A GRIZZLY BEAR IS BORN IN THE MID-1970’S
Author: Hugh Naylor©
Sometime in the mid-1970s, our story grizzly was born somewhere in the Upper Lillooet River watershed. He probably had a healthy upbringing because he became a large powerful dominant bear. He was also to become a local legend through his interaction with the local human population.
This account of his life in the Pemberton Valley and his travels elsewhere is based on several interviews with local witnesses, journalistic accounts and reports from Ministry of Environment employees who were responsible for the management decisions and field implementation of their mandate.
We start the story in September 1999 on John and Denise Van Loon’s seed potato farm 25 km northwest of Pemberton in the Lillooet River Valley, (confusingly referred to as the Pemberton Valley). The family dog Coffey was performing her usual watchdog duty, an essential role on a farm with livestock and poultry to protect. For several weeks the Van Loons had noticed more than the usual alarmist barking. An eerie quietness had settled over the farm of late. The usual sounds coming from the barnyard were muted. On the night of September 9, intense barking and a commotion from the poultry house got their full attention.
John picked up his .308 rifle and shells and went down the driveway, Coffey glued to his side. Picking out a pair of eyes in his flashlight beam, John shot at what he had now determined was a grizzly bear. The bear “let out a huge roar” and took off in the dark with the dog following. John called Coffey off and did the right thing, returning to the house and to bed. John noted later that in his haste in the dark night, he had mistakenly picked up the wrong calibre rifle shells, .30/30 instead of the .308, accounting for his apparent poor aim and the risk that he may have killed himself rather than the intended target. The grizzly, as it turned out, suffered only a minor wound low on the front shoulder, the wrong shells did not have nearly the destructive effect that the .308 shells would have had. This could have been another ending to the story had the correct calibre shells been used. It was now a serious situation with a wounded grizzly loose on the family farm.
The next morning, the Van Loons surveyed the damage from the night before, no sign of a bear, but 13 dead turkeys. John called the Provincial Wildlife officer to report the situation. Predator control officer Dennis Pemble attended right away setting several snares at the farm site. These would be designed to hold the trapped bear temporarily to permit further handling procedures. After setting the trap, Dennis left the farm intending to await word from the Van Loons. He didn’t even make it back to his home in Abbotsford before he got the call from John that the bear was caught already. This was about 4 o’clock that morning. He turned around and travelled back to the farm right away.
The trap site had been ravaged by the angry bear. The grizzly had dug a huge trench around the grove of alder that served as a tether site for the trap (see photo to right). With two other technicians helping, the grizzly was tranquillized and loaded onto a culvert-shaped container mounted on a trailer. He was provided with an ear tag and a radio collar and trucked to Boston Bar about 220 air/km east of Pemberton on the Fraser canyon to be released at the headwaters of Anderson Creek, an easterly tributary of the Fraser River. Unfortunately, the now wide awake and agitated animal destroyed his radio collar when backing out of the cage at the release site so his movements could not be subsequently tracked. Dennis remembers the bear actually chasing the truck down the road before a photo could be taken.
Once more, on a mid-October dawn several weeks later, the farm’s tranquillity was interrupted by a commotion from the poultry house. John was not expecting to see the grizzly bear again, so he boldly approached the poultry house, this time with the correct caliber shells in the rifle. With dust and feathers everywhere dimming the early morning light, he was startled to see the huge rump of the bear that he thought to have seen the last of about 5 weeks ago. There was no thought at all that the bear would be back.
There were only about 10 meters and a couple of fuel drums separating John from the bear as the bear backed out of the chicken house. John recalls the bear seeming to be distracted by the noise of a neighbour’s machinery taking his attention away from John and enabling him to deliver the fatal rounds before becoming a victim himself. The bear was described as an old male in good condition with only deteriorating teeth an impediment to his overall condition. His ear tag identified him as the previously trapped turkey killer.
This could have been the tragic end of an interesting but not unusual example of the homing capabilities of grizzly bears, or for that matter, many other animal species. This bear had traversed approximately 220 kilometers through unfamiliar territory to return to his home in the Pemberton Valley in a matter of a few weeks ……. or was this the final chapter in the life of a truly remarkable bear who had been given the name “Winston” eight years earlier?
