KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Two hikers came across a grizzly bear hunkered down in the woods about three metres from a trail while hiking in Kananaskis Country on the weekend – the first bear sighting of the year in the region.
The hikers from Calgary were on the trail to Kent Ridge on Sunday (Feb. 12) when they came across the bear about 800 metres from treeline – leading to one of the earliest sightings of a grizzly bear in K-Country in recent memory. As a result, the trail is now closed until further notice.
“We’re probably about a month away from when bears typically start to show up,” said John Paczkowski, human wildlife coexistence team lead with Alberta Parks.
“This time of year people are typically skiing in the backcountry and not thinking about bear safety.”
The bear showed no signs of aggression towards the couple, but let off a few sounds that typically mean bears are stressed out or trying to alert an approaching person or animal.
“They heard a growl followed by several short woofing sounds, and the fellow looked around and about three metres away under logs and brush he could see the head of a brown bear,” said Paczkowski.
“He was reasonably experienced in the outdoors and had seen a lot of bears and was fairly confident it was a large grizzly bear.”
Mike Gibeau, Canmore-based grizzly bear expert and retired Parks Canada carnivore specialist, said a grizzly bear coming out of the den this early in the year is not unheard of.
“It happens, but it’s probably not something that the bear is now up for the season and starting to roam for food,” he said.
“My hunch is this is maybe something as simple as a case of the human equivalent of insomnia, and the bear is up and moves around a bit and goes back in the den until late March or early April.”
Bears are not true hibernators, according to Gibeau, but rather enter a lighter state of sleep called torpor.
“Some bears, for whatever reason do wake up and do stretch their legs, poke their heads out; they are not really, truly hibernators. They are not totally asleep,” said Gibeau.
“It’s something that shouldn’t be alarming, but it’s something that every skier should have in the back of their mind when they’re skiing in the backcountry in the winter.”
While most people aren’t thinking about bears at this time of year, the two hikers at Kent Ridge were carrying bear spray when they came across the grizzly last Sunday.
“Upon seeing the bear, they turned around and left, grabbed their bear sprays and proceeded back down the trail… they had a close encounter, got out of there, and everyone was fine,” said Paczkowski.
“I was impressed that this group was carrying bear spray. They said they would typically make noise when they are hiking in the summer, but because they were hiking in the winter time, they weren’t thinking bears.”
The close encounter on Sunday has prompted the closure of the area until further notice for public safety reasons as well as to give the bear some space and security.
The closure includes the Kent Ridge trail access to Kent Ridge North in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Mount Kent and Kent South Peak remain closed.
Paczkowski said the couple had checked the AllTrails mobile app for information before heading out hiking, and noticed someone had been there the day before.
“The proximity of the bear to the trail would indicate to me that the bear had just moved in there in the last 24 hours,” he said.
“I don’t know whether it will stay for a while, but we will monitor the situation and the closure will remain in place until officers feel that it’s appropriate to open it.”
It’s not believed this was the bear’s winter den.
“I think for whatever reason it had emerged from the den, whether from the warm weather or sometimes dens collapse in winter. Something happens and the bear comes out of the den,” said Paczkowski.
“Then they sort of spend the rest of winter and spring hunkered down somewhere, maybe in the same spot, although sometimes they move, so I don’t think this was the den site.”
Large male grizzly bears are typically the first to emerge from their dens.
Paczkowski said the first sighting in K-Country is usually around March 15.
“It’s usually tracks and I would say most of the times those tracks are sighted by backcountry skiers, people in the alpine, and they come back with photographs of big bear tracks in the snow,” he said.
Next to come out of their dens are other smaller males, followed by female grizzly bears and lastly mamma bears with cubs.
“We will see females come out as early as mid-April, although typically closer to May 1,” said Paczkowski.
“We’ve had some females stay in until mid-May if they had cubs – but it also all depends a bit on snowpack and other environmental conditions.”
With climate change, there has been no notable pattern of bears emerging from hibernation in Kananaskis Country consistently earlier than they would have historically.
“I can’t say I have seen a consistent trend,” said Paczkowski.
“A few years ago when there was a low snowpack year, we had females out earlier in April, but then last year some of them were quite late.”
The latest grizzly bear population estimate for the Kananaskis region is between 55 and 60 bears.
Paczkowski said there are currently GPS collars on four individual bears, noting there was a few collar failures last year.
“We will be deploying some collars on bears in the coming year,” he said.
There have been no reported sightings of grizzly bears in Banff National Park yet. Each year for the past decade or so, bear No. 122, also known as The Boss, is the first reported grizzly out of the den.
Last year, the first sighting of Bear No. 122 was on March 14 west of the Banff townsite. The year before that he was first spotted on March 29.
In 2020, a Parks Canada resource conservation officer came across large bear tracks on Feb. 28 – the earliest a grizzly bear had been recorded out of the den in Banff over the previous decade.
A remote camera picked up The Boss on March 19, 2019. In 2018, he was spotted March 24. In 2017, there was a confirmed sighting of No. 122 on March 22, in 2016 on March 5, in 2015 March 19 and in 2014 on March 16.
All bear sightings in Kananaskis Country should be reported to 403-591-7755, while sightings in Banff National Park should be called in to 403-762-1470.