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OUT OF THE WILD

PART IV: BANFF

Story by

GLORIA DICKIE

 

Photographs by

GLORIA DICKIE

 

Video by

GLORIA DICKIE

 

Website by

GLORIA DICKIE

Every now and then, a bear skyrockets to stardom in Banff National Park.

 

Some achieve celebrity for their longevity and friendly demeanor. Others are remembered for their tragic deaths on the Canadian Pacific Railway. And a few will go down in history for the fear and terror they inspired.

 

***

Ernest Cohoe’s ashes were scattered on Lake Minnewanka.

 

It seemed a fitting end for the 38-year-old medical sales rep from Calgary, Alberta. He had loved fishing; he had loved the Rockies; and it was ultimately his love for the Canadian wilderness that would be the death of him.

 

On August 24, 1980, Cohoe was fishing, waist-deep in Whiskey Creek near Banff, when he was fatally attacked by a 761-pound black grizzly bear. According to media reports of the incident, his face had been brutally “chewed off.”

 

His death was shocking—but the occasional death-by-grizzly wasn’t unheard of near the park. It was what happened next that would capture the attention of the nation and send shockwaves through the small mountain community. On September 1, two more hikers were mauled by the same bear. Nearby residents were horrified. The townsite was on high alert. And then, on September 3, yet another man was attacked. The next day, rangers caught and killed the now infamous black grizzly.

 

According to first-hand reports that would later come out, the grizzly had been acting agitated while feeding the day before the attacks, swatting at garbage bins and charging into the bush. Esteemed bear biologist Stephen Herrero was one of the investigators after the attacks. In his ensuing report, he noted that although natural foods were present in the area, there were extensive bear trails leading into the woods from nearby restaurant garbage storage sites. He concluded the bear had been attracted to the area due to the ready availability of garbage.

 

That was that. The black grizzly of Whiskey Creek marked the tipping point for widespread trash reform throughout Banff National Park, solidfying efforts that were already underway at the townsite’s open dumps. As much as the black grizzly will be remembered for his savage attacks, he can also be credited with transforming the way we manage trash in bear country.

 

Indeed, if ever there were a community to move past its trash issues, it’s Banff.

FROM THE WHYTE MUSEUM ARCHIVES

 

"Hey Agnus, I finally found a souvenir that doesn't cost an arm and a leg!!"

In 1980, Banff National Park permanently shut down the local dump following a series of bear attacks at Whiskey Creek. Today, a meadow has reclaimed the disposal site. "Now people go up there and get their wedding pictures taken with Cascade Mountain in the background, not knowing they're standing on an old garbage dump," says Peter Duck, regional zero waste coordinator at Bow Valley Waste Management.

***

The pinging grows steadier as we wind our way up the old fire road on Sulphur Mountain, past washed-out shrubs and trees. Steve Michel, a human-bear conflict specialist with Parks Canada, fiddles with a few knobs on the radio telemetry device balanced on the van’s armrest.

 

Ping…Ping…Ping. The forest is still.

 

“She was down about a kilometer west of here yesterday morning,”  Michel says as he slowly drives down the narrow road, long spindly branches whacking the side mirrors with a rhythmic crackle.

 

“She” is Bear 148, a three-and-a-half year-old grizzly poised to take center stage as Banff’s new celebrity bear. Her mother, Bear 64, was long considered iconic in the Park, peacefully cohabitating with the town’s residents until she died of natural causes at the age of 24. Natural causes is a euphemism for being killed by a bigger, better bear.

 

Bear 148 is going through her rebellious teen stage, though. Michel says he wouldn’t be surprised if she’s been hazed more than 50 times at this point, chased away with rubber bullets, bean bags, cracker shells, and screamer shells. Prior to my arrival in Banff, park staff sent me an email alerting me that the Banff townsite was under a grizzly bear warning—something that’s pretty rare up here. Though grizzly bears often pass through town, it’s rare to find them foraging in fruit trees, locals tell me.

 

“She’s got a bit of spunk in her step, for sure,” says Michel. “She seems to be the bear we’re going to be most invested in over the next few years, assuming she can navigate the hazards of the Bow Valley.”