The upper Lillooet River and its tributary the Ryan River, which flows into the Lillooet from the west a few kilometers downstream of the Van Loon farm is considered by biologists to be prime grizzly habitat, currently supporting a healthy population of bears. According to a report by Ministry of Environment Biologist Steve Rochetta to the Pemberton Wildlife Association in 2008 the population in the Ryan at that time numbered six males and seventeen female grizzly bears. The whole Squamish-Lillooet corridor including the Toba Inlet to the west has an estimated population of 59 grizzlies. The habitat capacity was estimated at 200 grizzlies. Regionally, the numbers in the corridor have been reduced and their genetic diversity compromised through several modern human activities with the Upper Lillooet watershed including Ryan Creek being the exception. Grizzlies require huge ranges.
A male can dominate 3,000 square kilometres. They are not social animals (at the apparent communal gatherings on coastal salmon streams in the fall grizzlies tolerate each other out of expediency not out of enjoyment of each other’s company). Recreational, residential and resource extraction activities have fragmented and reduced these habitat ranges and migration corridors. This has affected the bear’s mobility required for accessing food sources as well as the potential for beneficial genetic mixing in offspring.
It is thought that intense logging activity in the Ryan watershed in the 1970s and 1980s may have made the habitat inhospitable, driving the bears down to forage on farm produce including livestock which would explain the dramatic increase in bear sighting and activities on farmland in the 1980s and 1990s. Traditional animal husbandry practices in the valley included disposing of beef carcasses on the outlying farm areas where they were readily available to hungry bears. This would also have been a factor in the increase in sightings.
On the broader front, in the 20th century North American grizzly populations were in severe decline. Where in the western U.S. there were once an estimated 50,000 grizzlies, there are now only 900, residing exclusively in the northwestern states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Currently, BC’s population is estimated at 16,000 bears with 900 remaining in Alberta. There is no fossil evidence of grizzlies south of the recent glacial ice sheets prior to about 12,000 years ago. They moved south into the plains and the Rocky Mountains only after the ice had left.
In recognition of the severe declines, the U.S. established in 1983 the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee whose mandate was to co-ordinate the recovery programs in the 4 states mentioned. BC’s Ministry of Environment became a full participating member of the committee in 1991.
The stage was set, then, to extend the program north across the border into Canada with the hope of re-establishing grizzly populations in the four states of the North Cascades. This recovery region became the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Ecosystem (NCGBE) whose grizzly habitat capacity was estimated to be 200-300 bears. Their numbers had been reduced through overhunting to where there were less than 20 bears remaining, all on the Canadian side of the border in the Manning Park area. Within the Canadian portion of the NCGBE (total area of 11,400 square kilometres), geographically bounded by the Okanagan Valley to the East and the Fraser Valley to the West, a core recovery area of 1,600 square kilometres was designated. The area was chosen on the basis of the historical presence of grizzlies and the low probability of potential conflicts with humans. There were no existing grizzly populations contiguous with the NCGBE. The Okanogan and Fraser Valleys were barriers to migration and the existing population in the recovery area was too low. It was thought therefore that population recovery would not occur naturally.
In the 4 years from 1988 to 1991, nine grizzlies in the Pemberton area were killed or relocated. Grizzlies had become increasingly habituated to farm life (for reasons already stated) and the local farm community was demanding action or the bears would be at the mercy of local vigilantes. Bear raids on root crops and especially Michael and Julia Ross’s carrots as well as scavenging of beef carcasses were common. Whether the bears were actually preying on live animals is still a matter of some local debate. Allen McEwan reports that in 50 years of domestic cattle grazing in subalpine grizzly habitat in neighboring Miller Creek, there has never been a confirmed grizzly kill.
In April 1992, Provincial Wildlife Biologist Bob Forbes met with the local Cattlemen’s Association to address issues related to grizzly bear habituation in the Pemberton Valley. He said that we “cannot continue to permit bears to occur in close proximity to human habitation in the Valley”. He suggested “paying close attention to animal husbandry practices” i.e. disposal of carcasses as an important mitigation procedure.
