The life and times of bears

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Through art and science, Colleen Campbell tells incredible stories of individual grizzly bears and the hard life they face in the busy and developed Bow Valley.

Her exhibition, part of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies’ Bow Biennial, is timely given the high-profile life and death of female grizzly bear 148, a prominent Banff bear shot dead by a hunter near McBride, B.C., in September.

Campbell said her drawn stories about bears are intended to help people understand them as individuals rather than as a species, and to appreciate their vulnerability even as people focus on their fierceness.

“I feel there’s so much information that needs to be shared about bears,” she said. “This was a labour of love and it’s been a journey of learning.”

Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bears: Each One is Sacred, which runs in the Whyte’s Main Gallery until Jan. 28, combines Campbell’s 20-year career as a field biologist in Banff National Park with her lengthy career as an artist.

Recorded in renderings of graphite, watercolour and ink, her drawings detail bears’ individuality and demonstrate the challenges they face in this increasingly busy and developed corridor region.

Her work documents how one-third of approximately 85 grizzly bears handled during the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project died as a result of human causes – trains, cars, hunting and relocations that led to deaths.

Campbell’s fieldwork with bears began in 1993. One of the first animals she began tracking that year was a male bear known as number 16, who spent much of that summer grazing between Lake Louise and Castle Mountain, causing ‘bear jams’.

In the beginning, he was relatively tolerant of people and it wasn’t until the summer of 1996 that he started to become more defensive as thousands of tourists invaded his space. Somewhere along the way he was given human food.

He regularly passed through Lake Louise campground, at one time tripping on and ripping a tent with people inside, bluff-charged two vehicles and poked his nose in the back of Laggan’s Bakery in Lake Louise.

Wildlife officials no longer felt comfortable to allow him to continue to be so close to people.

This bear is more famously known as Skoki. After a failed relocation attempt, bear 16 was transferred to the Calgary Zoo in 1996, forever lost to the local wild grizzly bear population.

“His is just one of the many sad stories for bears in the Bow Valley,” said Campbell.

One of Campbell’s goals is to show people just how individual bears are, noting the family dynamics of grizzly bears also can be as subtle as ours.

“Bears have different kinds of presentations, just like people. You can call it personalities without being anthropomorphic,” she said.

“We know that our dogs have personalities and there’s no reason to think that bears don’t have different attitudes about life, attitudes to other animals and physical conditions that may or may not contribute to their temperament.”

The lives of two female bears, 30 and 46, are followed in a family tree – again highlighting that bears don’t always follow the same expected rules.

“They are not related, but they raised their cubs together,” said Campbell. “I followed them for 10 years.”

These two bears miraculously did not die at the hands of humans.

A large male bear killed 46 as she defended her cub in the Pipestone area. She was 20 at the time. Wolves killed bear 30 in Cotton Grass Pass a couple weeks later. She was 19.

“Someone said, ‘the natural deaths are violent too,’ ” said Campbell. “Well, of course they’re violent, but being killed by wolves or another bear is how they’re supposed to die, not by trains or vehicles.”

The vulnerability of grizzly bears, which are a threatened species in Alberta, is forefront in the conservation efforts of federal and provincial park officials to manage and encourage the health and survival of bears in the wild.

Campbell said 148’s story highlights the continued and ever-growing challenges for bears and ongoing pressure for more trails, development and human use in the valley.

“I guess my biggest question is, when do we have enough?” she said.

“Why can’t we learn to be more respectful of bears to make sure they can live here over the long term?”

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Rocky Mountain Outlook