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Rare white grizzly struck on Trans-Canada Highway hours after cubs killed

“She’s not moving a whole lot, but she’s alive.”
A rare white grizzly bear. PHOTO COURTESY OF PARKS CANADA

LAKE LOUISE – Within 12 hours of her cubs being hit and killed on the Trans-Canada Highway, a famous rare white-coloured mamma grizzly bear was also struck by a vehicle – but is alive for now.

Parks Canada officials say grizzly bear 178, also known locally as Nakoda, was struck east of the Lake O’Hara turnoff around 4 p.m. Friday (June 6) and has since been hunkered down in the forest not too far from where she was struck.

They say the grizzly bear was eating dandelions after climbing the wildlife exclusion fence again, and believe she was spooked by a passing train and ran directly into the path of oncoming vehicles in the 90-km/h zone.

Wildlife experts don't know the extent of bear 178's injuries, including whether there are internal injuries, but she was limping.

“She was hit quite hard, but she was walking with a bit of a limp,” said Saundi Stevens, a wildlife management specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.

“She’s not moving a whole lot, but she’s alive.”

Parks Canada’s wildlife management team are monitoring her around the clock.

“A lot of bears do survive road strikes because they’re incredibly resilient,” said Stevens.

“They often just kind of settle down for a while and she had a hard day yesterday from the morning with her cubs and do I imagine she’s not in the normal state of mind.

“She’ll hunker down and just stay low for a bit, but we’re hopeful, you know, bears do recover from things worse than this.”

Parks staff, who had been in the area determining how bear 178 and her cubs had breached the electrified fence, witnessed the mamma bear get hit.

Jumping into action, staff were able to quickly stop traffic and get the bear to the safe side of the highway fence.

Stevens said the first vehicle was able to swerve to miss the bear, but the second vehicle could not.

“It was all witnessed and the driver did not have any time to react like the car in front of her reacted,” said Stevens.

“It was just super unfortunate … the woman was utterly distraught.”

The young-of-year cubs had been struck and killed earlier in the day around 5:15 a.m. to the east of the Lake O’Hara turnoff.

Parks Canada’s human wildlife coexistence staff responded to the report and found the two cubs deceased.

Grizzly bear 178 was also on the road and was hazed back behind the wildlife fencing.

Wildlife management staff had been monitoring the three bears’ movements along the highway on June 5 after getting reports the bears were on the highway side of the wildlife exclusion fence eating dandelions.

Parks Canada was quick to investigate how the grizzly bear family had made it onto the unsafe side of the highway.

Stevens said bear 178, who has been agile at climbing the fence for the past few years, somehow managed to find a couple of spots only one foot wide where the design of the fence wasn’t hot-wired.

“In fact, we got pictures because we monitor the underpasses with cameras and they managed to find that one little un-electrified gap on the fence,” she said.

“We think these animals can sense when a wire is electrified, so we don’t know if she’d just gone around and found these little weaknesses.”

The section of fence near the Continental Divide was electrified in 2023 after bear 178 continued to use her acrobatics and agility to climb the high fence.

Parks Canada crews are on site trying to fix any gaps in the electric wire by putting in fibreglass poles, which are harder to climb, and extending the hot wire to fill any small gaps.

“We all adore her too and we’re doing everything we can, but climbing that fence has been her MO,” said Stevens.

“The vast majority of that fence is hot wired, but it’s insane that’s she’s finding little gaps and it’s hard to stay on top of her.”

The now seven-and-a-half-year-old female grizzly emerged from the den in May, for the first time with two cubs – one light brown, the other dark brown. Like she does each spring, bear 178 headed to the front country to feast on dandelions and other green-up by the side of the highway.

On May 23, Parks Canada implemented a mandatory no-stopping zone and 70 kilometre-per-hour speed limit along a 10-km stretch of highway between Yoho Valley Road and Sherbrooke Creek in an attempt to protect the three bears.

The bear family ventured into the backcountry shortly after, but was back by the side of the highway earlier this week.

Stevens said she suspects there was still too much snow up higher in the mountains and she returned for easy access to food.

“There’s a lot of energetic demands of feeding cubs, so there probably wasn’t a lot for her to eat up there and she just came back to what she knows,” she said.

Stevens said there are dandelions on both the safe and unsafe side of the highway fence.

“There’s just as many dandelions on the good side of the fence, so why she’s climbing the fence and needing the dandelions on the other side of the fence, we can’t explain,” she said.

Parks Canada has actively managed bear 178 for more than two years.

She first showed up by the side of the highway several years ago with her female sibling, a light-brown coloured bear that was run over and killed on the highway near the Lake O’Hara turnoff in early June 2022.

In 2022, she was fitted with a GPS collar to help the wildlife management team monitor her movements and respond when she was by the highway.

That year, she was relocated away from the highway three times to an area within her home range in Yoho National Park to encourage her to spend time away from the highway. There are no plans to move her a fourth time as she will likely just come back.

For now, the wildlife team has fingers crossed bear 178 will survive this; however, there is no way to tell whether or not she has internal injuries from the vehicle strike.

“We're hopeful that she'll shake it off and we'll still continue to manage her as best we can,” said Stevens.

Bear experts have said the white bear is not albino – mutations of certain genes that affect the amount of melanin, which controls the pigmentation of skin, eyes and hair – but more likely the rare colour is caused by a recessive gene that makes fur white.

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