More than four million people visited Banff National Park between April 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018. The number of visitors to the park, one of Canada’s most popular, has been steadily growing year after year.
Some of those guests might have been lucky enough to spot a docile grizzly bear, named Bear 148, snacking on dandelions or goose eggs.
It was a part of Bear 148’s reality that during her six years of life she’d need to become accustomed to humans and their cars and cameras. Banff National Park is huge but much of its terrain is mountainous, covered up with rocks and ice.
The lush valley bottoms are where bears — and people — prefer to be.
In the summer of 2017, Bear 148 followed the valley’s ripe buffalo berries right into the town of Canmore, about 20 kilometres outside of the park.
When she crossed that park boundary, it changed everything. Wildlife managers inside the offices of Parks Canada and Alberta Environment began to think about intervening.
“She’s in the park [and] they’re protecting her,” wildlife photographer Stacy Sartoretto said.
“And then … she walks into Canmore and all of a sudden she’s public enemy number one.”
Featured in this episode:
Stacey Sartoretto, Banff resident and founder of the Bear #148 appreciation group
Kim Titchener, founder of Bear Safety & More, a company that provides industry with bear safety training
Bill Snow, consultation manager with the Stoney Nakoda Nation
Colleen Campbell, artist
Undercurrent soundtrack sponsored in part by Approach Media.
MOLLY SEGAL: Off the highway, driving into Banff, you pass the Vermillion Lakes. They’re a series of spring-fed, shallow lakes and a paved road takes you along the edges of them. Depending on the time of year, you’ll probably see people cycling this path. Others out on the water in canoes or kayaks. And photographers — professionals and hobbyists alike — at the water’s edge snapping the view of Mt. Rundle at dawn, or the many birds that frequent this place.
STACEY SARTORETTO: Just usually at the beginning of the season May and I guess early June she would come down here and she would, she would hunt.
MOLLY SEGAL: Stacey Sartoretto is one of those photographers.
STACEY SARTORETTO: She would go on to goose nests and eat the eggs and she’d kind of have a route.
MOLLY SEGAL: This is one of the spots he comes to to take nature photos in his spare time. He’s been doing this for about:
STACEY SARTORETTO: Probably four years ago now and I’ve lived in Banff for 30 years so it’s really been educational for me, it’s been an eye opener.
MOLLY SEGAL: Sometimes, he’d see Bear 148 while out on one of his photo walks.
STACEY SARTORETTO: For such a notorious bear I’m out all the time and I saw her three times maybe.
MOLLY: These lakes were one of the spots that Bear 148 would come looking for food. Like those goose eggs Stacey was mentioning. Stacey knows a lot of the bears in the park by name.
STACEY SARTORETTO: I hope you get to see him he’s a beautiful bear.
MOLLY SEGAL: I’m learning from him as we walk and talk. He shares the latest gossip with me about a blonde, male grizzly that some locals have nicknamed Romeo, because of his courtships.
STACEY SARTORETTO: Lady killer.
MOLLY SEGAL: When Bear 148 came out of hibernation in the spring of 2017, Stacey was following her story.
STACEY SARTORETTO: It just really sucked that 148 crossed the border and then she paid for it.
MOLLY SEGAL: For The Narwhal, this is Bear 148. I’m Molly Segal. On this episode, I’m going to introduce you to some of the people who followed Bear 148’s story closely. People in Banff and in Canmore. People who were invested in this bear’s life. Not just the people making decisions about the bear. These were the people watching how things were unfolding. People like Stacey.
Following the news stories about Bear 148’s encounters, Stacey didn’t recognize the bear he says he knew.
STACEY SARTORETTO: I felt at that time everybody was really out to, to get 148. She coexists around millions of people for so many years it’s, you know, it’s hard not to have encounters with her. And I don’t think she ever was very aggressive with people I think she let people know that she was uncomfortable with them being close to her.
MOLLY SEGAL: Like many people in Banff and Canmore, he felt like he had to do something. So he started a Facebook page: The Bear 148 Appreciation Group.
