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Home » Hot Topics » Legacy of Grizzly Bear 64 survives after her death

January 15, 2015 – Rocky Mountain Outlook. Story by Cathy Ellis.

The life and death of a celebrity female grizzly bear that made her home in the busy Bow Valley for almost 25 years is being hailed a success story.

Bear 64 has been described as the “perfect bear.” Unlike other bruins, she somehow managed to escape death on the highways and railways and carve out a living in a highly populated and developed valley for more than two decades.

Parks Canada wildlife officials, who held out hope 64 was still alive when she first disappeared from the spotlight in fall of 2013, say they suspect she died of natural causes, noting there is no evidence to suggest she was killed on the highway or railway line.

Bear 64 searches for food along Vermilion Lakes Road in Banff National Park in 2013. Photo credit Leah Hennel / Calgary Herald.

Bear 64 searches for food along Vermilion Lakes Road in Banff National Park in 2013. Photo credit Leah Hennel / Calgary Herald.

They will never know exactly what happened, but speculate she died of old age or was attacked and killed by a larger grizzly, perhaps while trying to defend offspring that were still with her. She had multiple litters of cubs throughout the years.

“I think we can say quite definitely she is no longer alive on the landscape. We didn’t have any sightings of her at all throughout 2014, and that would be highly unusual for her,” said Steve Michel, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.

“It’s a real shame she is no longer here, but it’s a real success story that she lasted for 25 years on the landscape. It’s extremely difficult to survive in the Bow Valley if you’re a grizzly bear.”

Considered the matriarch of the Bow Valley, bear 64 was last spotted on Oct. 2, 2013. Shortly after that, her trio of 3 year-old offspring was seen hanging out in a residential yard in Banff, but there was no sign of their famous mom.

Grizzly Bear 64 and her three yearling cubs. Photo credit J. Borno.

Grizzly Bear 64 and her three yearling cubs. Photo credit J. Borno.

Residents and visitors alike had a fascination and connection with 64.

“She was really an iconic mascot of what a national park should be for a lot of people, and for a lot of locals as well,” said Michel. “A very significant number of people had an opportunity to see her because she was that kind of bear that was comfortable around the edges of town.

“Once people had an opportunity to see her – they knew her, they knew her number –particularly if there was an opportunity to see her with cubs, they became very attached very quickly and had a really strong personal connection with her.”

Bear 64 survived many challenges in the area, home to a busy townsite of more than 8,000 residents, a national transportation corridor and a place that draws about three million visitors a year.

She and her offspring were often harassed, including by professional and amateur wildlife photographers getting too close to her. A group of tourists tossed her sandwich meat along Vermilion Lakes Road in 2012.

Bear 64 caused many roadside “bear jams.” In one high-profile instance in 2013, the RCMP were called in when traffic came to a complete stop on the Trans-Canada Highway as she and her three young ones were feeding between the train tracks and highway.

Grizzly bear 64 and her three offspring. Photo credit K. Johnson / Parks Canada.

Grizzly bear 64 and her three offspring. Photo credit K. Johnson / Parks Canada.

Tourists parked their vehicles in the middle of the highway and ran across four lanes of traffic, while children weaved in between cars, and drivers of semi-trailers were forced to slam on brakes to avoid hitting people.

In her many interactions, she was tolerant of people to a point. She did a good job of maintaining a necessary distance from people, was not overly aggressive, but certainly let them know if they got too close.

She would typically skirt around developed areas whenever possible, but would hunt elk calves, forage on vegetation and eat buffalo berries – all in areas close to town.

Michel said she really was unique in terms of her behaviour.

“We have bears in more developed frontcountry areas that do tend to be quite habituated to humans and human facilities, and she was like that to a degree; but she wasn’t so habituated that she would willingly wander through the middle of town or get too close to people,” he said.

