A grizzly bear sighting in Kananaskis Country might not seem like such a strange thing, but in the dead of winter, it can be a real surprise.
That’s just what happened to a group of skiers in the Sarrail Creek drainage area last week, when they encountered a grizzly bear that had been denning in the area.
Six skiers were travelling in the area south of Upper Kananaskis Lake on Feb. 18 when it’s believed they unintentionally woke the bear, according to Alberta Environment and Parks.
“As they were skiing, they happened to come in close proximity to a bear den,” Arian Spiteri, district conservation officer with the Kananaskis district, said.
“They didn’t know the bear den was there, but as they were skiing by, the grizzly bear exited the den about one metre from the closest person and then it took off running in the other direction.”
A bear closure was issued in the area following the encounter, which officials said will be in effect until the end of denning season– which is typically in early May — to give the bear, and any others, its space.
Spiteri said the skiers went in the other direction to avoid the bear, adding they reported seeing tracks later in the day but not the bear itself.
Nick De Ruyter with Alberta Wildsmart said there’s no way to really identify a bear’s den during the winter, adding there are many different kinds and they’re often buried in snow.
“You just have to be prepared for it and be aware that it could happen,” he said.
Impact on the bear’s hibernation
While it is rare to have a bear sighting this time of year, it’s not unheard of, Spiteri said.
“Because grizzly bears, when they hibernate, their body temperature only drops a little bit when you compare them with other hibernators,” Spiteri said.
“That means that they’re easier to wake and they can respond to anything that they perceive to be a danger much quicker.”
Ideally, the bears would be sleeping for a few more weeks, officials said.
“Normally it’s the large male grizzly bears that tend to come out of hibernation the earliest,” De Ruyter said, adding they could typically wake up and start looking for food as early as mid-March.
Both Spiteri and De Ruyter said there’s no telling whether the bear will stay awake and start foraging for food or go back into hibernation, adding it would likely depend on whether its den is still intact or it can find another place to den.
If they do stay awake and start walking around, De Ruyter said the bear would be burning valuable calories and energy in search of food, considering it’s still very cold. With so much snow still in the Rocky Mountains, he said food sources are scarce.
“Food can be hard to come by at this time of year,” he said. “They might luck out and find some carcasses or something that died in an avalanche — elk or other animals — but food would be the tricky thing and burning those calories which they desperately need to continue through til the warmer weather comes.”
Spiteri added that at this point in the season, female bears are giving birth to their young.
Bear spray and the cold
De Ruyter said many people don’t think to carry bear spray in the winter because, typically, bears are slumbering away under the snow. However, it’s still important to carry, and it’s still effective if you carry it properly.
De Ruyter said in winter, extreme cold may have negative impacts on the effectiveness of bear spray, including that it may not spray as far when used.
He recommended that in extreme or prolonged cold, people carry their canisters inside their coats to keep it warm. He added this would impact a person’s response time, as in warmer months, it’s recommended to have the bear spray canister readily available.
De Ruyter said carrying bear spray in winter can not only help keep you safe from a chance bear encounter, it can also protect you from other animals like cougars, elk and other wildlife you might come across on a winter adventure.
“Don’t be out there with headphones on, being distracted, be aware of what’s going on around you,” he said. “And travelling with a group and sticking together with your group is very important.”
Spiteri said people are encouraged to report bear sightings in Kananaskis Country by calling 403-591-7755.