Banff’s badass bear has been a busy boy. While doing DNA analysis to look at Banff’s grizzly bear population and density, Parks Canada confirmed that grizzly bear 122 is the father of at least five young bruins, and he’s likely fathered more.
“It’s definitely interesting, but it isn’t unusual at all that there’s a dominant male over a period of several years,” said Steve Michel, human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.
“Of those five young bears we’re talking about that he’s fathered, four are female, which is very good. Hopefully, they will all survive into adulthood and produce cubs of their own.”
DNA analysis shows bear 122 is the father of all three of bear 64’s most recent offspring – male 144, female 148 and a third, unmarked female sibling. The three young bears are four years old. Bear 64 is believed to have died of natural causes at age 24 in late 2013.
The 300-kilogram grizzly has also fathered two female offspring of bear 72, a prominent female bear that has managed to carve out a living in the busy Lake Louise area for almost 20 years. On their own since 2013, bears 142 and 143 are now five years old.
All of these bears, except for one, have been part of the $1 million Parks Canada-Canadian Pacific Railway joint action plan, looking at various ways to prevent bear deaths on the train tracks.
One of bear 64’s offspring has not been captured or fitted with a collar as part of the study. However, last September, wildlife conservation officers were able to collect a hair sample from the young bruin and determined it was female.
A bear had been coming and going from a site with a carcass and set up with a remote camera, so resource conservation specialists set up a hair sampling station, with barbed wire, and got a hair sample.
“We saw a bear that matched the general size and description, and we thought this is very likely the third member of that litter of 64’s,” Michel said. “It was good for us to confirm that bear is still alive, and confirm the bear was a female.”
Bear 122 has a reputation as a big, badass bear, but he’s just doing what bears are meant to do. He made national headlines in the summer of 2013 after hunting and eating a black bear close to a busy trail in the Cave and Basin area.
Shortly after, he was seen eating an elk carcass near Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park just off Highway 93 South, and later that year in November enjoyed a week-long feast on dead elk that had fallen through the ice in the Bow River close to the Banff townsite.
Although bear 122 has fathered many of the Bow Valley’s young bears, Michel said there is no concern for genetic diversity.
“The genetic diversity of the grizzly bear population in the Bow Valley is quite high. There’s good diversity,” Michel said.
“We have really strong landscape connections to other populations. It’s part of one larger contiguous meta-population. In every direction, there’s no real break in the population, no significant fragmentation.”
There are an estimated 60 to 65 bears in Banff National Park.
Home ranges for grizzlies in this region vary greatly, though the average home range for a male grizzly in the Central Rockies is 1,000 to 2,000 square kilometres, compared to female ranges of 200 to 500 square kilometres.
The home range of bear 122 includes west to Yoho National Park, into the northern reaches of Banff National Park beyond Flint’s Park and south into Kootenay National Park as far as the Mount Shanks burned area.
“It’s a large home range in excess of 2,500 square kilometres. If you’re looking at a map, Castle Junction is really smack in the middle of his home range,” Michel said.
“He’s mostly staying in the national parks, with the exception of Assiniboine, and he doesn’t look like he’s drifting east towards Kananaskis.”
Bear 122, believed to be about 15 years old, is not currently fitted with a GPS collar, but he may be fitted with a collar again this spring. His second collar stopped functioning early in 2013.
“He is a potential candidate that we’re looking at collaring again. We’re in the process of evaluating all those situations right now,” Michel said.
“He’s a very valuable bear from a research perspective. His home range is almost entirely in the national parks and it’s interesting for us to look at what he’s doing.”
Meanwhile, the DNA research also ruled out earlier suspicions that bear 130 was the daughter of bear 64. However, the results do indicate the two bruins are related.
Bear 130 is a 10- to 12-year-old bear, and is quite an elusive and wary animal. She’s had two known litters of cubs, but none of her offspring have survived.
In October 2012, 130’s yearling cubs were killed on the train tracks about 10km west of Banff, and her young-of-year cubs that emerged from the den with her last year are thought to have been killed my male grizzlies.
Bear 130’s home range is similar to that of bear 64’s.
“We know for sure bear 64 is not the mother of 130, but there’s definitely some sort of relatedness between them,” Michel said. “They could have the same mother, but come from different litters.”