Our drive through the Canadian Rockies into Lake Louise was with great anticipation of seeing bears, as we once did in Alaska thirteen years ago.
During our drive along Trans-Canada 1 in the Banff, Canada region, we could see that both sides of the road were carefully fenced off and every mile or so there were wild life crossovers and under-crossings, fenced to allow for the safe movement of wildlife from one side of the highway to the other.
Grizzly ambling through undercrossing
Up till fairly recently, the numbers of wildlife killed on the highways were exceptionally high but today, thanks to attentiveness to protective passage, this has dropped significantly. Wildlife is not only using the crossings, but learning their locations, as observation cameras are showing us. One fascinating video even showed wolves hunting by splitting their pack into two halves on each side of the highway and then driving a small herd of caribou across the passageway directly into the waiting jaws of their crafty team members.
The animal muse of discovery was not with us on our drive in to our hotel near the lake so we took a long and white-knuckled 14-minute tram ride up to a 6,850 foot mountain top where Grizzles live and hang out. We participated in a very informative lecture on the health and safety of the approximately 60 bears that live in the region. They are all tagged and tracked carefully to ensure they are not only protected but are given free rein to completely "own" their environment. As there are so few bears and so many of us shlepping up and down trails, skiing, hiking, driving, and whatever, the bears can be very easily habituated to us. Many of us remember seeing pictures of bears next to touring cars in Yosemite and Yellowstone. People love and hate bears. They are depicted both as monster killers and lovable Pooh Bears and when sighted, people often want to stop their cars and either offer them food or...this will deplete the dumb gene pool...pose their kids in front of them to be killed or maimed...humans!
There is an educational program afoot to teach us how to live with what our Native American brothers and sisters considered their honored respected family. As you can see from the map below, once upon a time the grizzly ranged over a vast portion of our continent:
Grizzlies are 90% vegetarian and though quite curious, don't stalk us for dinner. They estimate that there are about 25,000 bears left in the entire Canadian/Yukon region, a major reduction from their previous population. They are thought to have descended from Russian Brown Bears about 100,000 years ago and crossed to Alaska across the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago. Their eyesight is equal to ours contrary to belief, but have noses that are...100,000 times more sensitive than ours!
Which puts us at a distinct disadvantage when trying to hide our Snickers bars! In fact a bear probably knows what we ate last night from a mile away. Generally though, they like berries and the large amount of calories necessary from their intake to survive, thank goodness. Bears have evolved over the thousands of years from the huge creatures that once walked the earth,
or today we probably wouldn't be here to admire their presence. A poll was taken in the provincial parks of Canada if people would come to visit if they couldn't see bears. Only 15% said they would, so you can see what attraction we feel to our fuzzy brown and black cuddly Teddy Bear-like family?
Our animal conservationists are working full-time to try and reverse the loss of the grizzly and I'm pleased to say they are making headway. Bears are not dumb lumbering creatures, and when they are habituated to us, which is pretty darn easy considering our population explosion on this planet, we try to relocate them. The problem is that even after a movement of hundred of miles they return. Now those are some serious map skills! Another factor is that bears learn to live in their environment. Pretty environmentally sensible, eh? If you move a bear to another place it doesn't do well and wants to go home, so habituated bears often are killed as a last resort.
Mother Canadian bears raise their young as a pack for up to three years to allow them to learn all the ins and outs of being a bear in that location. This is incredibly important training on the mother's part and here in Lake Louise, a pack of four seemingly full-grown bears are often sighted walking together -- though it's really mom and her three cubs. One mother was seen with her younger cubs in a snow field teaching them to lie on their bellies and toboggan across the snow for fun, which demonstrates what the First Nation people already recognized, they are our brothers and sisters in spirit.
The last grizzly bear seen in California, which has the Griz on its flag, was in 1922, shot in Tulare County.
For those of you who live near San Francisco, you can see the stuffed remains of the last living grizzly bear in California, which was the sitting model for the image on the flag, at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
Ruth and I never did see those bears during our travels, despite vigilant scanning of the terrain while driving, but we came away from our journey with a deep respect for that "grizzled" furred family that thankfully remained hidden from our sight but not hearts.