still spent 90 per cent of her time Banff National Park.
The bear’s experiences this summer included bumping into hikers and bikers, eating berries next to homes, or stopping bike traffic on Legacy Trail. People involved in some up-close encounters with her were left shaken.
A lot of work has been done recently to remove buffalo berries from some areas where bears move, such as Quarry Lake, Rundleview residential area and the Legacy Trail outside the national park.
There are now calls from some to re-think the design of Quarry Lake and questions on why the Canmore Nordic Centre was not closed when a big chunk of land near Quarry Lake and the power line was closed last Friday as many bears fed on berries.
Marriott questions why a temporary closure on the south side of the valley was not put in place earlier in the month when bears began arriving to eat berries, then lifted once the animals began to move away to higher elevations.
He said more resources for provincial wildlife officers that are stretched to the limit, timely closures to give bears security and keep people safe, more education and enforcement would go a long way in keeping bears in this area.
“The current message being sent is bears are not welcome in Canmore. Basically every grizzly bear that shows up in Canmore will be labeled a problem bear, whether or not it is,” he said.
“We need to find a way to let bears be bears.”
Human use in Canmore habitat patches and wildlife corridors is another issue.
Recent camera studies have shown 96 per cent of the use in Canmore’s habitat patches and wildlife corridors is people, which raised concerns for the negative effect on wildlife and increased potential conflicts.
Of the total classified human events, 97,829 were people with dogs, and 61 per cent of the dogs were off leash, showing people are using wildlife corridors as off-leash dog areas.
For example, 2,340 dogs were recorded over an 18-month period at just one camera site within a designated wildlife corridor, not the whole corridor – and 1,885 of those were off leash.
Mayor Borrowman agreed that efforts to allow 148 to stay in the valley, and the eventual outcome, has highlighted the issue of human use management and co-existence with wildlife in the Bow Valley.
That said, Borrowman said he whole-heartedly believes Fish and Wildlife worked very hard with Parks Canada to keep bear 148 here and, in the end, trusts in their decision and expertise to relocate the bear to a more remote area.
Borrowman said he plans to bring the big-picture discussion to the council table in mid-August, noting his inclination is to suggest a roundtable format with various organizations, including government, private and non-profit.
He said this initiative has a strong connection to human use management initiatives.
“148’s relocation underscores even more dramatically the need to have meaningful discussions. We can’t just keep paying lip service to managing the human-wildlife interface,” he said.
“For whatever reason, bear 148 has changed the way people are thinking and talking about the matter.”
Meanwhile, Y2Y officials say 148’s struggles are representative of the threats to maintaining wildlife connectivity throughout the Bow Valley — one of the most densely populated regions where grizzly bears still range.
Y2Y will continue to urge the province to lead an assessment of cumulative impacts in the Bow Valley before approving major new developments that would expand the footprint of the Town of Canmore, including pending proposals for Silvertip and the Smith Creek area of Three Sisters.
Hilary Young, Alberta program manager for Y2Y, said in order to keep populations connected and healthy there needs to be a reduction, not an increase, in pressure from unchecked recreational use and urban development in the Bow Valley.
“Bear 148’s tale is a cautionary one,” said Young. “She’s just a bear trying to be a bear, but the space she needs is shrinking.”
Paul Frame, provincial carnivore specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks’ Fish and Wildlife policy branch, was designated as the province’s media spokesman.
He’s hoping for a good outcome for bear 148, noting in one limited study, five of six female bears survived at least in the first year.
“This site was selected for its remoteness and the distance the bear would have to travel to be around any habituated area,” said Frame.
Parks Canada officials say they respect the province’s jurisdiction and decision, and believe co-operation between Parks Canada and Alberta Fish and Wildlife and Alberta Parks will continue into the future.
Parks Canada officials say they respect the decision of the province of Alberta to relocate bear 148, and look forward to continued cooperation on wildlife issues moving forward.
“If there’s one good thing that comes from all of this, it is that reopening of dialogue and thinking how we can make improvements in Banff and Canmore,” said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.
“Everyone seems very keen to look where people are and where bears like to be and how we can try and make that situation a little bit better in the valley. We really need to look at it on a regional scale.”