LAKE LOUISE – A third female grizzly bear was killed this summer at the hands of humans in Banff and Yoho national parks.
The bruin, which emerged from her den in spring with cubs, was struck and killed on the Icefields Parkway near Bow Lake on Friday (Aug. 20) at about 10:45 a.m. Her newborn cubs were killed earlier this year, likely by a large male grizzly bear.
The status of Banff’s grizzly population is said to be stable, but Parks Canada officials say the death of three females under human-caused circumstances within a few months of each other is a blow given how slowly grizzly bears reproduce.
“Losing one grizzly bear, irrespective of whether it’s a male or female, is one too many, but it's that much more of an impact when it’s a reproducing female,” said David Laskin, acting wildlife ecologist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.
“It does add up and we’re uncertain of the impact that might have down the road, but it’s definitely not a good thing and we’re very concerned.”
Female grizzly bear No. 156 was killed on the Trans-Canada Highway in Yoho National Park at the end of May, leaving behind two orphaned yearling cubs. The cubs, a male and a female, were relocated into a remote backcountry area within their mother’s traditional home range, which included parts of Banff and Yoho national parks.
Then in June, another prominent mama grizzly bear known as No. 130 was struck and killed by a train near Vermilion Lakes, west of the Banff townsite. One of her yearling cubs was killed in the incident, while the other one survived uninjured and was left to fend for itself in the wild.
Bear 130, initially collared as part of the joint Canadian Pacific Railway-Parks Canada study to reduce bear deaths on the train tracks, had at least four sets of cubs during her life. She was believed to be aged somewhere between 18 and 20.
The female grizzly bear killed by a vehicle last week on the Icefields Parkway is thought to be the same one that has been denning in the Bow Lake region the past several winters. She has had two litters of cubs in her nine-and-a-half-years of life, but none have survived.
“Given the overlap of where the bear was killed and the home range of that bear, it is likely the same individual,” Laskin said, noting she was never tagged or collared but was known to staff.
For the past two winters, Parks Canada has closed Jimmy Junior-Hidden Bowl on the eastern slopes of Mount Jimmy Simpson south of Bow Summit, to keep backcountry skiers from interrupting her winter slumber.
The closure was initially put in place in 2019 when a group of skiers spotted her in her den. But in June and July last year during the breeding season, she was spotted with a large male grizzly so the closure was put in place again in winter 2020-21.
There was concern any noise or disturbance near her den could cause her to miscarry, or lose newborn cubs if she had successfully bred. As it turned out, she emerged with two cubs this spring.
However, resource conservation officers witnessed a large male grizzly bear killing one of the cubs, and the other one disappeared around the same time.
“We’re not certain what happened,” Laskin said. "Predation by males is quite common so it is not unthinkable that it had the same fate as the other cub.”
Grizzly bears are listed as threatened in Alberta and research has shown grizzlies in Banff National Park produce more slowly than any other bear population in North America because of limited food and the harsh, mountain environment.
In North America, grizzly bears once ranged from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River and from central Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. It's estimated that up to 20,000 grizzly bears remain in western Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories and British Columbia.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists grizzly bears as a species of special concern. In British Columbia, they are blue-listed and in Alberta they are threatened.
According to Parks Canada, the current estimate of the grizzly bear population in the mountain nationals parks includes 65 grizzly bears in Banff, 109 in Jasper, 11 to 15 in Yoho and nine to 16 in Kootenay.
Colleen Campbell of the Bow Valley Naturalists said the news of this female grizzly bear’s death is extremely disheartening.
“This is really sad, especially that it is a female because it is not just the loss of her life, but it’s the loss of her potential breeding success,” she said.
“They are very slow breeders and one grizzly bear might bring up successfully three or four cubs over her lifetime, and only a couple of them would be females who might breed, so it’s not like an exponential growth of animals we see with humans.”
This bear was the daughter of bear 9301 and the granddaughter of the famous bear known as Blondie, which both included the Bow Lake region in their home ranges.
For Campbell, this death is particularly sad because she tracked Blondie for 12 years as part of grizzly bear research project.
Blondie was killed on the Trans-Canada Highway near the Lake O’Hara junction.
“She died in 2004,” said Campbell. “It’s so sad to see this pattern continue with her granddaughter.”
Laskin did not know if speed played a part in this most recent grizzly bear death, but Parks Canada urges drivers to obey the speed limit and to drive with caution, especially in the early morning and evening hours when wildlife are most active.
“We do take protection of wildlife very seriously and the team here works very hard to reduce these mortalities as best as we can,” Laskin said.
“But keeping bears and other wildlife safe is a shared responsibility. We can’t do it alone.”
Parks Canada asks that all wildlife sightings on the roads or any wildlife incidents be reported to Parks Canada Dispatch at 403-762-1470.