 

Already, 148 has taken to bluff-charging curious tourists, and unlike most female grizzly bears, seems much less tolerant of people.

 

“At this point it’s all fairly innocent, but if that should change, obviously that will be a total game-changer in terms of how we manage her.”

 

Another ping catches Michel’s ear. “We’re within a couple kilometers of the bear now. She may not be far away at all. Maybe off the edge of the trail, or up an old slope feeding.”

 

At the bend in the road, Michel pulls out his directional antenna. Static dances from the radio. Each bear in the park has its own frequency; wardens use directional antennas when they need to get a precise location, but for the most part GPS tracking will suffice. Michel sticks his arm out the van’s window, raising the antenna high in the air, trying to get the hint of a signal.

 

“I suspect she’s up these slopes here. We’ve done a bunch of FireSmart thinning over the years and it’s created some really good buffaloberry habitat in the late summer.”

 

Not that there are any buffaloberries this year, he adds. Like other parts of the Rocky Mountain West, Banff National Park experienced the same food failure issues that plagued Tahoe and Aspen.

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Steve Michel, a Parks Canada human-wildlife conflict specialist, listens for the tell-tale ping of Bear 144's radio collar along Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. Bear 144 caused less trouble than his sister, 148, in 2014, denning down in early fall on Sulphur Mountain. Black bears tend to hibernate at lower elevations, whereas grizzlies seek out steep slopes at 6,000 to 7,000 feet.

Michel can just barely make 148 out on the 100-meter range. She’s nearby. Up the slope of Sulphur Mountain, like he thought. We start to drive up the hill, but a tree— the remnant of recent flooding—blocks the road. We turn around and head back to Cave and Basin, a popular tourist area in the summer.

 

On the way, Michel explains Banff’s complicated relationship with garbage—and bears.

 

In Banff’s early years, bears were viewed as the lovable clowns of the forest. Photos from the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies show wardens and tourists alike hand-feeding bears at roadside stops and delivering bulging picnic baskets to the hungry bruins. But, as cute cubs are bound to do, the adorable yearlings grew up, never losing their preference for human food.

 

In the 1970s, wardens were constantly relocating bears to remote areas of the park. Then-head warden Andy Anderson warned, “We will have to start destroying more bears in the foreseeable future because we can’t relocate them.”

 

By then, the dumps had become the embodiment of the park’s bear problem. Yes, dumps. Two open landfills—one in Lake Louise, 50 kilometers west of Banff, and one in Lake Minnewanka, on the outskirts of town — had become favorite foraging spots for grizzlies and black bears, with dozens of grizzlies often seen feeding at the dump at any one time. This was striking; bears typically aren’t social animals outside of their family, unless united in a feeding frenzy. And it goes without saying that many bears in one spot quickly can quickly become a public safety nightmare.

 

So, in 1972, the park decided to phase out its dump sites. The superintendent told the Calgary Herald he was worried bear attacks on humans could stem from bears associating humans with garbage—and tourists loved to treat the dumps like zoos. The Lake Louise dump was the first to close, with its refuse diverted to the Banff landfill until 1980, when the latter also ceased operation.

 

“The bears had been feeding in these open garbage dumps for years, so they were totally food conditioned,” Michel explains. “The bears came straight to town. They started hitting all the bins, which were unsecured.”

 

After Whiskey Creek, the adoption of bear-proof garbage storage happened “rapidly” with only small changes occurring since then in trash management. Today, all curbside pick-up has been eliminated in the townsite. Instead, the town’s some 7,500 residents are required to use large, communal bins for all trash, recyclables, and organics, which are then transported to Calgary by truck.

 

It’s a marked change from the 1970s and early 80s, when garbage was the major reason wardens were killing bears in the park, says Michel as we rattle over a Texas gate meant to keep elk and other ungulates from crossing onto the highway. Since 1998, Parks Canada has only destroyed two bears.

 

But that doesn’t mean bears aren’t dying.

"It's rare that we see a grizzly bear in a front country area live to [old age] because there are so many hazards."

