Icefields Parkway Grizzlies
People outside their vehicles looking at a roadside black bear
© Parks Canada/Hal Morrison
The Icefields Parkway has been described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. Each year over half a million park visitors enjoy this 230 kilometre traverse through the spectacular sub-alpine landscape between Lake Louise and Jasper. In this high mountain landscape, two female grizzly bears have established home ranges that take in the busy Icefield Parkway. Their stories help explain why you might see a bear roadside and how this willingness to tolerate people puts them at risk of losing the wary behaviour they need to survive. The best thing you can do for a roadside bear is to drive by carefully.
Mobile roadside bear warning sign
© Parks Canada/Hal Morrison
Female grizzly: "Blondie"
Fresh out of hibernation, a hungry grizzly bear begins foraging on tender, protein rich plants greening up along the Icefield Parkway. Not surprisingly, she draws attention. Soon she tolerates people approaching her roadside at bear jams. Next she starts bluff charging those that become too eager for a close-up photo. Human safety is at risk. Now labelled a problem bear, the five-year-old grizzly sow is caught and radio-collared for monitoring. Nick-named Blondie, as an impressionable ‘teenage’ grizzly, she is a bear at risk. Wardens have good reason for concern; bears that lose their natural wariness of people are more likely to die on our highways and railways, or end up destroyed as a public safety risk.
For two days, wardens use aversive conditioning to teach this bear to avoid the highway, vehicles and people. Three times she ventures roadside. Three times she is met with rubber bullets and noisemakers. For the rest of the season, she doesn’t use the roadside during daylight hours and retreats into the safety of the forest edge when vehicles approached. This wary behaviour is a good sign.
Blondie emerges from her winter den and makes her way to the valley bottom. She is observed with one young-of-year cub (a cub born in February). She resumes her undesirable roadside behaviour, tolerating people at ever-closer distances. An aversive conditioning tune-up is applied over a period of two weeks to reinforce that the highway is not a good place to be during daylight hours.
Grizzly bears evolved as an open-country bear as opposed to black bears that evolved as forest animals that could escape from threats up a tree. Consequently, grizzly bears have evolved a "stand and defend" strategy; a sow with cubs has to be able to defend against a larger male bear (adult males will kill cubs). This makes a sow with cubs extremely dangerous to approach or surprise.
Blondie is observed with one cub. There are no reports associating her with roadside bear jams.
Blondie is observed with two young-of-year cubs. She begins once again to forage roadside in daylight, tolerating people at close distances. Her cubs are impossible for people to resist. Park visitors push closer into her families’ ‘personal space’ and she bluff charges in defense. Another structured aversive conditioning ‘tune-up’ is made over a period of eight days. Three times Blondie ventures roadside. Three times she is met with rubber bullets and noisemakers. The treatment is effective.
Later that season, Blondie is observed with only one cub.
East Slopes Grizzly Bear Project telemetry monitoring showed that Blondie travelled across the Great Divide into adjacent Yoho National Park in mid-summer. She remained there until fall, then returned back to Banff National Park to den for the winter.
Blondie is observed with one cub.
Blondie is observed with one cub.
Blondie is observed with her two cubs, now one-year olds.
Blondie and her two two-year-old cubs part company in June. Blondie is subjected to another roadside 'tune-up' to deter aggressive roadside behaviour (bluff charging people). While Blondie then remains in habitat away from the Icefield Parkway, her adolescent cubs begin to hang out along the highway near a picnic area. Wardens decide to use a modified aversive conditioning program to curb this undesirable behaviour. The bears are not trapped and collared. Instead, for six - seven days, wardens patrol a set highway area the young bears have been frequenting, and shoot rubber bullets and noisemakers at them when they approach. The bears are not observed roadside for the remainder of the season.
From telemetry data, we know that Blondie travels annually across the Great Divide into Yoho’s backcountry as part of her home range. This use of the landscape highlights the importance of maintaining effective wildlife movement corridors across the mountain landscape to allow wildlife to access important seasonal habitats and mates.
Blondie is observed with two young-of-year cubs. Wardens monitor her activities but she is not reported roadside very often. Her adolescent cubs (now on their own) are observed traveling together. They continue to test the boundaries of where they will live in the Bow Lake / Helen Creek area.
Blondies’ orphaned 2-year-old cubs
© Parks Canada/Hal Morrison
Blondie and her two one-year-old cubs frequent the roadside and reports are received of her bluff-charging vehicles and people at bear jams. She is hazed with rubber bullets and noise-makers twice before seeking other habitats. Her adolescent cubs (now four year olds and acting more independently of each other) are frequenting the Bow Summit area, in close proximity to Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. They remain un-collared and are again subjected to a modified five-day aversive conditioning program to curb this undesirable behavior.
Late evening June 2: wardens receive a report that a grizzly has been hit by a vehicle on the Trans-Canada Highway near the Lake O’Hara turn-off in Yoho National Park. Upon investigating the following morning, 18-year old Blondie is found dead of internal injuries about 60 m off the highway. Her two 2-year-old cubs are now on their own.
Snow lingers in the high mountain areas and bears are concentrating their feeding efforts on the fresh green plants emerging at valley bottom.
An unmarked (no ear tags or collar) adult, female grizzly with two young-of -year cubs is reported roadside. Bear jams quickly form around her. She tolerates people at close distances in her efforts to forage on lush roadside vegetation. Soon the bear reacts aggressively at some of these encounters with people.
Sows with cubs are nutritionally stressed. In hibernation, they have to sustain not only themselves, but also grow and nurse newborn cubs. In spring, they forage constantly to get the energy they need to protect and nurse their cubs. Dominant male grizzlies, which pose a risk to cubs, prefer and are able to establish habitat away from people. Consequently by default, sows (and young bears) are more likely to tolerate the sights, sounds and smells of people to access bear foods along highways. This puts them at greater risk of human-caused mortality.
Wardens strike a plan of action. They decide it’s not necessary to submit the family group to the stress of capture and collaring at this point, but will instead use a combination of an area closure and focused highway patrols with aversive conditioning techniques. The Waterfowl Campground and hiking trails to Cirque and Chephren Lakes are closed. In addition to the legal closure notice, a poster explaining the situation is posted.
For seven days during daylight hours, wardens patrol an adjacent stretch of highway, which the sow and her cubs had been using. Deterrents are used anytime the sow is visible from the road. The Waterfowl grizzly, as she has been dubbed, is ‘actioned’ four times with screamers, bangers and rubber bullets. (Rubber bullets are only used on adult bears, never cubs.) The hope is that the bear will learn to move away from the roadside when vehicles approach and/or use this habitat at night.
The campground remains closed for one month to protect public safety and to give this bear family a chance to forage undisturbed on the nutrient rich vegetation growing here. Once the late snowpack melts at higher elevations and the sow has other foraging options, six "Critter Gitter" motion-sensor devices are deployed around the centre of the campground. When triggered, they emit a loud noise intended to frighten animals away. They are used to discourage the sow from using the campground area. The sow and her cubs soon move into higher elevation habitat. The campground is re-opened. The Waterfowl grizzly is not observed in the campground nor roadside for the rest of the season.
With spring’s arrival, the Waterfowl grizzly returns to valley bottom with her cubs. The campground is closed for about one week to give her some space to forage undisturbed and for public safety. She moves on as soon as higher elevations become snow-free.
Only a couple of sightings of the sow and her 2 two-year-old cubs documented. As the bears show wary behaviour, further action is not required.