Male grizzly spotted in Banff the earliest sighting in the past decade

A male grizzly spotted in Banff National Park last week has left wildlife experts with questions about his identity — and has prompted warnings to the public to keep a watchful eye.

Parks officials say larger males typically emerge in mid-March

Banff National Park staff think the bear seen roaming near the townsite this week may be a 250-kilogram grizzly known as Bear No. 136, nicknamed Split Lip by locals due to a massive scar on his mouth. (Amar Athwal)

A male grizzly spotted in Banff National Park last week has left wildlife experts with questions about his identity — and has prompted warnings to the public to keep a watchful eye.

"As a rule in our area here, bigger males will come out of the den by mid-March to the end of March. This year, we're two and a half weeks early," said Blair Fyten, wildlife coexistence specialist for Banff National Park in an interview with the Calgary Homestretch. 

Last year, Fyten said, the first bear popped out on March 19.

"It's mostly the warm weather. They kind of sense that it's springtime and come out of the den," Fyten said. 

On Feb. 28, a resource conservation officer checking trails just outside the townsite spotted fresh grizzly tracks in the snow and then saw the bear about 50 metres away.

"She described it as just being a larger grizzly bear, so we suspect it's probably a larger male, potentially one of our known males in the area," Fyten said, referring to Bear 122 — also known as The Boss — or Bear 136, known as Split Lip.

"Those are two of our well-known bears that live in the area here and frequent the valley," Fyten said. "Those bears have been around here a long time. They are a couple of our bigger males and they're somewhat habituated, used to people.

"We don't have a lot of situations between them and people, but they are quite visible sometimes throughout the summer in the area here."

Bear 122, known as The Boss, has a bit of a reputation.

The bear weighs in at roughly 300 kilograms, has eaten a black bear, is often the first bear out of hibernation, and is well known for having fathered many of the cubs in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks. 

He has an enormous home range of more than 2,500 square kilometres and has grown "relatively habituated to humans" and their infrastructure.

Bear 122, also known as The Boss, is seen travelling along Rundle Riverside Trail near Canmore in a file photo from Parks Canada. (Parks Canada)

Bear 136 — known as Split Lip because of scars on his face — is best known for a 2016 incident in which he ambled through a parking lot and then followed a number of tourists up the popular Johnston Canyon trail. 

About 20 people — none carrying bear spray — scrambled to get out of the animal's way.

Both bears are thought to have gone into their dens in November.

Fyten said this is the earliest sighting of a grizzly in the past decade. Generally larger males come out mid-March and females emerge in mid-April.

"Usually they come out on the hungry side," Fyten said. "Some of these big guys, when they first went into the den, they could be upwards of 650 pounds and lose 150 pounds of that weight throughout the denning season.

"Then, it's time for them to get up and come out and look for some food — even though it's quite scarce this time of year."

Typically, Bear 122 and Bear 136 head to the train tracks in spring. There, they search for spilled grain or the remains of wildlife struck and killed by trains.

"There might be some wolf kills or cougar kills that there's bones and scraps kicking around, or animals that have just died throughout the winter. He could come across some of that stuff," Fyten said. "These couple of big bears tend to walk the railroad a little bit.

"So you know they could find a little bit of grain here and there, and also carcasses that have been hit by the train and not cleaned up yet. So there's a little bit of food out there."

Fyten said the male grizzly will be expending extra energy just to move around in the snow, but likely still has fat reserves that will keep him going.

Meanwhile, Fyten asks that if you spot a bear out there, report it immediately — and carry your bear spray.

"There's still lots of winter activities on the go right now. We've got cross-country skiers and snowshoers out there, and typically [those groups] of people don't expect to bump into a bear at this time of the year. But it's quite possible, obviously," Fyten said. 

People should keep their dogs on leashes to avoid "an unnecessary attack of some kind" and should also travel in groups.

"If you haven't been carrying your bear spray all winter, well, we ask you dig it out and start carrying it," he said. "Put it on your hip and make sure it's not expired, that it's still a working can of bear spray and carry it where it's readily available."

Parks Canada is asking anyone who does encounter wildlife in the area to contact 1-403-762-1470 or stop in at the closest Parks Canada information centre. Representatives will ask about the type of animal spotted, its approximate size and colour and if it had any identifiers like a collar or ear tag.

More information on bears and how to keep them and yourself safe can be found on the Banff National Park website.

With files from Tricia Lo and the Calgary Homestretch


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