‘I think I see her!!! No, never mind, it’s just a cow – again…’
Variations of this phrase catapulted through the vehicle as Jamie and I watched a distant slope. It was late May and we were hoping for a closer glimpse of a grizzly sow with two itty-bitty COYs (cubs of the year, out of the den for the first year) who we had seen from the highway. They were a long ways off, but a zoom-in proved these moving brown blobs were indeed grizzly bears. We found a side road that led us closer to the direction they were headed – just as we pulled up, they appeared on a distant slope at the edge of a cattle ranch. We sat in stillness and willed them to come closer, but mom and the little ones disappeared into some bushes. We waited and waited, thinking they would have to come out eventually. After two hours of intense examination of the grassy landscape, the grazing cattle started looking like grizzly bears – never a good sign 🙁
We drove back and forth on the side road several times, wondering if they re-emerged from the bushes in a place we couldn’t see. Nothing – we had to be content with a distant glimpse and a horrible picture of this beautiful family.
We were disappointed of course – both of use were anxious to photograph grizzly COYs this year – but I had already had, and would continue to have, a great few months of animal viewing. An avalanche of amazing sightings, particularly of the adorable baby variety, tumbled through the days of spring and summer.
There was the long sought-after bear cub in a tree from Waterton
The wild horse mom with her adorable foal west of Water Valley
The beautiful cinnamon black bear mom with two yearlings from Banff
The wee elk calf earnestly following mom in Banff
The mountain goat kid in Glacier National Park
What more could I ask for?
I am grateful of course, but just couldn’t seem to quell my desire to see/photograph grizzly bear COYs. My mind kept drifting to the only time I’ve seen grizzly COYs with mom at a photograph-able range (safety from my vehicle of course). I didn’t know it at the time, but on July 1, 2014, I was watching and photographing an iconic female grizzly bear from Kananaskis with her two little ones – grizzly bear #104.
As a mom, she exuded overwhelming love for her babies.
Her cubs, of course, were curious and adorable – just as grizzly cubs should be.
I go back to these photos from July 2014 often – it was just such a remarkable experience to see this gentle-eyed beauty with her cubs.
Unfortunately, 104 has lost several of her cubs over the past few years, so I’m not sure if either of these two cubs are still alive.
During the summer of 2016, I saw 104 on her own on two occasions – she was now sporting a blue ear tag, so there was no doubt as to her identity. (Although with those beautiful, gentle eyes, could there really be any doubt anyway?)
This year, in late July 2017, I saw a photo from my photographer friend Doug McQueen – Kananaskis grizzly bear 104 was out with three cubs! This bear family roamed from the grassy brush of the mountains to the depths of my bear loving psyche, re-igniting the drive to find and photograph grizzly COYs.
It took a few attempts, but on an evening drive on Aug 5, I finally saw 104 and her cubs. I’m not thrilled with any of my photos, but I got permission to share one of Doug’s amazing photos of two of the cubs.
I was so happy to see 104 and her three cubs thriving in Kananaskis. I really hope they continue to do well. This beautiful family deserves a long and happy life.
And then there’s the ethics of it all
Like many bears and wildlife, grizzly bear 104’s territory is very close to the highway and she often crosses the road with her cubs. There are a number of reasons bears are found close highways:
– We’ve built major highways smack-dab in the middle of important wildlife corridors.
– Vegetation and various other food sources grow on the shoulders of highways.
– Some say female grizzlies with cubs, like 104, may have adapted to take advantage of more out in the open roadsides to help protect their cubs from male grizzlies.
As a result, there are countless issues with human/wildlife conflict, bear jams, people feeding bears, taking images with cell phones, getting too close, going too fast – the list goes on…
Through sharing and viewing photos of 104 and her beautiful cubs on social media, many questions around human/wildlife interaction came to the surface. Some questioned the humanness of 104’s hardware (collars and tags – photoshopped out of this above image), her proximity to the highway, bears getting habituated to cars and people, etc – all valid and important questions. I will not attempt to answer or analyse any of them – the complexity of bear/wildlife/human management is way beyond my depth of experience and knowledge.
However, such questions and concerns highlighted for me the importance of personal responsibility. Whether it’s taking photos, hiking, biking, camping – whatever the activity may be – we humans need to continually be aware of how our recreational activities impact the environment and wildlife. And, most importantly, if we make mistakes, learn from them and strive to do better.
For me, the values that guide my actions as a photographer come from a deep love of and connection to nature and wildlife. There are lots of opinions on what everyone should and shouldn’t do as wildlife photographers – I have many of them myself – but the reality is, I only have control over my own actions.
I can worry and complain about what others are doing, or I can focus every moment I spend in the wilderness on questioning my impact as an individual – am I driving too fast? Am I paying enough attention to my surroundings? Is the animal I’m photographing showing signs stress? What am I doing to the environment? What am I leaving behind?
Yes, it’s easy to forget and get caught up in the moment, but I believe we always have the option of returning to a place of conscious questioning and respect – the more we practice, the easier it is.
Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