Respecting Grizzlies; Heli-Hiking with Biologist Michael Proctor
by Paul Lazarski
Within a minute of landing in a high basin of the Bugaboo Mountains, Michael Proctor exclaimed that ‘this area is simply the best bear habitat anywhere”. Without a moment of hesitation he had his binoculars out, scoping both the upper alpine slopes and the top of an old forest fire burn below. “I know there is a bear around here watching us, in fact probably a few”. For the next four hours, we hiked into the alpine passing numerous bear digs, overturned rocks and the occasional relaxed marmot sunning itself on a rock. Although we’ve seen grizzlies here in the past none were seen that day.
In all honesty, however, we hadn’t actually come ‘to see’ bears. Beyond the obvious issue of guest safety when in close proximity to a grizzly, CMH Summer Adventures’ wildlife protocols require me as lead guide for that day, to change the helicopter flight path, alter the direction of travel of my group and in fact potentially change the hiking destinations for all other hiking groups. Wildlife avoidance, for the simple reason of not causing undue stress to the animal, is reason enough to ‘hope to not see a bear’. We do see bears, however, but only when the situation presents itself ethically and only when the animal either moves into the area or comes into sight from a previously concealed position. Even here, our behaviour is the one that changes, in response to minimizing stress for the bear.
Only a week or so after Michael left the Bugaboos did one such situation present itself. While hiking along a ridge some miles distant, a group had the pleasure of observing two sibling grizzlies low down in a basin. After some inquisitiveness, the bears eventually became aware of the group and moved off. The group continued hiking but altering is path to avoid a future impact.
A week later, I came across some clues that Michael had made me aware of while hiking with him. An aborted winter den and a couple of recently over-turned rocks increased my awareness as we descended to an overlook of a flowered basin. Walking slightly over the edge to get a better view, I walked directly into two huge piles of fresh, berry-filled scat. I put the pieces of the puzzle together and realized that we had a sow grizzly with a cub very close by. Immediately we turned around and walked toward a location that would be more open, providing us the safety of being able to see over the viewpoint, but nothing. No bears! We chanded the direction of our hike and we made for the distant helicopter. As we hiked, continually scoping the terrain below for my suspected bear family, marmots only 100 metres away immediately starting giving off screeching alarm whistles. After we flew away, far in the distance we could see a dark brown sow with a reddish cub moving amongst the trees. Thanks Michael, for adding more pieces to our assessment puzzle. A truly great experience for all concerned, including the grizzlies!
In the evening at the Bugaboo Lodge Michael gave a general presentation on bears. It was a true eye opener. Focusing on the ways in which bears tend to move from one area to another, he brought to light the problem faced by female bears: Without the increased movement of females across man-made boundaries such as highways, logging roads and power lines it is unlikely that populations will grow and expand from their current levels and areas. We learned that the quality of our terrain is integral to the survival and dispersal of a much larger population of bears than we had previously assumed. The future of the grizzly bear in the northern states may actually be dependant upon the health of the bears within the the Bugaboo and Bobbie Burns areas.
Above all, Michael Proctor was a very refreshing ‘hands-on’ style biologist, who’s work is on the leading edge of DNA research relating to grizzly population densities. His audio visuals were both revealing and engaging, from a very dramatic overlay of images, showing human habitation and grizzly habitat in the Kootenays, to some dramatic video of bears entering DNA sampling areas and rubbing trees.
Our shared experience with Michael left all the guides and guests with a deeper understanding of the life of grizzlies and an awareness of our increasing responsibility to maintain the quality and integrity of these habitats that we are stewards of. Michael left us with a desire to learn more in order to better coexist with this truly amazing and dignified guardian of wilderness.
CMH Summer Adventures was pleased to partner with Nature Conservancy Canada to bring Michael Proctor to the Bugaboos in July of 2010. As part of our on-going partnership with NCC we look forward to welcoming other experts to our areas to provide this sort of educational experience to our guests. Join CMH and NCC July 15, 2011 in the Bugaboos!
Photo: A radio collared grizzly for range distribution studies by Michael Proctor.