“She struck a really good balance, so she was able to utilize some of the areas’ high quality habitat that other bears might not be comfortable in. She was willing to do that, but wasn’t willing to get so close to people to cause problems. In our view, she really was the perfect bear.”

Constantly at risk of being killed, bear 64 used both sides of the Bow Valley, crossing the Trans-Canada Highway, the Canadian Pacific Railway, Bow Valley Parkway and other secondary roads.

She increased Parks Canada’s understanding and knowledge on how bears use underpass and overpasses to get across the Trans-Canada Highway. She, and her offspring, used the wildlife structures fairly regularly.

Bear 64 and her cubs using the train track to travel through the National Park. Photo credit B Merry Photography.

Bear 64 and her cubs using the train track to travel through the National Park. Photo credit B Merry Photography.

“Whether it’s natural sources of mortality when a young cub, or human-caused sources of mortality, there’s a variety of ways grizzly bears can die in the Bow Valley and our statistics have shown quite clearly that that is what happens,” Michel said.

“But she figured out to how to navigate successfully and not get killed in the transportation corridor. Not only did she do it for herself, but she raised offspring and taught them how to use the area too.”

Bear 64 was first captured as part of a research project in 1999 and it was determined at that time that she had probably not yet had cubs. In the following years, she produced two litters of cubs for sure, possibly three.

In 2006, she emerged from the den with three cubs, but one died within the first year of unknown causes.

The other two separated from their mother in 2009 when they were three-and-a-half years old. Both of those female cubs have since been killed. Bear 109 was hit on the train tracks in 2010 and bear 108 was killed on the highway the following year.

Through remote video cameras and staff observations in June 2010, wildlife officials knew 64 was spending a lot of time with several male grizzly bears, and one in particular. She came out of her den the following winter with three cubs.

Bear 64 and her cubs create a "bear jam" on Vermillion Road. Photo credit Leah Hennel.

Bear 64 and her cubs create a “bear jam” on Vermillion Road. Photo credit Leah Hennel.

Two of those offspring, now identified as male bear 144 and female bear 148, were last spring fitted with GPS collars as part of the joint Canadian Pacific Railway-Parks Canada study to try to prevent ongoing deaths of bears on the railway line through Banff and Yoho.

Their collars were remotely removed last November before den up time, given they are rapidly growing bears and wildlife officers did not want to put extra burden on them with a tight collar.

The third bear of 64’s offspring was not collared. It was more of a wary and elusive bear.

Michel said Parks Canada was concerned 144 and 148 were becoming “management bears” when they both spent a lot of time around the townsite and human facilities last spring and into early summer.

He said bear 144 moved out of the area and into the high country in early summer, but did make a couple of forays onto provincial lands near Harvie Heights before heading back towards the national park.

“Throughout fall, he stayed off the radar altogether. We were able to monitor him through GPS and he didn’t come into areas of high human use,” said Michel. “When we did remove the collar remotely he was on the slopes towards Minnewanka.”

Female bear 148, on the other hand, was a different story.

Grizzly 64 and her cubs crossing a roadway in 2013. Photo credit Leah Hennel / Calgary Herald.

Grizzly 64 and her cubs crossing a roadway in 2013. Photo credit J. Borno.

“Bear 148 had a good mid-summer, up in the high country, but she was probably interacting with people more than 144, and she had encounters with people in the Healy Pass area,” Michel said.

“The concerning part is she did come back towards town and through the latter half of October was presenting id with concerns in terms of her feeding behaviour, on fruit trees in particular.”

Michel said resource conservation officers mounted an aversive conditioning campaign on 148.

“We think we were successful with that, but we won’t know in terms of long-term success until she emerges in spring,” he said.

Residents are already starting to form a similar connection to 148 as they did for 64.

“There’s that connection right off the bat because 64 is no longer around,” Michel said.

“We will do the best we can to make sure her legacy lives on in her daughter. Hopefully her daughter will be able to produce cubs down the road.”

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