It became clear that bear management issues relating to the NCGBE could be addressed simultaneously with grizzly habituation problems in the Pemberton Valley. Using healthy Pemberton grizzly stock to augment the NCGBE would not compromise the bear relocation criteria established by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Bears from the Pemberton Valley were not judged to be sufficiently habituated to humans to become a problem in a relocated area. They were also not likely to contaminate a North Cascades genetic stock in the opinion of the biologists. Both stocks are what is described as “inland bears” mainly foraging on grasses and roots and small mammals. Subalpine alder slides are favorite habitats. Coastal varieties, on the other hand, rely on the fall salmon harvest to prepare them for the winter.
Under the established relocation program, four grizzlies from Pemberton were relocated into the NCGBE in the spring and fall of 1992. One of these was the protagonist of our story, the then 15-year-old grizzly (his age was estimated, never determined) who had become a familiar sight in the vicinity of the upper Pemberton Valley farms. The bear was given the name Winston later in the course of events when biologist Bob Forbes and technician Shawn Pike were travelling together in a truck cab. Shawn was an English history buff who related Winston Churchill’s personality to our story bear. Winston’s involvement in the relocation program began in 1991 following 4 years of frequent bear (including black bear) sightings in the Pemberton Valley, a period of apparent increased habituation to farm environments and “human-bear conflicts” (Forbes), possibly encouraged by the traditional practice of locating beef ‘bone yards’ on the margins of farm pastures.
On October 28, 1991, Provincial wildlife officials attended a complaint, called in by Linda Ronayne, of two grizzly bears feeding on a bovine calf carcass. Predator control officer Dennis Pemble remembers the incident well. The carcass was on the farm belonging to Michael and Julia Ross. Dennis set 2 leg hold snares on the farm driveway and both captures were successful an estimated 300-pound sow, and Winston, estimated at 800 pounds. Winston’s power was demonstrated by the several hundred meter long path of destruction caused by his efforts to free himself. He had managed to plow through several ditches and barbed wire fences finally coming to rest on John and Michelle Beks’ farm. All this time he was dragging his 20 foot anchor log.
The drama continues with a powerful, scared and traumatized grizzly facing a human whose first task was to tranquillize the bear. By now word of the unfolding drama had spread to the local farm community. Families had arrived on the scene, some anxious to help but all at considerable risk should something go wrong. Winston had dragged the snare log well away from an accessible driveway making the situation even more potentially hazardous. Having determined that Winston was “well caught”, not weakly by a toe Dennis began the tranquilizing process, a procedure still in its infancy of development at the time and largely pioneered by Dennis. In effect Winston was an unwilling experimental subject. The first 10cc dart had little effect. Winston reached around, pulled on it and spat it out, something that Dennis, who has experienced the capture of at least 50 grizzlies, had not seen before.
At this point, Dennis was really worried about the possibility of something going wrong with serious consequences to the bystanders present. This was all taking place in the open with no escape route. “If he breaks loose he will kill one of them” Dennis remembers thinking, “Winston would come after us dragging his anchor log”. John Beks recalls standing beside Jack Ronayne who had Winston in the sights of his rifle, finger on the trigger, ready in case Winston came free before the drug took effect. Fortunately, none of those fears materialized and after 6 darts Winston was finally immobilized. John remembers being invited to rest his hand in Winston’s paw, an experience he says he will not forget. When tranquillized the subject has a total loss of muscle control but is otherwise wide awake. Close-up and personal eye contact with an 800-pound grizzly was in John’s words a “special event “.
The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Ecosystem relocation program was still not ready for implementation so Winston and his much smaller sow companion (see photo above to the left), who had been captured with less drama, were fitted with ear tags and transported to the Little Toba River 100 kilometres to the west, instead of the North Cascades.
The tranquillized bears were put into slings (separate trips for the two bears) and transported under local pilot John Goat’s helicopter (see photo to the right) with Dennis Pemble on board. Dennis recalls stopping en route to inject another tranquillizer dart into Winston to ensure he would not awaken in midflight. They had had enough excitement for that day.