 

STEVE MICHEL

Human-wildlife conflict specialist

At the Banff townsite, curbside garbage and recycling collection has been eliminated. Instead, residents, like those in Middle Springs subdivision, use communal bear-proof bins for all waste—including organic compost.

***

There are a million places for Banff’s grizzlies to die in the Bow Valley.

 

The nation’s biggest highway — the Trans-Canada — spans 7,821 kilometers from the coastal shores of Vancouver Island to the craggy rock outcrops of Newfoundland. In Banff, the highway serves as a four-lane transportation corridor with trucks traveling at speeds in excess of 90 kilometers an hour. In the 1980s, after growing concern about the wildlife collisions, the Canadian government spent $400 million to upgrade and twin the highway, with a quarter of the budget allotted to wildlife mitigation. Parks Canada used the money to fence the entire highway all the way to the British Columbia border, and installed several dozen wildlife overpasses and underpasses.

 

In 2014, 12 black bears were killed on the stretch of highway between Banff and Yoho National Park. In July, a subadult grizzly male, Bear 149, was hit and killed on Highway 93. Bear 128 didn’t fare any better. Shortly before my arrival in November 2014, the four-year-old was hit by a car on the Trans-Canada Highway over in Yoho and had to be euthanized on site. Even if bears do manage to survive the man-made hazards we’ve introduced to the Rocky Mountain wilderness, they still have to survive in the backwoods. This spring, wildlife specialists were dismayed to find that none of the four grizzly cubs born in the Bow Valley in 2014 survived, all presumably killed by larger male bears.

 

For conservationists, it’s a huge blow. Banff National Park is already home to the lowest density grizzly bear population and slowest reproducing population in North America. Despite what tourists think, it’s just not good bear habitat, explains Sarah Elmeligi, a researcher in the park who is looking at how grizzlies and humans use the trail system.

 

“People think this is great bear habitat because it’s a park and it’s protected,” she explains. “What that actually means is human activity is more controlled—fewer roads and no resource extraction. But it doesn’t matter if the food isn’t there.”

FROM THE WHYTE MUSEUM ARCHIVES

 

"Obviously from Edmonton..."

In the wild, grizzlies can live to be 30 years old, but few bears ever reach such an age in the Bow Valley. "It's rare that we see a grizzly bear in a front country area live to be that old because there are so many hazards," says Steve Michel. "Some time over the course of those couple decades they'll be hit on the highway or railroad sooner or later."

A lot of Banff’s transportation corridor issues can be seen in a microcosm at a small junction near the entrance to the Bow Valley Parkway, a two-lane, scenic alternative to the Trans-Canada Highway with speed limits of 60 kilometers per hour.

 

The junction is about 20 minutes west of the Banff townsite, past the Vermillion Lakes where the landscape blooms with deep shades of russet and gold, and banks of fog obscure the mountains.

 

Michel pulls over by a large information board and we descend a soggy embankment, the remnants of a failed berry crop catching on our pant legs.

 

“Here you’ve got a steep mountain slope, a railway running through a wetland, and the edge of the river. And we just turned off the Trans-Canada Highway and we’re about to go on the Bow Valley Parkway. It’s a really challenging spot.”

 

“We’ve had a number of grizzlies die within two kilometers on these tracks, including Grizzly Bear 64’s last litter.”

 

We’re very nearly standing on the spot where her cub, 109, was killed. Two years later, her second female cub perished on the Trans-Canada Highway above us.

 

Between 25 and 30 trains run through the park every single day — more than one an hour. Since 2000, 13 grizzlies have died on the railway in the Banff-Yoho corridor.

 

Biologists believe that grizzly populations in the Bow Valley are on the decline due to transportation mortality, whereas other backcountry populations may be experiencing a slight increase.

 

And although large strides have been made when it comes to vehicle collisions on the highway, Michel notes there’s “no magic bullet” to fix railway mortality.

***

When Parks Canada began building the first of what would become six overpass wildlife crossing structures in the park in 1996, they were laughed at.

 

No one believed animals would actually use a grass-covered bridge over the highway.

