All areas surrounding the busy Banff townsite are either under closure or warning because of intense grizzly bear activity.
There are two large competing male grizzlies, a female grizzly with two new cubs and three other young bruins believed to be the offspring of bear 64 – a 24-year-old grizzly that has not yet been spotted this year – plus other bears.
Officials say the bruins are under a lot of stress because of constant run-ins with people. One young bear has bluff charged hikers, canoeists and ripped open a tent full of food set up illegally in the woods.
They say bear 122, an infamous 700-pound male grizzly, strolled right through the heart of Central Park Monday night (June 23), forcing wildlife experts and RCMP to control the crowds in the park and gently shepherd the bear to safety.
“There’s bears, bears, bears everywhere. It’s been a pretty chaotic several days with lots of bear activity and encounters,” said Steve Michel, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.
“This is a very dynamic situation with lots of bears in a very concentrated area, including two large males in the midst of the breeding season actively searching for female grizzlies and competing with each other and a female with two young-of-year cubs seeking security for her cubs.”
The dynamic situation over the past week has kept Banff’s wildlife crews beyond busy. There are 12 operational staff working duty shifts in Banff’s wildlife section, with only two to three people working at any given time.
On Monday, Parks Canada closed Vermilion Lakes Road and all three Vermilion lakes on the north side of the Bow River, the Fenlands trail and day use area, the Legacy Trail from the west end of the Vermilion Lakes Road to its connection with the Trans-Canada Highway and Echo Creek North of the train tracks.
Special caution is recommended when travelling in all areas surrounding the Town of Banff.
Monday’s closure came days after Parks Canada put a warning in place because of elevated bear activity, including a day that saw two competing male bears, bears 122 and 136 that are two of the largest male bears in the park, on Vermilion Lakes Road at the same time.
Bear 130, a female grizzly whose two yearling cubs died on the train tracks near Muleshoe in October 2012, has two new cubs in tow. She’s been hanging out in the Vermilion Lakes area, likely hunting for elk calves and foraging in the wetlands.
“She’s maintaining a fairly low profile, trying to keep her cubs safe,” said Michel.
The three offspring of bear 64 are also in the area. Parks has managed to get GPS collars on two of the three three-and-a-half-year-old bruins, a male called 144 and a female referred to as 148. The third is quite shy and reclusive and there are no plans to fit it with a collar at this point in time.
Bear 148 cut right through town early Monday morning, from Tunnel Mountain through the Whiskey Creek neighbourhood and across to the Vermilion-Fenlands area. She had quite a struggle getting across the Norquay road because of traffic.
“She was quite stressed by all her interactions with people along the way,” said Michel.
“Once she got to where she wanted, she bluff charged a couple of parties, one party was on foot and the other was a couple canoeing on Echo Creek.”
A decision wad made to close the Fenland area at that time to give bear 148 space.
As wildlife crews were sweeping the trail to clear out people from the area, they came across an illegal tent set up in the woods. The tent was full of food, such as bread, peanut butter and fruit.
“She did tear open the tent and it’s quite probable she accessed food, though we don’t know to what extent the food reward was,” said Michel. “We intervened right away.”
The incident has been turned over to Parks Canada’s law enforcement branch, which are investigating and have a suspect. As of press time, they had not been able to locate the individual.
Michel said bear 148’s behaviour is normal and is not a concern to him at this point.
“She is a young bear that is very low in the bear hierarchy and doing the best she can to avoid large breeding males,” he said.
“She is in areas of high human use, including cutting through the townsite, and as she does that the opportunities to encounter people at close range are greatly elevated and the frequency of encounters are quite high.”
In addition to the bear activity immediately surrounding the townsite, a grizzly bear also followed a group of 17 horse riders on a Holiday on Horseback trip up the Spray River Valley last Sunday.
“The grizzly bear was following them back towards town, and it did bluff charge them as well,” said Michel.
On Monday, bear 122 spent much of the day on the golf course eating grass, but was hazed away several times by wildlife experts. Eventually, he swam across to the north side of the Bow River towards the backside of Tunnel Mountain.
The large bruin made his way upstream along the river, past Surprise Corner, along the riverside path and through Central Park, before finally swimming back across the river to the Marsh Loop area.
“There were no incidents and nobody got hurt, but it was an extremely dynamic situation,” said Michel.
“It was highly stressful for our staff and RCMP and quite stressful for the bear as well. It was a beautiful summer evening and Central Park was filled.”
The high number of bears around the townsite at this time of year is quite unusual, and being in the middle of the breeding season and the tail end of the calving season, the situation is even more elevated.
“It’s a really delayed winter spring climatic condition that is causing all the bears to be still super concentrated in lower elevations, and that’s the variable that’s a bit unusual,” said Michel.
“Normally at this time of year we would see bears starting to move up into at least the middle elevation areas.”
Parks Canada provides the following tips:
• Pay attention for bears when travelling in this area;
• Make noise when hiking and cycling;
• Keep all pets on leash and a close eye on children;
• Carry bear spray and knowing how to use it;
• Maintain a safe distance between you and any bear;
• Report all bear sightings immediately to the Visitor Centre or Banff Dispatch at 403-762-1470.
Ignoring a Parks Canada closure can result in a fine of up to $25,000.