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UPDATED: Rare white grizzly bear dead, succumbs to injuries from vehicle collision

Grizzly bear 178 succumbed to internal injuries after getting struck by a vehicle in a 90-km/h zone.

LAKE LOUISE – A rare white female grizzly has died as a result of her injuries from a vehicle strike on the Trans-Canada Highway in Yoho National Park, a day after her two newborn cubs were also hit and killed.

The bear, nicknamed Nakoda and tagged bear No. 178, was found dead on Saturday (June 8) – two days after she was struck by a vehicle in the 90 kilometre-per-hour fenced zone near where her cubs were also killed.

It is believed she died the day before based on her GPS tracking collar letting off a mortality signal.

“With no other apparent injuries other than the limp, we were really optimistic that she may have been able to actually recover from this collision,” said Saundi Stevens, a wildlife management specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.

“It's believed that she did die as a result of the injuries she sustained in the collision with a passenger vehicle.”

Bear 178 was struck on the highway between Wapta Lake and the Lake O’Hara turnoff around 4 p.m. June 6 – less than 12 hours after her two young-of-the-year cubs were struck and killed on the same stretch of highway.

Her sibling, a light-brown coloured bear, was also run over and killed on the same stretch of highway in 2022.

Parks Canada’s wildlife management team has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to keep bear 178 safe and away from the highway, including implementation of mandatory no-stopping zones, reduced speed limits and hot-wiring a 14-km stretch of the wildlife exclusion fence.

“This was work that just often involved accompanying her, from dawn to dusk, as she just occupied the roadside habitats, and with that investment of time, the team really developed a strong fondness and connection with bear 178,” said Stevens.

Just weeks ago, on May 23, the staff were celebrating her emergence from the den with two new cubs, said Stevens.

“For us, this was a reproductive success,” she said.

“It’s actually devastated the team that was so deeply invested and really trying to prevent this outcome.”

Unfortunately, bear 178 had developed a unique skill at climbing the fence, and honed in on ways to get around one-foot gaps in the hot-wire.

Wildlife management staff had been working on repairs to the wildlife exclusion fencing when they noticed she was grazing on vegetation in the ditch on the unsafe side of the fence.

“A train passed by and it was actually the wheels, the metal on metal that screeched, and our staff reported that they saw her actually startle and she ran out of the ditch and then up onto the road and, unfortunately, right in front of two vehicles on the highway,” said Stevens.

“One of those vehicles was, in fact, able to swerve and avoid a collision, but the vehicle travelling right behind it, that second vehicle was unable to react in time and that vehicle struck the bear.”

Immediately following the crash, park staff were on scene.

“We were able to stop traffic,” said Stevens.

“She climbed over the post to the wildlife fence and ran into the forest. At the time, there were no visible injuries, but she was moving with a slight limp.”

The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) say the bigger story is not so much about the loss of a beautiful bear and her cubs, but more about how the entire transportation corridor continues to be a “population death sink for bears.”

“In a late spring such as this, the only bear food availability is down in the valley bottoms, forcing bears to play a game of Russian roulette with trains, vehicles and human interactions,” said Reg Bunyan, BVN’s vice-president and a retired Banff National Park resource conservation specialist.

“As a technocratic society, we mistakenly rely on the belief that there is a technical solution, whether it be education, enforcement, restrictions or some form of wildlife deterrent such as electric fences.”

But, Bunyan said, these mitigations often become less effective over time, whether due to increased traffic volumes, higher traffic speeds, longer, heavier trains, incremental habitat loss by development, or human use factors such as bear habituation and the exclusion of wary bears from too much human use. 

“All these factors make it difficult for bears to survive in this fragmented valley corridor,” said Bunyan. “Ultimately, the real tragedy is less about the loss of an individual bear and her cubs and more about our collective willingness to continue to tolerate incremental habitat loss and increased human use pressures.”