 

But now, nearly 20 years later, the bridges are considered one of the park’s greatest success stories.

 

“They’ve been really, really effective for wildlife,” says Michel as we speed down the Trans-Canada Highway, pulling over at regular intervals to examine different crossing structures. “It was a slow adoption, a bit species dependent, but both grizzlies and black bears use them now.”

 

In 2014, a study of Banff National Park bears by scientists with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University found that not only are bears using the crossing structures, but the structures are also helping to maintain genetically healthy populations of bears who use them. The study found bears were crossing with enough frequency to ensure populations on either side of the highway weren’t genetically isolated from each other.

 

In addition to the six overpasses, there are also 38 underpasses throughout the park. But they’re hard to spot if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.

 

About 45 minutes away from the townsite, Michel unlocks a wire gate at the side of the road. Signs warn us in a bold typeface to keep out. You can’t cut around the side, either. Part of that $400 million in wildlife mitigation money was put toward building roughly 180 kilometers of fencing on both sides of the highway. But it's not impenetrable. On my way over to Lake Louise the next day I spotted a crafty coyote running in the ditch outside of the fence.

 

The problem, Michel explains, is that when the fence was first built 35 years ago, managers tried to hide the fence in among the trees so as to appease tourists.

 

“People didn’t want to see a fence in a national park, so we tried to hide it. The flip side that goes along with that is it’s very difficult to maintain when you’ve got a fence in the forest because you can’t see if there’s a problem.”

 

We begin to slide down the slippery moss-covered slope, ending up at the mouth of an oversized culvert along the Red Earth Creek. I stare into the black abyss imagining a mountain lion or wolf suddenly emerging from its depths. I’m less likely to meet a grizzly down here, at least.

 

Whereas black bears and lions like the protection offered by smaller, dank passes, grizzlies prefer wide-open spaces. It mostly comes down to evolutionary differences, explains Michel.

 

“When a black bear gets startled it runs up a tree because it evolved in a forested environment, whereas a grizzly bear evolved out in the plains,” he says as he surveys the tunnel. Water drips from a mystery source somewhere inside. “Grizzlies like to be in that wide-open area; they like to be able to see what’s going on.”

 

Staring down into the unnerving darkness of the culvert, I have to agree with the grizzly on that one.

FROM THE WHYTE MUSEUM ARCHIVES

 

"I come here every summer. These humans are so entertaining."

In 1996, Parks Canada began to construct wildlife overpasses in Banff National Park. Today, there are six overpasses and 38 underpasses between the east boundary of Banff National Park and the west boundary of the British Columbia border. The corridors are widely considered a conservation success story, as grizzly bears and black bears alike have adapted to using the man-made structures.

***

I meet Dave McDonough, the park’s superintendent, in his office in the Banff Administration Building—perhaps the most notable structure in Banff next to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

 

McDonough’s office is located on the building’s upper floor, and has fewer cabin-themed touches than I expected. Instead, McDonough has amassed a large collection of Japanese artwork and ornaments, perhaps a reflection of how popular the park is with Japanese visitors.

 

“Out of necessity, in some areas, we’ve found ourselves on the cutting edge because we’re faced with a lot of pressures,” he says of Banff’s advancement of wildlife management. “I worked as a warden for Parks Canada for 30 years and can remember the days when we first made the switch from traditional garbage containers to bear-proof containers, and what an impact that had on the ecology of bears.”

 

“The opportunity to see grizzly bears is a really special thing, and we’re fortunate in Banff that we get to see grizzly bears often—sometimes too often. But we’ve managed to work out a way where we can coexist.”

 

Such coexistence comes easier for a place like Banff, though. For as much as Banff may be touted as an international success, they’re still a national park. That means they can take a bears-first approach to wildlife management that wouldn’t be possible in other communities. Here, under the shadow of Tunnel Mountain, it’s not so much urban bears as it is backwoods humans.

"The opportunity to see grizzlies is a really special thing."

 

DAVE MCDONOUGH

Superintendent, Banff National Park

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Copyright ©2015 Gloria Dickie