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Old, underweight female grizzly bear that killed two people unknown to Parks Canada

“There are these odd, strange, very, very sad events.”
A sign near the Banff National Park east gates. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF NATIONAL PARK – The grizzly bear that attacked and killed two people in the remote backcountry of Banff National Park was an under-nourished 25-year-old female bear.

Based on the results of a necropsy – a post-mortem examination on an animal – the old bear was a non-lactating female, meaning there were no cubs around that she would have been protecting to prompt an attack.

The examination deemed the grizzly was in “fair body conditioning.”

“Her teeth were in poor condition and had less than normal body fat for this time of year,” said Natalie Fay, a spokesperson for Banff National Park in an email.

Experienced in the wild, the couple was on a hiking and camping trip in the remote backcountry of Banff National Park when attacked and killed by the bear on Friday (Sept. 29).

Their dog was also killed in the attack.

The female grizzly was not collared or tagged and was not previously known to Parks Canada staff.

Fay said two cans of bear spray were found at the scene and their food had been appropriately hung.

She would not say whether or not the bear spray had been deployed. In a statement that was lacking in information, there was no word on whether or not there was a carcass in the area.

“The incident happened in a remote wilderness location and there were no witnesses,” said Fay.

“We will never know the full details of what led to the attack and will not speculate.”

While it is difficult to speculate on the events that unfolded, grizzly bear expert Bruce McLellan, who has completed his 43rd field season studying grizzly bear populations in Western Canada, said the bear attack does not sound like a surprise encounter.

“I doubt it's a surprise, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's predatory either,” said McLellan, whose new book Grizzly Bear Science and the Arts of A Wilderness Life: Forty Years of Research in the Flathead Valley to be released by Rocky Mountain Books on Nov. 7 attacks the expanding gap between what is known about grizzlies by the general public, and what is known by scientists.

“There are these odd, strange, very, very sad events and you know they're just oddities and what actually happens is nobody's left alive to tell the story and there will always be some kind of a speculation.”

That said, McLellan said there is a chance the dog could have revved up the aging bear.

“If it was a bigger dog and got the bear worked up and made a run at… I mean that’s a possibility,” he said.

“There are, of course, stories of dogs chasing bears and getting them quite excited, and then running back to their owners when they realize they've kind of met their match.”

This year’s buffaloberry was not a high-quality crop, and McLellan said the old female grizzly would have been hungry, particularly also before hibernation.

At her age and with her poor teeth, he said it would have been hard for her to get food.

“By 25, they’ve usually stopped reproducing at that age,” he said, noting in all his years of research he’s never seen a 25-year-old grizzly with cubs.

“They’re approaching the end of their life and even if she was in pretty good shape, her teeth were very worn, she'll have aches and pains. It’s a good chance it’s a grumpy part of her life.”

Parks Canada received an alert from an inReach GPS device at about 8 p.m. on Friday (Sept. 29) in Red Deer River Valley west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch.

A human-wildlife conflict team was deployed, but weather delayed the team getting there in a helicopter, forcing the crew to travel during the night on the ground to get to the remote location.

When the response team arrived on-site at 1 a.m. and discovered the two deceased individuals, Fay said the bear displayed aggressive behaviour and charged toward the response team.

“This is why there was no other choice but to shoot and kill the bear on-site,” she said.

Sundre RCMP arrived at 5 a.m. on Saturday (Sept. 30) to help on scene and move the two people killed by the grizzly bear to Sundre.

Parks Canada does not believe another bear was involved at this time; however, Fay said the closure of the Red Deer and Panther valleys from Snow Creek Summit east to the boundary of Banff National Park and north to Shale Pass remains in place until further notice “out of an abundance of caution.”

She said Parks Canada will not be providing another official update on this matter.

“Our thoughts and condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, there have been three recorded non-fatal, contact encounters with grizzly bears in Banff National Park, all a result of surprise encounters.

“This incident is the first grizzly bear-caused fatality recorded in Banff National Park in decades,” said Fay.

Kim Titchener, whose company Bear Safety and More, and is also a family friend of one of the victims, said this is a tragic incident, but a rare event.

“We need to remember that this is rare and that unfortunately attacks like this breed a lot of fear and intolerance for bears,” said Titchener, who has about 18 years experience in bear safety work.

“It’s hard because as human beings, we think, ‘of my gosh, now I’m afraid to go outdoors and I don’t want to do this anymore’ … but it’s a call to learn about bear safety.”

Titchener suspected this wasn't a surprise encounter, and pointed to a study that looked at brown bear attacks worldwide, which concluded 95 per cent of attacks were defensive in nature.

“So, for example, the bear has cubs, there was a food source, maybe a carcass, or they surprise them at close range,” Titchener said.

“Then the other type, of course, is predatory, and that only represents five per cent with grizzly bears overall.”

That 2019 study, Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective, published in Scientific Reports, looked at 664 attacks between 2000 and 2015 from North America (183),  Europe (291) and Russia, Iran and Turkey (190).

The researchers recorded an attack rate of 39.6 attacks per year globally: 11.4 attacks/year in North America and 18.2 attacks/year in Europe. The recorded 19 attacks/year in the East was probably underestimated due to the lack of information for several regions.

According to the study, about 85 per cent of attacks resulted in human injury, while only 14 per cent ended in death.

Specifically, 19 deaths occurred in Europe, 24 in North America and 52 in the East, according to the research.   

“Only 14 per cent of the people attacked actually die,” said Titchener. “It is very unusual for it to happen.”

When a bear attack did occur, half of the people were involved in leisure activities such as hiking, picking berries, camping, fishing or jogging. Other activities included guarding livestock, logging, doing wildlife-related fieldwork and hunting.

According to the researchers, almost half of the brown bear attacks recorded worldwide were the result of a defensive reaction of a female protecting her cubs.

This was followed by sudden encounters, presence of a dog, a bear attacking after being shot or trapped, and predatory attacks – nine in Russia and six in North America.

“However, sometimes the scenario was more complex, because an attack could have been triggered by more than one factor,” states the study.

“For example, in seven cases, the attack was caused by the interaction of a female with cubs and a dog.”

While she doesn’t know the specific details of this event in Banff National Park, Titchener said dogs sometimes play a role in a bear attack.

“A lot of the cases where we see people get attacked, they’re walking their dog or their dog walks ahead of them and runs into a bear, and we tend to see defensive attacks by both black bears and grizzly bears,” she said.

“The bear just perceives that dog as a threat, they look at them as a carnivore. Genetically, they’re mostly wolf, right? And they’re like ‘get away from my babies’, or maybe there’s a food source, and they feel defensive so they chase the dog.

“Of course, the dog ends up going back to the people and the people end up being perceived as a threat so that could certainly be another scenario – there’s just so many possibilities at this point.”

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