Banff National Park's wildlife staff had its hands full last weekend trying to keep people and bears safe, while also investigating a possible grizzly bear strike on the train tracks near Bow Valley Parkway.
A bold black bear that got into a bag of garbage at a backcountry campsite along Lake Minnewanka led to the evacuation of several people in the area and a closure along the lakeshore from Stewart Canyon to the Banff National Park boundary.
Wildlife managers were also called to downtown Banff after grizzly bear 136, a 553-pound male bear nicknamed Split Lip for a scar that led to a disfigured lip, attempted to take a stroll across the Bow River pedestrian bridge, Friday (May 26).
Canadian Pacific Railway train crews then reported a westbound freight train may have struck a grizzly bear on the tracks west of Muleshoe about 6:45 a.m. Sunday (May 28) – an area scientists refer to as “a killing field” for grizzly bears.
Bill Hunt, Parks Canada's resource conservation manager for Banff National Park, said Parks is currently waiting to look at CP's footage from a camera mounted on the train.
“Staff attended the site and weren't able to locate anything yet … nothing at all,” said Hunt, noting they are heading back to the area to do a more fine-scale search.
“Hopefully we'll get some footage, although sometimes it doesn't tell us much. The bear can disappear from view.”
Grizzly bears are a threatened species in Alberta and trains are the single biggest killers of grizzly bears here, with at least 17 bears killed on the tracks since 2000, taking a toll on the slow-reproducing population of about 60 bears.
Salem Woodrow, a spokesperson for CP, said no evidence has been found so far of a bear being hit.
“We continue to investigate with Parks,” she wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, a closure is in place in the Lake Minnewanka area after an unmarked black bear got into garbage at Mount Costigan campground (Lm20), 18.8 kilometres along the lake.
The closure now includes the Minnewanka lakeshore trail from Stewart Canyon to the Banff National Park boundary, including Aylmer Pass trail. All backcountry campgrounds are closed, including Lm8, Lm9, Lm11, Lm20, Lm22 and Lm31.
Hunt said a group of about 10 people was packing up to leave Lm20 campground on Saturday (May 27) morning when the bear came into the campsite and rummaged through a bag of garbage.
“It's unusual for a bear to come in with a group this large. They were hollering and yelling and backed off and maintained distance from the bear, but the bear came right in,” he said.
“It wasn't super aggressive and did not bluff charge or anything like that. They were packing up to head out. It was a difficult situation and, unfortunately, the bear got a food reward.”
The campers, who did have bear spray, flagged down a passing boat, which took them back to the Lake Minnewanka day use area where they were able to call Parks staff to let them know what happened.
Resource conservation officers scoured the area for any sign of the black bear, but were unable to locate it. It was described as a cinnamon coloured bear with a unique dark pattern down its front.
Hunt said they did, however, spot one black bear with a cub and a grizzly bear with cubs in the region.
“We cleared out everyone along the lakeshore, and all the backcountry campsites,” said Hunt, noting boat tour operators on Lake Minnewanka helped in getting people back to the day use area.
Hunt said Parks Canada has ramped up patrols in day use areas at Lake Minnewanka and nearby Two Jack Lake, educating people about the need to keep food secured and put away if they are not at their picnic sites.
“If a bear has gotten a food reward it's more likely to want more,” he said.
Grizzly bear 136, thought to be about 12 years old, caused some anxious moments when he tried to cross the pedestrian bridge in the Banff townsite on Friday about 8:45 a.m.
Hunt said he showed up on the south side of the pedestrian bridge, but staff were able to haze him back the way he came and move him slowly westward under the vehicle bridge and out behind the horse corrals.
“Certainly he's a big male bear and he doesn't worry too much about anything,” he said. “He was fairly reluctant to be hazed.”
Bear 136 has an interesting history.
He possibly killed, but definitely ate, a black bear in the remote Mystic Pass area of Banff in 2015. In 2014, it was suspected he killed cubs belonging to bear 130, whose home range includes an area from Banff to Castle Mountain, as well as bear 138 in the Lake Louise and Skoki region.
That same year, 136 and the Bow Valley's dominant male bear, known as 122 and nicknamed The Boss, also forced temporary closure of Vermilion Lakes Road during breeding season. Because the two big bears were on the road – which was busy with vehicles, bikers and hikers – at the same time, Parks Canada didn't want anyone in the vicinity if they got into a fight over a female bear.
Split Lip also caused some anxious moments last August. While he wasn't aggressive, he wasn't interested in moving away and continued to move along the trail at Johnston Canyon despite about 20 hikers heading in his direction.
After he was hazed out of the Banff townsite last Friday, he was later captured in a bear trap intended for female bear 148 sometime Sunday evening. Parks took the opportunity to put a GPS collar on him.
“Because of his history and his recent foray into town, it makes sense we have a collar on him,” said Hunt.