Bear 148 Leah Hennel shadow

Episode 1: A perfect neighbour

Many people called Bear 148 the perfect neighbour because she wasn't afraid of people. So how did she end up being shot by a hunter far from her home?
Undercurrent Podcast
Episode 1 - June 17, 2019

Bear 148 lived most of her life in and near Banff, which is Canada’s busiest national park. She wasn’t afraid of people and she became a local celebrity. By the summer of 2017, wildlife managers responsible for grizzly bears around the Bow Valley were just about fed up with Bear 148. The mild-mannered grizzly had had too many encounters with people in and around Canmore and the parks.

Shot with a tranquilizer and relocated via helicopter 500 kilometres northwest, Bear 148 found herself in a new world, far from her own. That’s when she made the fatal mistake of crossing the border into British Columbia, where trophy hunting was still legal.

Bear 148 was shot and killed. The trophy hunt, the subject of fierce opposition in B.C., was suspended just two months later.

The story of Bear 148, including her relocation and death, have ignited an important debate in Alberta about how human communities interact with and live among wildlife.

Many are asking: how did it come to this? Why did Bear 148 end up in a different province, hundreds of kilometres from her home range?

Others say the grizzly got more than a fair shot to stay alive.

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Featured in this episode:

Marc Breau, Banff resident and photographer

Kevin Van Tighem, former superintendent of Banff National Park and author of “Bears Without Fear”

 

Undercurrent soundtrack sponsored in part by Approach Media.

Episode Transcript

MOLLY SEGAL: It’s a Sunday in late September. A grizzly bear makes her way through a thick forest. She’s near the Goat River. It’s a tributary that runs into the Fraser River in British Columbia. In the distance you can see mountains.

This could almost be wilderness. But decades and centuries accumulated other uses, like gold mining and forestry. There’s a village about a 45-minute drive southeast from where the bear is. Around her are access roads running through this forested area. And at least two people are near nearby: a hunter and a guide. The bear walks near a forestry road. The people see her. Maybe she doesn’t see them or smell them. Maybe she does but she doesn’t know to be afraid. Either way, it’s too late. They shoot.

Nearly 500 kilometres northwest of where she was born. From where she had lived since she was a cub. She dies here, in British Columbia, near the Alberta border, just two months after being moved here from her home range. She’s six-and-a half years old when she dies. Her death is legal. British Columbia’s trophy hunt will end in just a couple months. But for a lot of people, this grizzly bear isn’t just any bear. She was called Bear 148.

For The Narwhal, this is Bear 148: the story of grizzly bears in Alberta told through the life and death of one particular grizzly. I’m Molly Segal. I’m a radio journalist and I live in the Bow Valley. When I moved here, it was a bit of a culture shock. This is the first place I’ve lived where people and wild animals, including some of Canada’s biggest carnivores, live so close to one another. Grizzly bears sometimes become well-known in the community. And you could say that Bear 148 was one of those local celebrity bears in the Bow Valley. So why did this particular bear make the news? Why did so many people care about what happened to her? And what led to her being so far from home, where she was killed by a hunter on Sunday September 24, 2017?

That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. And I don’t mean I’ve been looking for some kind of smoking gun. This isn’t so much a who-dunnit. But, there was a series of events and decisions leading up to her death that had a lot of people in the Bow Valley and in the province thinking about this bear.

COLLEEN CAMPBELL: Bears have personalities like we do and I was aware that she was one of those bears that was not in a state of anxiety when people were around. 148 had that laissez faire personality. Don’t bug me. I won’t bug you.

STACEY SARTORETTO: I think with 148, I think the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is it’s not that we thought of her as a mascot or a pet. I think it’s just that, you know, she lived six and a half years here. Her mother before that. I think people just really wanted to see her succeed and stay on the landscape.

JAY HONEYMAN: Certain areas certain bears gain a greater profile. 148 has been in the news, you know she walks across a parking lot and she’s on the front page of a national newspaper. So people come, came to know her and you know you come to know something and you feel attached to it and something bad happens and you feel bad.