Parks Canada addressed social media speculation, including suggestions that bear 178 had returned to the highway to mourn her deceased cubs.

“Really, this is an example of anthropomorphizing bear behaviour. The reality is bears often eat their deceased young, which humans might not see as an act of mourning,” said Stevens.

“On that day, wildlife management specialist observed grizzly 178 along the highway several times between the incident where her cubs were struck that morning and between the time that she was herself struck later that day.

“In all those incidents, she never displayed any signs of distress. She wasn’t running back and forth across the highway. She was observed each and every time foraging for dandelions along the roadside in the ditch. Just a behaviour that was really typical for her.”

Bear 178 first showed up by the highway in Yoho National Park 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, 178 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 three times to an area within her home range in Yoho National Park to encourage her to spend time away from the highway – but she kept coming back.

This year she showed up by the Trans-Canada on May 23 with her first litter of cubs, prompting the mandatory no-stopping zone and reduced speed limits. She ventured off to the backcountry a day or two later but returned to the highway June 5.

“In terms of relocating her, it all happened really quickly and we just didn’t have a chance to consider that, but by and large, we probably wouldn’t have even chosen that as an option,” said Stevens.

“Capturing a family group of bears is really difficult and it comes with a high amount of risk – risk of moving a mother bear with cubs into another bear’s territory, risk of immobilizing a mother bear that’s nursing, the risk of injuring a cub. There’s just so many risks.

 “I think you’ll find that many agencies won’t handle female grizzly bears with cubs at that young age.”

The loss of a female grizzly bear is considered a blow to the population.

There are an estimated 65 grizzly bears in Banff National Park, 11-15 in Yoho National Park, and nine to 16 in Kootenay National Park. Many of these bears do not spend their entire lives within the parks.

Grizzly bears have one of the lowest known reproductive rates of all North American land mammals. In the mountain parks, research indicates that on average, female grizzly bears have offspring every four to five years.

“They’re a very slow reproducing animal, so every female grizzly bear that’s killed in the park is a significant loss to that breeding population,” said Stevens.

“They don’t start to have their first litter usually until they’re seven, sometimes eight years old, and in Banff, they might have a litter every three years as best case scenario.

“I think just having one grizzly die is significant. And especially to lose a family group like this. … We’ve lost a reproductive female. And so it will take a while to recover that at a population level.”

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.

John Marriott, a prominent Canmore-based wildlife photographer and co-founder of the Exposed Wildlife Conservancy, said the death of the female grizzly bear and her cubs is an “absolutely disastrous blow to Banff’s beleaguered grizzly population.”

He said Nakoda is now the sixth breeding female grizzly bear to die in the Lake Louise, Yoho, Kootenay field unit in the past four years.

“This is supposed to be a grizzly bear stronghold, one of three main sub-populations in Banff National Park,” he said. “Instead, bears can barely stay alive for a few years due to our obsession with having to get from A to B quickly and our insatiable desire to love our parks to death.”

Marriott said he is beyond mad, not at Parks Canada staff who moved mountains to try to keep this bear alive, but at what is happening in the Bow Valley with ongoing developments like there are no long-term consequences for wildlife.

“This is the bell tolling on our absolute idiocy as a species. Do we really need more hotels in Banff and Canmore and Jasper and Whistler and Gardiner and Yosemite, or is what we really need more protected areas, more wildlife, more responsibility and consequences for our actions?” he said.

“Poor Nakoda and her little cubs were the future of Banff’s grizzly bears, and guess what? That future looks terrible right now. Time for a summit to figure out what we do next, because the status quo is not working.”

Bear 178 was comfortable spending time along the roadside due to how habituated to humans she had become.

“The significant amount of interest that visitors to the park and motorists travelling along the highway led to her actually having really frequent human interactions and this caused her to become overly comfortable along the Trans-Canada Highway,” said Stevens.

“We do again emphasize to visitors the importance of not stopping and lingering to view wildlife, to drive cautiously and to obey the speed limits.”

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