Kim Titchener remembers her first encounter with a grizzly bear. She’d just travelled from her home province of Ontario to Banff National Park where she had a new job as a wildlife interpreter.
“I show up my first day on the job and they’re like, ‘can you drive to Tunnel Mountain Campground? There’s a grizzly bear eating an elk carcass. Keep your truck on the side of the road. We’re going to flush her out of the campground towards you,’ ” she said.
“And I’m like, ‘what?’ ”
That was Bear 66. In the years that followed, Titchener watched Bear 66 as she grew up, eventually giving birth to three cubs.
But things didn’t go well for Bear 66.
“I got the pleasure of watching her and monitoring her for a couple of years and seeing her have beautiful little baby grizzly bear cubs. I also worked with her through the unfortunate incident of her being killed by a train.”
Her cubs didn’t fare well either. Two died from fatal car collisions. The third was captured and sent to the Saskatoon zoo.
Titchener said it’s an unfortunate reality for bears in Banff.
“There’s certainly been a lot of bears that I’ve known over the years that have moved through this valley and unfortunately, every single one of them that I’ve ever had an experience with or worked with or tried to help keep on the landscape, they’ve all died.”
The more recent death of Bear 148, who was moved from Banff National Park to an area near the border with British Columbia, raises fresh questions about an old problem: why can’t bears and people peacefully exist in large national parks?
Amid the news and disappointment and anger about Bear 148’s death, rumours and suspicion have taken root. Conspiracy theories abound about who made the final call to relocate the grizzly and why.
And yet the story behind the decision to remove Bear 148 from her range actually has a lot to do with mundane human activity in and around Banff: people choosing to walk their dogs off-leash in bear territory, ignoring park closures and generally not abiding by bear-smart rules.
Featured in this episode:
Kim Titchener, founder of Bear Safety & More, a company that provides industry with bear safety training
Steve Michel, Parks Canada national human-wildlife conflict expert
Bill Hunt, Banff National Park resource conservation manager
Undercurrent soundtrack sponsored by Approach Media.
KIM TITCHENER: There’s certainly been a lot of bears that I’ve known over the years that have moved through this valley and unfortunately, every single one of them that I’ve ever had an experience with or worked with or tried to to help keep on the landscape, they’ve all died.
MOLLY SEGAL: This is Kim Titchener — a human-wildlife conflict specialist who we met on the last episode. For years Kim worked for a charity dedicated to bear awareness, called WildSmart. Now she owns a business called Bear Safety and More, and she travels the country to help companies in remote places work safely near wildlife. Her work is all about keeping people and wild animals safe. But every so often, she sees things end badly for bears like 148.
KIM TITCHENER: Whether they’ve been hit by cars or relocated and then shot when they walked into into B.C. That’s happened twice. I’ve seen two different bears where they’ve been relocated and shot when they managed to make their way into British Columbia. Bears hit by cars hit by trains having to be shot. It’s not been easy seeing that over the years and it certainly has fuelled my need and desire to work in this field.
MOLLY SEGAL: For T-he Narwhal, this is Bear 148. I’m Molly Segal. On this episode, I’m going to look at the impacts people have on the landscape in the Bow Valley and some of the ways this affects how bears live their lives here.
It’s a chilly and rainy June day when I meet Kim. We’re in a neighbourhood called Peaks of Grassi in Canmore. This is where Bear 148 sometimes went in the summer of 2017. People living here could often see her eating dandelions or buffalo berries. And a grizzly bear needs to eat a lot of those things to get fat for the winter. Bear 148 is not the first bear whose story has really stuck with Kim.
KIM TITCHENER: People who work with bears over the years will say the same thing there’s probably that one bear that made them fall in love with wanting to care about bears.
MOLLY SEGAL: For Kim, that bear was years ago, when she came to Banff National Park to work as a wildlife interpreter.
KIM TITCHENER: I show up my first day on the job and they’re like, ‘can you drive to Tunnel Mountain Campground? There’s a grizzly bear eating an elk carcass. Keep your truck on the side of the road we’re going to flush her out of the campground towards you.’ And I’m like, ‘what?’
MOLLY SEGAL: Kim is from Ontario, so this is her first grizzly and she’s a bit nervous.
KIM TITCHENER: And so, I’m standing there and I’ve got the lights on the truck and I’m waiting and waiting and then I hear the shots of the banger shooting off. And then all of a sudden I see this gigantic furry animal just like bounding towards me and she runs straight past the truck and off into the bushes.