But Winston and his companion were not happy in their coastal rainforest environment even with its promise of abundant salmon on which to feast. They returned to their familiar inland home in the Pemberton Valley. If anecdotal reports of bear tracks on the intervening ice fields are accurate they indicate their visit to the coast was brief.
On October 4, 1992, the trapping procedure was repeated, on Neil Van Loon’s driveway in the same general area as the previous year, this time more efficiently with only one dart containing a new more effective drug was required. Their ear tags had identified Winston and companion with certainty. (The term “mate” is not appropriate since grizzlies relate only for reproductive purposes and not for life). The two bears were strong suspects in the numerous sightings and carrot patch raids in the summer of 1992.
By now the North Cascades bear recovery program was established. Winston and friend (the sow never did acquire a name) were prime candidates to augment the NCGBE. Both bears were provided with ear tags. In addition, Winston was fitted with a radio collar which would enable his whereabouts to be tracked when released. Both bears were transported, this time by the truck-drawn trailer, the sow to the Nahatlatch River, a western tributary of the Fraser River, 20 km north of Boston Bar, 220 air/km west of Pemberton. Winston meanwhile had a brief stopover at Abbotsford where he was the subject of a school “show and tell‟ presentation. Winston unpredictably settled down and was a very cooperative subject, relaxing peacefully in his cage for the occasion. This is not always the case with caged bears. From Abbotsford, Winston continued east in his trailer to Manning Park on the Hope Princeton Highway. He was released at the headwaters of Pasayten Creek, 300 air/kms west of Pemberton, a tributary of the Similkameen River which in turn drains into the Columbia River watershed. The Pasayten has its origin in the northern Washington Cascades where it was hoped Winston would go on his own.
This could have been a satisfactory end to a story with Winston heading south to sire an enhanced NCGBE grizzly population: but instead, this was just the beginning to another chapter. Winston had other ideas. He had to have sensed first of all that he was in the wrong watershed because he headed west into the Fraser watershed not south as he was instructed. He was released into the Columbia River watershed and was close to the headwaters of the Skagit River but his sensory homing map kicked in and he headed west apparently not confused by the totally foreign geography. Two sightings of large grizzlies near the release site were reported by hunters after the release, one of a collared bear with a wounded non-bearing front leg, the other of a large bear with blood on his track.
Winston’s journey was tracked through his radio transmitter to the Chilliwack River, possibly drawn to the smells of a promising feed of salmon. He spent some time there sharing fishing opportunities with sport fishermen on the river bank. He had now covered the first 125 kilometers of his journey home. This was the time of year when he should have been saving energy and feeding heavily in preparation for the coming winter hibernation. Even though he was an “inland” bear he would have the memory of the taste of the somewhat limited supply of salmon in the Upper Lillooet River (lower reaches of the river abound in salmon) and he was meanwhile no doubt enjoying the banquet that was opportunely provided in the Chilliwack River enabling him to do the necessary bulking up for the coming winter. But there was a perceived serious issue here. His proximity to humans on the river, even though there was no record of aggressive behaviour by Winston, prompted wildlife officials to designate Winston a “problem bear”. Dennis was instructed to hunt down and kill Winston. He was no longer a candidate for the relocation program. Dennis’s attempts were unsuccessful, in spite of getting close enough to hear him during the hunt. Local hunters with hounds also tracked Winston through the December snow but they too failed in what would have been a case of poaching should they have been successful. So once more he earned a reprieve to continue his journey home.
Winston’s departure from the Chilliwack River on a direct route to the Harrison River (downstream from his home on the Lillooet) was a remarkable move. He turned 90 degrees and was now on a northerly route crossing some steep unfriendly topography towards human habitation on the Trans-Canada Highway and then the Fraser River. A radio transmission from Winston was received on December 30, 1992, near Bridal Falls Park just east of Chilliwack where farms and rural houses straddle the highway. It is not clear how he then crossed the Fraser River but there were anecdotal reports of a “huge bear” seen on or near the Rosedale Bridge near Chilliwack. This may have been the last physical sighting of Winston. Whether he used the bridge or swam, it happens to be a constricted reach of the Fraser which was also a reason for the engineers’ choice of the bridge location.
