BANFF – You know it’s the start of spring when The Boss emerges from his winter’s den.
Bear No. 122, the patriarch of Bow Valley bears was spotted by a local resident in an area near the Bow Valley Parkway west of Banff on Thursday (March 23) – the first confirmed grizzly bear sighting of the year in Banff National Park.
“It was our friend 122, we’re almost certain,” said Mike Grande, resource management supervisor for Banff National Park.
“Given the way bears roll out of their dens with the big males being first, there’s a real good likelihood that’s who it was.”
Two days later, a resident had a close encounter with a black bear on the periphery of the Banff townsite near Mineral Springs Hospital on Saturday (March 25).
Details on the close encounter are scant, but Grande said the man described the bruin as a small black bear.
“He ended up deploying his bear spray in the incident at a distance of like 10 to 15 metres,” he said.
“They both parted ways after the surprise encounter.”
With snow still on the ground, food is scarce when bears emerge from hibernation in mid to late March to mid-May. Lean and in need of nutrition, bears typically spend spring searching for food in the valley bottoms and don’t move to higher elevations until the snow disappears and vegetation greens up later in the season.
When bear 122 emerges from his den each spring, he typically travels up and down the railway tracks as an easier way to move through the snowy environment, searching for spilled grain or the carcasses of other wildlife that were struck and killed by trains over winter.
Grande said bears will range far and wide in search of food at this time of year.
“Depending on the individual, their diet is largely vegetarian, but at this time of year they will opportunistically be looking for animals that have died through the course of the winter, either due to harsh conditions or potentially have been struck by vehicles or disease has gotten to them,” he said.
“If they luck onto a carcass on the landscape, they’ll go for that, and that takes lots and lots of travel and their good noses are really helpful with that. Outside of that, they’re in places that expose anything that is early to green-up first.”
Now believed to be more than 20 years old, The Boss is often the last grizzly to go into the den for winter and typically the first out.
The first sighting of bear 122 last year was on March 14 and the year before that was on March 29. In 2020, a Parks Canada resource conservation officer came across large bear tracks on Feb. 28 – the earliest a grizzly bear had been recorded out of the den in Banff over the previous decade.
A remote camera picked up The Boss on March 19, 2019. In 2018, he was spotted March 24. In 2017, there was a confirmed sighting on March 22, in 2016 on March 5, in 2015 March 19 and in 2014 on March 16.
“He hasn’t been collared for quite a few years so we rely on sightings,” said Grande.
In 2013, bear No. 122 made national headlines when he killed and ate a black bear along Sundance Canyon trail. While predatory attacks are not that common, there was also evidence suggesting he may have eaten another black bear the year before.
A regular in the Bow Valley, the celebrity bear has boldly strolled through Banff’s Central Park in broad daylight and even survived a train strike near Vermilion Lakes in 2010.
Bear 122’s closest rival is bear No. 136, also known as Split Lip for his disfigured mouth. While his exact age is unknown, wildlife experts suspect bear 136 is approximately 20 years old as well.
In 2017, Split Lip caused anxious moments when he tried to amble over the pedestrian bridge across the Bow River in Banff, and while he wasn’t aggressive, he also wasn’t giving way to about 20 hikers on a trail at Johnston Canyon in 2016.
During breeding season, there are times of intense mating rivalry between Split Lip and The Boss. One year, the pair forced the closure of Vermilion Lakes Road amid concerns for public safety if they got into a dangerous fight over a female bear.
For now, bear 122 is focused solely on finding food. He remains successful as the dominant bear in the park, meaning he has bred with most of the female bears in the area and has access to the best food sources.
While his movements vary throughout his 2,500-square-kilometre home range in Banff National Park and potentially parts of Kootenay National Park, including frontcountry and backcountry areas, he spends the early part of the year in the busy Bow Valley.
“Big bears have their choice of where they want to be,” said Grande.
Following the emergence of the large male grizzly bears, sub-adults and adult females will be the next to come out of their dens. Females with cubs are typically the last out.
“They understand that because of the snow line, the wildlife is concentrated in the valley bottom, so if they’re going to come out too early, they’re going to be increasing their chance of their young being predated by other bears,” said Grande. “Evolutionarily, they are the last to come out which is a way of protecting the young.”
Bear 122’s emergence from the den each spring is a tell-tale sign that bear season is beginning, meaning residents and visitors should brush up on their bear safety skills.
Parks Canada advises people to make plenty of noise while hiking.
“Making noise is probably at the top of our list, because most of these bears are habituated to human presence so they understand what human noise sounds like,” said Grande.
“They are wary by nature so if they are not defending anything in particular like a carcass, you won’t even know they’re there, so making noise is pretty important.”
Grande said people should always carry bear spray where it is easily accessible, know how to use it, and ensure that it has not expired.
He said Parks Canada has a video on its website – www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIvpLzHiCrg – demonstrating how to effectively use bear spray, noting watching that video can help people master their skills.
“The effective range is about five metres, and even less than that with wind,” he said.
Grande said other precautions to avoid an unwanted encounter include looking for any signs that bears are in the area, such as scat, tracks and diggings.
“Keep yourself attentive to those things because they speak to their presence,” he said.
In Banff National Park, it is also the law that dogs must be on leash at all times.
“Dogs can provoke all sorts of aggressive responses in bears that are more elevated,” said Grande. “For your own safety, the dog’s and the bear’s safety, keeping dogs on leash is critical.”
Predictability of human activity can also help bears avoid people.
Grande said sticking to official trails is one way to give bears that predictability.
“Bears are smart animals and they understand places to avoid and times when those areas get busy and they will avoid them,” he said.
“If you can stick to the daylight hours and the official trails, that helps maintain the safety of the animals and the safety of people that are recreating.”
Parks Canada asks that all bear sightings to Banff National Park dispatch at 403-762-1470.