SARAH ELMELIGI: Grizzly bears navigate a very complex landscape 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.

PAUL FRAME: So we have bears annually who don’t, do not become management issues and that was not the case that we experienced with 148, but because of 148’s public exposure, our management options were different because, because of the public relationship with that bear.

STACEY SARTORETTO: I just felt at that time everybody was really out to get 148.

COLLEEN CAMPBELL: It would be great if 148 was recognized as a little female wearing a collar and not a trophy animal. We should have been able to keep her in the landscape.

PAUL FRAME: 148 is this bear that people have an emotional attachment to for many reasons. Well, boy, what if, what if that thing would have happened, which has happened in the Bow Valley in the past right? I’m sure you’re aware of Bear 99 — there was a human fatality as a result.

MOLLY SEGAL: Bear 99 was a male grizzly bear and back in 2005 that bear had been seen at a golf course in Canmore and was moved out of the area. But it returned and killed a woman who had been jogging. I’ve included this story because this is what the province says is at stake when its wildlife experts are trying to figure out whether or not a bear like 148 is a threat to people. Something like this is their worst case scenario.

Before I dive into the events that lead up to Bear 148’s death, I want you to get a sense of who this bear was to people. She lived most of her life in Banff National Park and spent a lot of time pretty close to town.

MARC BREAU: We are currently just outside the town boundaries in Banff. And we have a beautiful view of Mt. Rundle and Sulphur Mountain. And the clouds, the atmosphere, the temperature everything’s perfect today.

MOLLY SEGAL: This is Marc Breau. He lives in Banff.

MARC BREAU: I like to come out and see if I can see nature.

MOLLY SEGAL: And can you describe for me who Bear 148 was?

MARC BREAU: She was an extremely pretty bear. She, she was small for a grizzly bear. She was just beautiful, she had a beautiful face, a beautiful look in her eyes, almost the twinkle in her eye if you could see her close enough. Bear 148 took over mother’s territory which was basically in and around the town of Banff.

MOLLY SEGAL: Were you able to recognize her when you would see her around?

MARC BREAU: Absolutely. The minute she would walk out I would know exactly which bears she was.

MOLLY SEGAL: Marc likes to grab a coffee before work and spend some time outside, often with his camera.

MARC BREAU: I saw her at the same pond eating goose eggs out of goose nests, which was probably a highlight for me. I’ve also watched her in another pond catching fish and eating fish. She would catch one, take it out of the pond, eat it. Then she’d head back into the pond and catch another fish. So those are probably the two most memorable.

MOLLY SEGAL: Can you describe to me where we are and what we’re looking at right now?

KEVIN VAN TIGHEM: Well we’re on what’s called the green spot on Mt. Norquay which is most of the way up to the ski hill from the town. The little natural opening in the forest and we’re looking down across the Bow Valley.

MOLLY SEGAL: This is Kevin Van Tighem. He was superintendent of Banff National Park before he retired in 2011. He’s also written a book about bears called “Bears Without Fear.” From where Kevin and I sit, we can see the town of Banff nestled in the valley bottom. And from this vantage you can pretty much see most of where Bear 148 spent her time.

KEVIN VAN TIGHEM: So you can see the Vermilion Lake wetlands and the very toe of the wetlands the town of Banff. And it’s sort of sprawled its way across the valley and filled in most of the available habitat between Vermilion Lakes and the highway.

MOLLY SEGAL: The first time Kevin saw Bear 148 she was just a cub.

KEVIN VAN TIGHEM: First time ever met her was as a cub with her mother trying to navigate a big traffic jam full of people with cell phones. So they were moving from one patch of habitat to another and they encountered a road. Everybody stopped. Everybody piled out of their cars. They were all taking pictures. People get into this sort of mob mentality, lose their heads and follow the crowd. And so the bears were being squeezed and I watched that mother, I watched her look, repositioned herself and then just did a little bee line through the thinnest part of the crowd with her cubs right at heel, got across the road looked back looked around and then went into the woods.