STACEY SARTORETTO: I wanted to know more about 148 and that’s part of the reason I did it. And when we started that it was just to try to change all that negativity and maybe as a local, tell it, tell our side of it.
MOLLY SEGAL: Following Bear 148’s story.
STACEY SARTORETTO: I think I really reacted when they, they talked about euthanizing her. It made me kind of angry and sad. I just didn’t feel like they were given a chance. She’s in the park they’re protecting her. And then all of a sudden she walks into Canmore and all of a sudden she’s public enemy number one.
MOLLY SEGAL: Even though Banff National Park is really big – lots of that is up high and is rock and ice. So the places where bears live their lives, where they find food, often overlaps with the places where people like to be as well, like valley bottoms, which is where the town of Banff is built. In the summer of 2017, Bear 148 was seen outside of Banff National Park – 20 kilometres east down the valley, in the town of Canmore. During the summer, a grizzly bear’s goal is to get fat for a winter of hibernating. And in Canmore, Bear 148 found a lot of buffalo berries, which is a plant native to this area that grizzly bears like to eat.
There, she was going about her days, eating as much food as she could, but she comes across people a lot while she’s trying to just eat food. And behind the scenes, this had Parks Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks trying to figure out what do about that.
STACEY SARTORETTO: When they were, you know, when Parks got together and Alberta Parks got together and Alberta Fish and Wildlife got together and they were trying to keep an eye on her, protect her and get her, you know hopefully she would come back into the park. You know I thought that was a really nice step and I thought it was really proactive. And then all of a sudden they just, you know, almost secretively they say, yeah, we’ve translocated or she’s gone and you know. And here she is in this, this great grizzly habitat but also this great hunter habitat. It’s just tragic.
MOLLY: In early July 2017 Alberta Environment and Parks decided to move Bear 148 from Canmore back to part of her home range: Kootenay National Park, just west of Banff. But she came back to Canmore and kept having interactions with people. And then in late July she was translocated. A translocation means Bear 148 was taken far away from the places she knew. Nearly 500 kilometres northwest to Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park in Alberta. This is where, a couple months later, she wandered into British Columbia and is legally shot by a hunter. And all of that hit Stacey hard.
STACEY SARTORETTO: From my point of view it, it didn’t seem like they really gave her a chance. What’s going to happen is eventually are we going to be getting all, get rid of all of our bears? Is it just going to be well that bear’s too close let’s get rid of it.
KIM TITCHENER: It happens every couple of years here in Canmore we have a bear come through and, and you get lots of warnings or closures and then things happen or a bear in Banff and it happens and then the story moves on.
MOLLY: This is Kim Titchener. She used to work for WildSmart, a charity focused on bear awareness.
KIM TITCHENER: But this bear for some reason this story just keeps going. So obviously she’s had, she’s going to have much more of a legacy from what’s happened with her than some of the other bears unfortunately.
MOLLY SEGAL: Kim’s work is dedicated to keeping people and wildlife safe. So following Bear 148’s final months alive:
KIM TITCHENER: It was emotionally exhausting. And I, in fact, I couldn’t even really talk about this after it all went down and she was shot.
MOLLY SEGAL: Even though Kim now runs a consulting company and travels around the country, people in Canmore still came to her with questions and worries about Bear 148.
KIM TITCHENER: And it was very hard to get any work done because it was this phone calls and emails and Facebook messages. And I remember one of the residents here calling me just bawling her eyes out like, I just saw them run by they just shot, they were shooting at her with bangers and she’s just you know crying and she’s like what’s going to happen to the bear? And I’m like I don’t know. Like this is you know this is up to wildlife management.
MOLLY SEGAL: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Bear 148’s story resonated more than other grizzly bears have.
KIM TITCHENER: It absolutely was the first time I’d ever seen that and you know that may also be the you know with the invention of social media so things have changed quite a bit where we’re able to get messages out more quickly to the public. So I was pretty amazed by that and it didn’t end there. We had, people were making Facebook pages, individual people were getting together and rallying.