MOLLY SEGAL: Her name was Grizzly Bear 66.
KIM TITCHENER: And I got the pleasure of watching her and monitoring her for a couple years and seeing her have beautiful little baby grizzly bear cubs. I also worked with her through the unfortunate incident of her being killed by a train.
MOLLY SEGAL: Her three cubs didn’t do well without her. Two of them were hit by cars and killed. Eventually the third cub was captured and sent to the Saskatoon zoo.
KIM TITCHENER: It was the thing that made me want to invest my life and career into trying to keep bears alive and on the landscape and help people learn to live with them.
MOLLY SEGAL: Of all of the problems between people and grizzly bears, one of the big ones was bears getting into garbage. When a bear associates people with food — and it keeps returning to where people are to eat things it normally would not find in the wild — biologists call that “food conditioned” and consider it potentially dangerous.
In Banff, a food conditioned grizzly bear killed someone about three decades ago. And since then, Banff National Park, Canmore and the provincial parks all have secured garbage cans and dumps to prevent this from happening. And that has drastically reduced the number of bad or dangerous encounters between people and bears in the Bow Valley. It’s a really big success story.
Still, there are things that make living here complicated for bears. When you think about the footprint people have in the Bow Valley, there are some that stand out. Highways, roads and train tracks are all hard to ignore. So it’s not uncommon for bears to die after being hit by trains or vehicles. In the parks, there are campsites, day use areas and hiking trails. There are a lot of people around. And, of course, there’s development, like the towns of Banff and Canmore.
KIM TITCHENER: Where we are is the power line up at Peaks of Grassi, which is a residential area of Canmore. And this area got developed quite a few years ago but it was a very important wildlife corridor and it actually still is.
MOLLY SEGAL: That means wild animals use this space to get from A to B. And I’ll talk more about wildlife corridors in a later episode.
KIM TITCHENER: And when you create linear features like power lines, you provide opening ups of the forest canopy so there’s lots of really great vegetation for bears to feed on. Grizzly bears have a preference for more open habitat.
MOLLY SEGAL: Bears also like to use clearings — like this one — to travel. And it makes sense. It’s a lot harder to travel through a dense forest. So this is basically a shortcut: burn fewer calories on your search for more calories.
KIM TITCHENER: This is also a major area for human activity. So you can see there’s a really nice path here, a trail. You can see there’s bike trails going through the power line area.
MOLLY SEGAL: During that summer that Bear 148 was eating berries here, the province eventually closed off the area she was in. But some people went under the caution tape. Kim says she even saw a photo of someone dragging a canoe under the tape. This path leads to Quarry Lake, which is a super popular summer hang out. So it’s not just bears and other wildlife using this clearing. It’s a popular one for people.
MOLLY SEGAL: Did you see Bear 148 here?
KIM TITCHENER: I didn’t. I got lots of pictures, and I also received one video of her being chased by officers and you could see the bear suddenly become very afraid and then just start running and then officers chasing behind her.
MOLLY SEGAL: That was the summer of 2017. And that’s what led the province to decide to first move Bear 148 back to her home range. And then, later, to translocate her northwest of her home. That’s why Kim and I decided to meet here in Peaks of Grassi. There are houses on either side of this clearing. In this stretch you can see people cycling or walking, sometimes with dogs. Bears, like 148, are left to navigate this. And it doesn’t always go well.
MOLLY SEGAL: So I’m just looking now down the track and there’s someone here with, in a red jacket with three dogs that I don’t know if those dogs look like they’re on leash.
KIM TITCHENER: They don’t Look like they’re on leash at all. They’re running all over the place. Yeah and this is the question I sometimes just want to ask people is like what goes through your head? This person could create a problem bear right now just by walking down this path and they don’t they don’t care and I don’t know why.
MOLLY SEGAL: There are a lot of ways people have an impact on grizzly bears. But I want to focus on off leash dogs for a little bit because it kept coming up with most of the biologists I spoke to. These are experts in grizzly bear behaviour and management. Steve Michel works in human-wildlife conflict at a national level for Parks Canada.
STEVE MICHEL: It’s certainly recognized through the best available science that’s out there right now that grizzly bears in particular can have some strong negative interactions where one of the main variables can be the presence of dogs. And in fact in some cases that can actually trigger attacks and that’s been well documented in the science now.
MOLLY SEGAL: In Banff National Park there are some trails where dogs aren’t allowed at specific times of year because of this.
