The Bears of Banff

Travel to Canada - What to Expect

The Bears of Banff

Did you know that over 311 species of birds, 19 fish species, four amphibians, one reptile, and 53 species of mammals all call Banff National Park home? That’s a whole lotta’ wildlife! Although such a large number of animals live in Banff, one animal has been capturing the hearts of locals and visitors for over 130 years: the bear.

History

Although the hot springs were Banff National Park’s original attraction, the opportunity to view wildlife was another popular draw for early visitors. If you visited Banff before the 1930s, the likelihood of seeing a bear in Banff was high as the feeding, enticing and touching of wild bears wasn’t an uncommon practice.

Some business and hotel owners also owned bears as pets to promote their businesses, allowing customers to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience of interacting with a bear. At one point, Banff’s Central Park (yes, that nice green space with the gazebo!) was also home to a zoo that housed bears.

However, in 1937, concern for the wellbeing of Banff’s bears was raised and Parks Canada started to discourage visitors from interacting with wildlife. However, it wasn’t until 1951 that it became illegal to feed, touch, or entice bears. Since then, humans and bears have had an interesting relationship in and outside the park.

[untitled]. [ca. 1905]. Luxton family fonds. LUX / I / D3e / PA - 11. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
[untitled]. [ca. 1905]. Luxton family fonds. LUX / I / D3e / PA – 11. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

About the Bears

Banff is home to two species of bear; black and grizzly. Here is how you can tell the two apart:

Grizzly Bears

Grizzly bear, photo by Mike Psikla
Grizzly bear, photo by Mike Psikla.

One of the best ways to tell a grizzly and black bear apart is their size. Grizzly bears are generally much larger than black bears and have a distinguishable hump between their front shoulders. The face of a grizzly bear is also much more flat and wide in shape. Their ears are also rounder and smaller in size.

Grizzly bears range in colour, usually falling between blonde and dark brown, although Banff National Park and area are home to a rare white grizzly. Male grizzly bears are larger and heavier than females and can weigh anywhere from 150-300kg, while females can weigh between 80-150kg.

There are currently an estimated 65 grizzly bears living and roaming in Banff National Park.

Black Bears

Black bear, photo by Rocky Mountain Outlook
Black bear, photo by Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Black bears are smaller than grizzly bears as they’re more adapted to live within forests. Black bears have a longer nose and straighter profile than a grizzly. Their eyes are also set further apart, and their ears tend to be pointed and prominent.

Black bears are not always black; they can be cinnamon, brown, or blonde. Male black bears range from 80-150kg in weight, and females can be anywhere from 45-100kg.

Between 20 and 40 black bears live in Banff National Park.

Safety

Seeing bears in Banff National Park is exciting, but we must remember that Banff’s bears are wild animals and require their own space to thrive. Humans are currently the most significant threat to Banff’s bear population. Bears, especially grizzlies, have low reproductive rates compared to other mammals and they are extremely sensitive to human infringement on their habitat. Grizzly bears are currently listed as a “Special Concern” species by The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

Although your probability of running into a bear is low, you can run into one anywhere in Banff. Bears try their best to avoid people, but sometimes we encounter them when we least expect it. So, how can we best protect ourselves and bears? With proper bear safety education.

The easiest way to avoid a bear encounter is with the following tips:

  • Hike in groups while making noise,
  • Watch for signs of bear activity, ranging from droppings to tracks,
  • Keep your dog on its leash at all times,
  • Do not go off-trail, and
  • Dispose of all food and garbage properly.

 

Carrying bear spray with you, and knowing how to properly use it, at all times while on trial is also highly encouraged. When in doubt, Parks Canada is your best reference on bear safety tips and education.

Some of Banff’s Famous Bears

The Boss

Arguably Banff’s most famous grizzly, Bear 122 is nicknamed The Boss due to his reputation. At over 600lbs, The Boss is the biggest male grizzly that lives in Banff National Park. He has been known to eat several black bears and has survived being hit by a train, twice. He is also the father of a number of offspring throughout Alberta.

Split Lip

Bear 136, also known as Split Lip, is only second best to The Boss. If The Boss is the dominant male in the area, Split Lip is his rival. Equally large and infamous, Split Lip got his nickname due to a large scar on his face. Split Lip has been spotted a couple of times eating other bears, including fellow grizzlies.

Nakoda

One of Banff’s newest celebrities, Nakoda, is a rare white grizzly bear. It is unknown whether Nakoda is male or female, but their colour and rarity have made them a fan favourite. The name Nakoda means ‘Friend’ or ‘Ally’ in the native language of the three indigenous tribes of the area; Bearspaw, Chiniki, and Wesley. Although Nakoda is a beautiful bear, it is essential to remember to leave them space and never disclose their location if spotted.

Skoki

Skoki, formerly known as Bear 16, caused a few issues back in the 90’s. He was often spotted out in the open, causing traffic jams and unfortunately, he became used to human interaction. Skoki started regularly seeking human food, even to go as far as to poke his head into the back door of Lake Louise’s Laggan’s Bakery. After an attempt to relocate him failed in 1996, Skoki was brought to the Calgary Zoo, where he still lives today. Skoki is approaching his mid-30s, which is considered old for a grizzly bear.

 

Ready for Adventure?

Banff and Lake Louise’s ski resorts are some of the best places to spot wildlife in the warmer seasons. Lake Louise and Mt. Norquay both offer sightseeing chairlift experiences where grizzly and black bears have been regularly spotted below. Our friendly Reservations Team is always happy to share their local knowledge and experience to help you find the best package for your style and budget. You can reach them via Live Chat (scroll up for the Live Chat link at the top of our website), or by calling 1-844-754-2443.

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