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Sighting of white grizzly bear in Banff 'exceedingly rare'

“I have never in all my time working with grizzly bears – since the early 1980s – seen a white grizzly bear. I’ve seen a really, really blond grizzly, but never a white one," said Canmore-based grizzly bear expert Mike Gibeau.
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A white grizzly bear is seen on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway in a video taken by Banff resident Cara Clarkson and her family on April 26. SUBMITTED IMAGE

BANFF – A Banff family had a once-in-a-lifetime experience after coming across a rare white grizzly bear.

Cara Clarkson was with her husband Tyler and two sons, Beau, 3 and baby Jak, six months, when they spotted two young grizzlies looking for food along the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park on April 26 – one brown and one white in colour.

“We were like ‘holy smokes! That is full on a white grizzly bear.’ We knew we were so lucky because white grizzly bears are unheard of,” said Cara.

“It was a luxury and incredible experience for those of us who were driving by.”

What made it extra special was the fact Tyler and young Beau were celebrating birthdays – Tyler’s on April 26 and the three-year-old’s on April 24.

“What a birthday treat for my husband and Beau,” said Cara, who is director of operations at the Rimrock Resort Hotel in Banff.

Mike Gibeau, considered one of North America’s top grizzly bear experts and a retired Parks Canada carnivore specialist, said a white grizzly bear is “exceedingly rare.”

While still not very common place, he said white-coloured black bears are seen more often.

“A white colour phase in black bears is seen more often than in grizzly bears. I don’t know of a white grizzly bear,” said Gibeau, who lives in Canmore.

“I have never in all my time working with grizzly bears – since the early 1980s – seen a white grizzly bear. I’ve seen a really, really blond grizzly, but never a white one.”

Based on his quick look at the video recording of the bears, Gibeau said it is not an albino bear – an absence of pigment in the skin and hair, which are white, and the eyes, which are usually pink.

“It’s not an albino because an albino is something different again,” he said.

Gibeau said the rare colour in bears is caused by a recessive gene that makes fur white.

“Black bears can be everything from black to white and in between, and in grizzly bears it doesn’t happen as often,” he said.

“You do get black grizzly bears, like coal black, and I’ve seen a number of those, but to have the opposite, very, very light, is uncommon, and to have one that is absolutely white is just unheard of.”

When Cara and her family first came across the two young grizzly bears, she said she thought they were wolves from a distance because she never would have imagined a white grizzly bear.

“It was amazing,” she said.

Her three-year-old son Beau said: “Mommy, the bears are so beautiful.”

Unfortunately, the two young bears were on the wrong side of the highway wildlife-exclusion fence where they run the risk of being run over.

“It looked like they had actually just trekked across the highway,” said Cara.

“You could see the paw prints going through the snow up towards the fence.”

Cara said she was able to use the incredible experience as a teaching moment for her son.

“About berries, and hibernation and how bears move,” she said. “He asked why they were on the road and we talked about fences and how they keep the bears safe.”

Although blown away by the experience, the family didn’t linger.

“We got our less than a minute’s worth of wonder and then said, ‘let’s leave them and on our way we went,’ ” said Cara, noting they did not want to disturb the two young bears any longer.

“Even though we live in the area and usually we see bears, we typically keep on moving because it’s their terrain, not ours,” she added.

“But this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see a white grizzly bear and we had to take advantage of making a moment out of it.”

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