STEVE MICHEL: It’s a big challenge. Everybody wants to take their favourite family pet along on holidays with them, so it’s always a challenge to communicate to people how important it is to make sure that a dog is kept on leash.
MOLLY SEGAL: Bear 148 had encounters with dogs. Bill Hunt is the Resource Conservation Manager with Banff National Park. So he dealt with those encounters first hand.
BILL HUNT: She would do her best to vocalize and give a small gesture which usually involved a little hop towards the person just to create that space and say, ‘hey you’re invading my bubble — back off a little bit.’
We never had behaviour from her that was alarming in terms of her being an aggressive or dangerous bear. We did see several encounters where people had dogs off leash. The dog was in a couple of cases would run in, do a couple laps around her and get her really riled up and then she’d put the on the on the dog.
MOLLY SEGAL: Here, Bill is talking about the same incident Kevin Van Tighem mentioned at the beginning of this series. That’s Bear 148’s encounter with hikers and a dog near Mt. Norquay in Banff.
BILL HUNT: In the spring of 2017 where some people with an off leash dog were hiking. The dog came in and around the bear and the bear put the run on the dog and then escorted them back to the parking lot. That was later described as the bear having chased people back to the parking lot. But it was probably five or six hundred meters through snow and if a grizzly bear wants to catch you in that kind of distance it will. And so even the reporting people later acknowledged that you know the bear wasn’t chasing them the bear was simply following to make sure that they and the dog left the area.
MOLLY SEGAL: I want to point out that that is a nuanced distinction. He says the bear may have been coming towards the people. But the bear was actually after the dog.
BILL HUNT: That’s about as tolerant a behaviour as you can expect from from a wild grizzly bear when your dog has just gone and done three laps around the bear barking and nipping at the bear.
MOLLY SEGAL: How wildlife managers interpret bear behaviour often has life or death consequences for those bears. So when a bear encounters your dog off leash, it’s not seeing your best friend.
BILL HUNT: Wolves and bears, coyotes and bears have an adversarial relationship in the wild. And so for a bear to perceive a domestic dog similar to various wild species of dogs is not a stretch of the imagination.
MOLLY SEGAL: When Parks Canada hears about an incident, they ask a lot of questions. Bill and his team interview all of the people involved in a bear encounter because obviously a bear can’t tell them what happened from its perspective. Bill says their goal is to understand what happened and why the bear acted the way it did. Did it have cubs? Was it surprised? Was it eating? And that’s how they treated Bear 148’s encounters.
BILL HUNT: The overall record is bear with the six and a half years in the busy, busy valley without a serious incident. But with several of these dog incidents where we were focusing our efforts was on managing people because it’s much easier to communicate with people than it is a bear, and really making sure that people understood their responsibility in keeping dogs on a leash.
MOLLY SEGAL: Here at the power lines in the Peaks of Grassi, the reactions to Bear 148 were mixed. Some people guarding trail closures, while others ignoring them and going under caution tape. Some people walking their dogs on leash, while others letting them run free.
Kim and I watch as more people meander through the clearing. People may be easier to manage than bears. But still, it comes with its challenges. You can make rules, but how do you make sure people follow them? And for bears, Kim says the stakes are high.
KIM TITCHENER: You know I was in California a couple of months ago and I was in one of their National Parks and the naturalist there, I was talking about my work as a bear conservationist and he took me to the shoreline and he pointed to a hill along the along along the shore of the ocean and he said that’s the last spot that a grizzly bear lived. In the 1890s the last grizzly in California was killed here. And it was humbling.
What is the future? It’s going to have to entail a lot of changes. But currently it’s a little scary when you think that when bears keep coming through here they they keep losing their lives. Worst case scenario this area becomes like California where there just aren’t bears here anymore. That’s what the future could be. But at the same time I don’t want to discredit the amount of work and energy and money that does go into this area because it is incredible.
MOLLY SEGAL: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Bear 148. On the next episode.
SARAH ELMELIGI: So we’ve written this very complex rulebook for how a grizzly bear needs to be a good grizzly bear. And we’ve drawn all of these lines on a map and we’ve said okay over here do this and this will happen and do that and this will happen over there. And it’s a very complex rulebook and bears can’t read.
MOLLY SEGAL: the challenges for grizzly bears in the Bow Valley navigating the invisible borders we’ve created.
SHOW CREDITS: This podcast was created by me, Molly Segal, with editorial support from Emma Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt. Cover art for our show by Justine Wong. Bear 148 was made with the support of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative and the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.