Bears are tough to plan for, so the best advice would be expect not to see any, and hope to get lucky! Despite saying that, there are definitely a few places in the Canadian Rockies where bear sightings are more common.
In Alberta, the current estimate of all grizzly bears is just under 700, with the grizzly bear assigned ‘threatened’ status. Although the bears do not spend their whole lifetime in only one national park, population estimates for each park are as follows:
- Banff National Park: 65
- Jasper National Park: 109
- Yoho National Park: 11-15
- Kootenay National Park: 9-16
When to see a bear?
Remember, bears hibernate for 6-7 months of the year from November to around April/mid-May, so there’s no bears to spot in the winter time! In the spring, the bears begin emerging from their dens and are looking for food. May to early July time is mating season with the rest of the summer spent eating berries. In the fall, the bears start to look for a den and try to gain as much weight as possible before going back into hibernation. In terms of the times of day, dawn and dusk are the best times as this is when the animals tend to move around and feed.
Where to see a bear?
You could see a bear during a scenic drive, whilst out hiking, or in and around a small town. There are regular sightings in Banff National Park, but it is also Canada’s most visited national park, so head to the quieter, neighbouring regions such as Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay to increase your chances and journey along the less-travelled roads.
Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A) between Banff and Lake Louise is unfenced, unlike the main highway, providing much better opportunities for spotting wildlife. Make sure you stick to the 60km/h limit – park wardens are forever pulling people over! Another frequent bear-spotting area is the road that runs from the Lake Louise village up to the sightseeing gondola car park with bears and theirs cubs sometimes seen feeding in the grasses along the side of the road.
Lake Louise Grizzly Gondola
From June through to September you can take a 12-minute sightseeing gondola ride that runs over the Lake Louise Ski Hill. There is no option to hike through this area as it is an important wildlife corridor, providing a safe, uninterrupted habitat for wildlife to roam through, hence it’s such a popular spot for the bears!
Olivia, one of the female grizzly bears and her two cubs seem to have made the Lake Louise ski hill their home for this summer and are seen almost every day grazing on the grassy slopes.
Bridges for animals were a ridiculous, expensive and highly controversial idea when they were first built in Banff National Park back in 1996. However, after a difficult first few years, wildlife began using these under and overpasses and has helped more than 150,000 animals cross safely over the last two decades, reducing vehicle-wildlife collisions by 80% on the Trans Canada Highway.
11 species of large animals use the crossing including deer, elk, coyotes, wolves, black bears, cougars and grizzly bears so be sure to look up and see if any animals are crossing. Back in February 2016, the Banff wolf pack were captured taking down an elk on a railway overpass. There are now 44 wildlife passes in Banff National Park with an additional 10 crossings in Yoho & Kootenay. Parks Canada is a leader in wildlife crossings with the idea now being rolled out around the world, from California to Argentina.
A sure place to spot bears is along the train tracks. As the trains chug along, grain spills out of the train cars, which then provides an easy source of food for the bears to scavenge on, particularly when the ground remains snow-covered during the spring time. On the Trans-Canada Highway 1, there is a 25km section between Lake Louise and Field where the tracks and road run parallel to each other, making it one of the easiest places to see a bear. Sadly, 15 grizzly bears have been killed since 2000 with a several solutions currently being tested to try and stop bears from accessing the railway corridor and reduce the number of deaths.
How do you spot the difference?
Despite the name, black bears are not just black. They can be brown, cinnamon or even white so don’t use colour to identify the type of bear you’ve just seen. The best way to determine whether it’s a grizzly or black bear is looking at their back. Grizzly bears have a pronounced hump just behind their necks, which black bears lack. If you’re struggling to see this, then look to the face. On a black bear, from the forehead down to the nose tends to be along a straight diagonal line, whereas a grizzly bears nose sticks back up. Some bears also have a tag on their ear with a number on, so you may be able to identify this using binoculars or a zoom lense, which you can then look up or ask a Park Warden about later.
Stay in your car!
Do not approach bears or any wildlife. Even if you’re tempted just to edge that bit closer to get that perfect photo, do not do it. Stay in your vehicle. Even if you are in your vehicle, it doesn’t mean you should drive right up to the bear and then hang out the window taking photos. Bears need 100m distance between themselves and humans. So if you do spot a bear and want to pull over, make sure you do this a long way before or after where the bears is. Once an animal gets used to humans, it becomes a risk to public safety, and may be destroyed. Grizzly bears in Alberta are an endangered species and so the more that are futilely killed, the less there’ll be for future generations to enjoy viewing in the wild.
If you’re out hiking…
It seems some people go out on hiking trails actively looking for bears asking enthusiastically if we saw anything – to me this is crazy! The bears lived here long before we were hiking around and this is their habitat. What would you do if you came home from work and with no warning saw someone in your house? Probably get very defensive and angry. But perhaps if you had some warning that someone may be ‘intruding’ then you would be less shocked and could get out the way. It’s the same for bears. Making lots of noise when hiking let’s bears know you are in their zone and they’ll most likely move out the way and steer clear of an encounter. That being said, carry bear spray at all times in case it becomes necessary and never hike alone.