Winston’s whereabouts were now determined by wildlife technician Mark Pimlott’s radio receiver from the aircraft. In early April 1993 Mark started picking up signals from Big Silver Creek which enters Harrison Lake from the northeast. After travelling up the Harrison River Valley past the Harrison Hot Springs Resort area apparently unnoticed Winston had denned up at Big Silver Creek for the winter, fortified by the Chilliwack River salmon. He was now within striking distance of home. The rest was easy. He was in the right valley now and had only to follow the Lillooet River upstream.
By now Winston was the subject of much interest and speculation amongst biologists everywhere, He was also still a “targeted” bear and his story was not over. In June 1993 Mark received radio signals from Winston in the vicinity of 28 km on the upper Lillooet River forest service road. Allen McEwan recalls vividly that Mark was excited and proud when he showed up at his house one afternoon saying “you’ll never guess what I found…….” he had, on a whim, dialled Winston’s frequency while checking deer radio collars and got a response. Winston was home. His transmissions were received on several occasions later in the summer of that year and on June 22 1994 Mark was astonished to pick up a signal on Winston’s frequency in the same area as in the previous year. Mark writes in a memo that it would seem unlikely that Winston would have moved so little in the intervening time. The transmitter output indicated a ‘head up’ or inactive position. Mark commented in his report that “We strongly suspect that we do not have a live bear wearing this collar …… however we have no conclusive evidence to date whether he has shed his collar or died”. Mark was unable to convince his superiors to fund a day to trace the signals and find the collar. To this day Mark, Allen and Dennis all regret not taking an unauthorized initiative to locate the collar, with or without a dead bear attached. It would have been an arduous task given the rugged terrain and 600 meters of elevation to climb but one which all the men were capable of completing. There is a very good chance that Winston had shed his collar and was alive and well at the time. Collars are not designed to be permanently attached and his was at the end of its expected durability. They are somewhat loosely fitted to allow for seasonal expansion of the neck but are, as a consequence subject to dropping off.
Nothing is known of Winston for the next 5 years. He had either died or was living out his life in his home territory, assiduously avoiding humans. He had had enough of us, understandably so given his history of unpleasant human encounters.
Meanwhile, on the management front, the B.C. government was active. The low numbers and apparent isolation of local grizzly populations suggested little chance of natural recovery in some areas. This awareness led to the establishment of the “bear recovery program” in 1995 (at the same time the Washington State Legislature passed a bill in 1995 prohibiting the State from participating in any process for augmenting grizzly bears, citing excessive costs, little chance of success and reduced recreational opportunities in augmented areas, to which could have been added the possibility of extreme trauma to the bear). The basis for the current conservation strategy in B.C. is based on the designation of the grizzly as a species of concern and addresses 3 main issues.
A key implementation strategy was the establishment of grizzly bear management areas, a network of key bear ecosystems. In the Squamish-Lillooet Regional district, this was accomplished through the Land and Resources Management Process (LRMP). With passionate scientific and political input from biologist Steve Rochetta and conservation activist Johnny Mikes, backed by Allen McEwan and the Pemberton Wildlife Association, a level of habitat protection from resource extraction and intrusion from recreational interests was established in key grizzly habitats and bear travel corridors. The Upper Lillooet River watershed was a significant inclusion. This was Winston’s turf.
Initially relocation of “problem bears”, loosely defined as those bears “in conflict with humans” was carried out to address the human interaction issues and population enhancement in understocked habitats. This has been marginally successful. The capture, relocating and tracking procedure, including the cost of the transmitter and collar was as much as $20,000 per animal. Superior homing capabilities are well documented especially among prime dominant males such as Winston, almost guaranteeing failure to achieve the relocation objectives with those bears. (Winston’s sow companion relocated to the Nahatlatch River seems to have been a successful venture on the other hand). A report from Aspen Colorado claims that grizzlies relocated up to 320 km away still returned to Aspen.