For everybody that was there it was an entertaining experience. For her, it was a challenge in getting on with her daily life. And so she was raising her cubs and teaching them how to survive in this landscape and that’s why Bear 148 did so well here because she was raised by a good mother and introduced to this landscape in a very careful manner. This is a situation where we had a bear that was perfectly trained and perfectly competent to live in close quarters with us. That’s the kind of bear you want to live with. But we couldn’t because we couldn’t manage ourselves. It was never a problem of managing bears, it was a problem of managing selfish individuals. And unfortunately there’s an awful lot of selfish individuals in any human population.

MOLLY SEGAL: Starting in the spring of 2017, when Bear 148 came out of hibernation, she started to make the news pretty regularly. Because she lived close to the town of Banff, people saw her a lot.

Parks Canada didn’t consider the interactions to be a threat, but a lot of them did make the news locally and beyond. But then things got even more complicated when she left the park and spent time in and near Canmore, just 20 kilometres east of Banff. By late July 2017, senior wildlife managers with the province of Alberta made the call to capture her and transport her by helicopter to a location nearly 500 kilometres northwest of her home range. Two months later she was shot by a hunter in British Columbia.

The thing that first got Bear 148 on my radar was an encounter she had with three hikers and a dog in early May of that year. Not far from Mt. Norquay. When you hear Kevin talk about this, it’s important to know that in Banff National Park, by law you have to keep your dog on a leash. Which means Parks Canada can charge someone for having a dog off leash. But that doesn’t always deter people.  

KEVIN VAN TIGHEM: Once she was on her own without her mother’s protection and with all the people that are in this valley she kept running into people and a lot of people she ran into had dogs and a lot of people make exceptions for their own dogs they let the dog off the leash. But dogs are dogs and dogs are basically animals that are you know they will charge anything they see as a threat to themselves or to the people they’re with – their pack. They’ll investigate curious noises and sounds. From a bear’s point of view they’re just a pest. And poor 148 she kept running into dogs, quite often dogs off leash, and they chased her. And that’s a very stressful experience. From her point of view that’s a predation attempt.

And so she really developed an antipathy towards dogs, she didn’t like dogs and I don’t blame her one bit because of her experiences of them were all negative. So we started hearing about aggressive encounters between Bear 148 and people and one of them took place right up near here right at Mt. Norquay. Well when you look at the details of that account that dog was off leash the bear did not chase the people. The bear chased the dog, the dog went to the people. The bear never was focused on the people it was always focused on the dog. That Bear was being accused or being assumed to be a problem for people where she was actually fairly comfortable with people. But she was really unhappy with dogs and unfortunately a lot of people have dogs with them.

MOLLY SEGAL: Just months after this happens, Bear 148 will be dead. There’s a lot more to know about dogs and grizzly bears and I’ll be getting into those details later in this podcast series. But the reason I include this particular story now is because from there things will unfold very quickly. Bear 148 will travel outside of the park to the neighbouring town of Canmore. And she will find food. Not human food, but the stuff she’s supposed to eat: dandelions and buffalo berries. But she’ll find some of those things in an area where people live and where people like to walk their dogs or cycle. And that’s where things will get really tricky, not just for Bear 148, but for all wild animals: leaving a national park and entering provincial and municipal lands. Inside the national park there’s different set of rules for grizzly bears than there is outside of the park.

I hope you’ll join me as I look back at Bear 148’s life to try and piece together all of those complicated details about our fractured landscape. About our own actions as people living in and visiting the Bow Valley, or any area with wild animals. And all the little things that added up to Bear 148 dying so far from her home.

Thanks for listening to Bear 148.

On the next episode of Bear 148: when she was moved and then died far away from her home, there was an outcry of support for Bear 148 in the Bow Valley.

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. And it’s not been something that people have easily moved on from.  

SHOW CREDITS: This podcast was created by me, Molly Segal, with editorial support by 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.

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