Popular section of Banff National Park remains closed to protect possibly pregnant grizzly bear

A popular section of Banff National Park remains closed to protect a denning female grizzly bear who is believed to be pregnant.

A high volume of people flocked to the mountains in 2020, but the Jimmy Junior Bowl on the Icefield Parkway — one of Banff’s most accessible backcountry ski areas — has been off-limits to visitors since November.

The restrictions are in place so that a hibernating grizzly who might be pregnant gets her rest, and a wildlife ecologist says it’s very important that she isn’t disturbed.

“Bears are able to wake up out of hibernation, and the consequences of that can be quite severe,” Sarah Elmeligi, a bear behavioural ecologist in Canmore, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

Period of dormancy

According to Elmeligi, the timing of a bear’s hibernation is dependent on its food intake, and how much they were able to bulk up over the summer and fall.

Fewer and fewer bears have been spotted meandering through Banff National Park, and with the wallop of snow Alberta received in early December, she said that the majority are likely in hibernation.

But bears in the Rocky Mountains don’t need to find caves or dig a hole to make a den; they can burrow under the roots of fallen trees, or even into the snow.

It means it is entirely possible for unsuspecting skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers or hikers to inadvertently stumble upon a hibernating bear.

Near Bow Summit on the Icefield Parkway in Banff National Park. (Parks Canada/Brian Spreadbury)

And while clearly not an ideal situation for a human to find themselves in, rousing a bear isn’t good for them, either.

During hibernation, bears enter what Elmeligi said could be called a “period of dormancy” as their systems — including metabolism, breathing and heart rate — slow down.

When they are disturbed and forced to rapidly rev up those systems, Elmeligi said it can have a dangerous metabolic impact on the bear.

“It can literally cost more calories than they have to expend to wake up and move,” she said.

An important contributor

The female grizzly-in-question wasn’t tagged or collared, but is known to employees with Parks Canada.

In early 2020, she was seen with a large male bear, and is believed to have been mated this spring.

If pregnant, the grizzly is even more sensitive to disturbances, Elmeligi said.

And because they are an at-risk species in Alberta, protecting a pregnant grizzly is a high priority for the park.

“Bears give birth in the den in January, and so making sure that her and her potential cubs are undisturbed and safe … is really important,” she said. 

As of 2020, Parks Canada said it estimates there are approximately 60 to 80 grizzly bears with overlapping home ranges that include parts of Banff National Park.

While park officials believe that the population is stable, they say female grizzly bears of reproductive age are critical to the long-term success of the species.

“Reproducing females are the most important sector of a population that is in recovery, and as you know, Alberta grizzly bears are listed as threatened,” Elmeligi said.

“So every female that is having babies is an important contributor to the population.”

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