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Orphaned black bear alive and well in Banff's backcountry

Parks Canada deems black bear rehabilitation a success. “If we get a grizzly bear, which is a species at risk and threatened, we might go down that same route.”

BANFF – One of three orphaned black bear cubs dumped in a washroom in Banff National Park three years ago is alive and well, having beaten the odds of surviving in the wild without the protection of its mother.

The now three-and-a-half-year-old female black bear, identified by an ear tag as 1803, was photographed by a remote camera in the park west of Ya Ha Tinda, about 2.7 kilometres from where she was initially released a little more than two years ago.

“It’s always good to see an animal being out on the landscape that originally didn’t have much of a chance of surviving at all,” said Blair Fyten, a Parks Canada human-wildlife management specialist. “Everyone here is pretty elated.”

Three abandoned female cubs were discovered just before midnight on April 1, 2017 in a roadside washroom on the Trans-Canada Highway at a viewpoint overlooking Vermilion Lakes west of Banff.

There was no sign of the mother bear at the time they were found and, despite an extensive three-day search and a check of nearby wildlife cameras, wildlife staff could not find the cubs’ mother.

At the time, Alberta had a policy that banned the rescue, rehabilitation and release of bears into the wild, so Parks Canada, after looking at its options, sent the three sister bears to Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Muskoka, Ont.

They were about three months old and weighed about three kilograms when they went to Ontario, and at the time of their release into Banff’s backcountry about 15 months later on July 17, 2018, they were a healthy 50 kilograms.

The three young bears were tracked via GPS collars, and the satellite data showed the trio split up within days of being released and went in different directions.

However, within about a month, one of the collars let off a mortality signal, prompting Parks Canada staff to immediately investigate.

They discovered a grizzly bear had killed and eaten one of the yearling bears in a thick patch of buffalo berries in the Clearwater River Valley region of the park. Evidence at the site, and a puncture mark on the skull of the black bear, fit with a grizzly bear attack.

The fate of the third orphaned black bear remains unknown. Parks Canada knows she denned that first winter. They found her collar the following summer, but there was no sign of any carcass.

With luck, Fyten said that bear will show up on a remote trail camera or get spotted by hikers or staff, though that area of the park is remote and sees very little human use.

“Obviously we hope it’s alive, but we really don’t know,” he said.

The wildlife crew suspected the three orphaned bears would stick together when they were first released.

The one killed by the grizzly ventured furthest away, but the other two remained within about eight kilometres of each other.

“They stuck relatively close to where we released them and there was a little overlap in their paths,”said Fyten.

“Maybe they did meet up once in a while out there, but it’s hard to tell from that collar data.”

According to Fyten, the camera image taken on Aug. 2 indicated that bear 1803 appears to be quite healthy.

“It looks like your typical teenager; it’s a lit bit lanky and it’s still got long fur, but overall it looks very similar to a lot of others we see,” he said.

“She’s learned to live off the landscape and finding natural foods, so it’s good to see.”

Bear 1803 has now survived through hibernation for two winters on her own, and Parks Canada’s wildlife team believes the future looks good for her.

“This particular bear has stuck pretty close to where we released it and it’s survived to this point in time,” said Fyten.

“It’s a young adult and the chances of it surviving beyond this are pretty good.”

On top of that, a bumper buffaloberry crop throughout Banff National Park this year is another positive break for this young bear as she prepares to head into the den this fall.

“This year we have a phenomenal crop of buffaloberries. The bushes are so thick that all the bears we’re seeing are in this hyperphagia stage where they’re just chowing down on these berries and totally focused,” said Fyten.

“Likewise, there is probably a pretty good berry crop up in the area where this black bear is, and this bear has probably learned these berries are good to eat and is taking advantage of it this year.”

Black bears often use the same den year after year, but sometimes they dig new ones or find another location.

Data from this bear’s GPS collar, which was programmed to fall off after her second summer in the wild, indicated she denned about two-thirds of the way up a slope, but still below treeline.

“We don’t have that collar data anymore to see if she’s going back to the same spot, but potentially she could be using the same den,” said Fyten.

“She’ll probably go into the den a little earlier than some of the big males. She’s getting to the stage of her life where potentially she could be a mother next year or the following year.” 

Parks Canada is pleased with what they call a successful rehabilitation program.

This was the first time the federal agency has been involved in something like this, and based on the results with at least one of the orphaned bears, would consider rehabilitation again.

“Hopefully we don’t find ourselves in this situation again, but we’ve definitely learned a lot from this and we’d probably pursue this again down the road,” said Fyten.

“In the end, we have another black bear on the landscape and we look at that as a success.”

More importantly, with the knowledge garnered, Parks Canada might consider rehabilitation of threatened grizzly bears if ever needed.

“Using the black bear through this situation was a learning experience for us and we now know more about the process,” he said.

“If we get a grizzly bear, which is a species at risk and threatened, we might go down that same route.”

Meanwhile, whoever was responsible for dumping the three bear cubs in the washroom three years ago was never found.

“We never did find who did it, or where the bears came from,” said Fyten.

A spokesperson for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

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