This brings us back to the beginning of this story, a night in September 1999 on the Van Loon farm was still healthy but feeling the onset of old age with poor teeth, Winston, if it was indeed him, decided to feast on those turkeys.
Or was this a different bear? We will never know which is the correct version of Winston’s final days, whether Winston ended his life in the wilderness of the upper Lillooet River valley well away from human habitation or lived another 5 years after losing his collar to finally meet his end on the Van Loon farm. Aging data on the two bears would have provided evidence. A photo in the ministry files shows a tooth was extracted, a common method of age determination, but there is no documentation of analysis or even which bear was the subject of the photograph. This was in the early days of DNA sampling which is now a routine procedure. Simple hair sample analysis could have provided the answer. We can now only speculate based on circumstantial evidence. It was reported for example that there was an old ear tag scar on the 1999 grizzly which could have been from the 1992 placement. According to Van Loon this was a ‘left handed’ bear determined by which leg the bear placed in the trap on the two occasions on his farm, consistent with Winston’s previous trappings. The estimated age of 15 years for the 1992 version of Winston fits with the description of an older bear at Van Loon’s approaching a normal grizzly lifespan.
Winston’s story raises questions as to our attitudes towards grizzlies and especially to the extent we can tolerate their presence close to human habitation. What is the point at which a perceived risk to families and domestic stock necessitates destroying or relocating the bear? When do you classify a bear as a ‘problem bear’, rendering it ineligible for relocation and therefore a bear which must be destroyed? There is little question that the bear which visited the Van Loons twice in 1999 had to be killed. The first attempt at relocation failed. He had become thoroughly habituated to their farm and was probably finding it difficult to forage effectively in the wild given his age and condition. But should Winston have been declared a “problem bear” when fishing on the Chilliwack River alongside human fishers in spite of never having displayed any aggressive behaviour towards humans? Was the suspicion that he might someday do so justify him becoming a target for elimination?
Wildlife biologists and technicians differed strongly amongst themselves as to how to handle Winston. When it became clear that Winston was not obeying instructions to remain in the Cascades to sire some progeny there the frustration of the Ministry staff is evident in their office memos. Biologist Bob Forbes was quoted in a newspaper article in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when Winston headed for Chilliwack, “I’m hoping he’ll learn the error of his ways and return to where he was bloody well put (meaning Manning Park); our first responsibility is to the public. Wildlife officials will order him killed”. This prompted challenging responses from staff within the Ministry, “Mr. Forbes should see the error of his ways when he interferes with nature and expects her to always cooperate passively. Let Winston go home to Pemberton and stay there”.
Pemberton locals are divided in their attitudes towards grizzlies. Some thought that Winston was a “nasty rogue bear who should have been destroyed” at the first encounter. Other judgments were more lenient ranging from tolerance to the admiration of grizzlies and appreciation of their role in the ecosystem. Denise Van Loon uses the term “harmony” to describe the human-grizzly relationship in her neighborhood now. Incidents of ‘problem’ grizzlies are rare today possibly due to the restoration of their habitat in the Ryan where a healthy population is thriving and improved animal husbandry practices in the farming community.
Why should we care about the continued presence of grizzlies in our wilderness? In an essay contained in “Impressions of the North Cascades” Mitch Friedman says “The landscape is enriched for me just by the knowledge of its wholeness if not by firsthand experience with every species”. Our local pocket of wilderness in Garibaldi Park is protected from human access through road-building restrictions, offering protected grizzly habitat; but we frequently hear “what is the use of protecting their habitat if we have no opportunity to see them?”
If we are indeed dealing with one and the same bear Winston’s survival odyssey can be summarized as
We cannot but admire his survival abilities. He was a credit to his species and we can hope that he was able to genetically distribute these attributes to offspring in the course of his odyssey
To quote the Ministry document “A future for the Grizzly” which documents the B.C. Grizzly Bear Strategy; “The grizzly bear is perhaps the greatest symbol of wilderness. Its survival will be the greatest testimony to our environmental commitment and a permanent legacy to our children”