MOLLY SEGAL: That rally Kim is referring to is a gathering for wildlife that happened in Canmore shortly after Bear 148 died. A filmmaker named Leanne Allison recorded this video at the event.
BILL SNOW: If you destroy nature, you’re destroying yourself.
MOLLY SEGAL: This is Bill Snow, a consultation manager with the Stoney Nakoda Nation.
BILL SNOW: Well my biggest takeaway was to see the the outpouring of support by the non-Indigenous people. You have Facebook posts, you have emails and posters, you know there’s a ground, grassroots support for wildlife and that’s not in every jurisdiction, that’s not everywhere. But you know it is here in the valley. I’m glad that people have, you know, are looking at a Bear 148, looking at that experience and saying yes that’s not right. And collectively, those answers will come.
COLLEEN CAMPBELL: This is the raven one.
MOLLY SEGAL: Colleen Campbell pulls out a poster. I’m in her studio and she’s showing me some of her artwork. At the time Bear 148 was shot, Colleen was in the middle of setting up a show to exhibit her work featuring grizzly bears. There was one piece in particular — a sort of family tree of Banff-born grizzlies.
COLLEEN CAMPBELL: By then 148 had been shot so that her profile changed a lot.
MOLLY SEGAL: She had to grab the family tree from the gallery to update it.
COLLEEN CAMPBELL: I have a whole mix of emotions when that happens, because she wasn’t a trophy bear, and because she was a female, she should have been in the landscape. She should be out there just having her first cubs right now in the den. But she was relocated at a time when she would not have had a den ready. Here she would have had a den ready, by mid to late August she would have known where she was going to tuck in for winter and she got scooped. So she now she’s up north. With any luck she’d find a place to sleep and make her way, if she’d lived.
MOLLY SEGAL: So this particular artwork about grizzlies took on a new meaning when it was exhibited shortly after Bear 148 was shot.
COLLEEN CAMPBELL: 148’s story became really pivotal in terms of what my work ultimately became because a lot of people had gone in and looked for just her in that long list of bears and the little bits that we know about their biographies.
MOLLY SEGAL: When I talked to people who watched things unfold for Bear 148, there’s a bit of a feeling of being blindsided by how quickly the final decision to translocate her happened.
COLLEEN CAMPBELL: It would have been great if there was a bit more dialogue and the decision from Edmonton wasn’t so abrupt. I think people just wanted to know why and if people knew that all those folks crossing under the tape were putting themselves at risk and creating a problem that the province perceived as serious.
MOLLY SEGAL: “Crossing under the tape.” Here, Colleen is talking about how Alberta Environment and Parks eventually closed the area in Canmore that Bear 148 was in, but some people ignored that.
COLLEEN CAMPBELL: Well maybe those people have to bear a little bit of responsibility for what happened to 148. It would be great if 148 was recognized as a little female wearing a collar and not a trophy animal.
MOLLY SEGAL: Kim Titchener.
KIM TITCHENER: The community was invested because it became a daily part of their life. And when you lose something and you try so hard to keep it alive, it’s devastating. And people got angry and there were conspiracy theories.
MOLLY SEGAL: Things like people suggesting the story of the trophy hunter was a provincial cover up for its own decision to euthanize the bear. And suspicions about whether or not all of the incidents between Bear 148 and people had in fact happened. Things that have not been proven to have any weight to them, but that at the time were swirling around.
KIM TITCHENER: It’s not been something that people have easily moved on from because the big thing, the question that’s in everybody’s minds is: can we actually live with bears? Can we have a community that’s growing and more recreationists and people moving here and developing more of the land and actually have a viable grizzly bear population? And I’m not sure any of us really know the answer to that.
MOLLY SEGAL: Thanks for listening to Bear 148. Coming up on the next episode.
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: Beyond the decisions officials made about Bear 148, there were little things that individuals did — both locals and visitors — that seemed to stack the odds against this bear.
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 Conservation Initiative and the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.