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Concerns raised as people crowd rare white grizzly in Banff and Yoho parks

Nakoda, Banff National Park's white grizzly.
Nakoda, Banff National Park's white grizzly. Courtesy: Bow Valley Network

A wildlife photographer says he’s worried about a rare white grizzly living in mountain parks in Alberta and British Columbia after watching people get too close to it and seeing it run across a highway.

The bear, which has been nicknamed Nakoda by locals, was first revealed publicly after it was spotted in Banff National Park in Alberta two months ago.

Parks Canada said it’s not an albino, but a natural colour phase variation that makes the 3 1/2-year-old bear white.

“This colour phase variation is unusual for grizzly bears but has been seen before,” the agency said in a statement.

“Grizzly bears are typically brown, black or blonde; however there have been records of grizzly bears with a white colour phase variation.”

READ MORE: White grizzly named by Bow Valley residents

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Photographer Jason Bantle, who’s also a biologist, said the now-famous bear has been seen on the railway tracks and along the Trans-Canada Highway in Yoho National Park, which is next to Banff National Park on the B.C. side of the provincial boundary.

There is fencing that prevents wildlife from crossing the highway through Banff, but similar fencing hasn’t been installed in Yoho.

Massive grizzly bear killed on Transcanada Highway
Massive grizzly bear killed on Transcanada Highway

Bantle said he saw a transport truck narrowly miss the bear as it darted across the highway one evening. He also watched people getting out of their vehicles to get a photo of the bear as it grazed on the vegetation along the highway the next morning.

“One individual … approached the bear within 50 metres,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Bantle said he stayed at least 200 metres from the bear and turned on the hazard lights on his vehicle to make sure people knew to slow down.

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“As a nature photographer, it’s a fine line between getting images and making sure the individuals are conserved,” he said. “It requires Parks Canada to have bear monitoring and education.”

Banff National Park’s white grizzly named Nakoda.
Banff National Park’s white grizzly named Nakoda. Sonia Nicholl/Parks Canada

Parks Canada said in its statement that the bear, along with its brown-coloured sibling, spends time in both Banff and Yoho parks.

It said observing wildlife in its natural habitat is a privilege that comes with responsibility.

“If you see wildlife near the highway, do not stop,” the agency said.

“When visitors see wildlife in other areas, they should consider not stopping or, if safe to stop, always stay in their vehicles and give the animal space. Bears and other wildlife that become comfortable around people and roadsides are at greater risk of being struck by a vehicle.”

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It also reminded people that feeding wildlife is not allowed in a national park, but didn’t say whether it is considering additional measures to keep the bear safe.

Rare white ‘spirit’ bear spotted with cub in B.C.
Rare white ‘spirit’ bear spotted with cub in B.C.

Bantle would like to see Parks Canada have its wildlife guardians keeping an eye on the bears when they are close to the highway, but he suggested locals and visitors also have a part to play.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: National parks, historic sites partially reopening in June

“This bear is being recognized internationally,” he said. “What is our responsibility as Canadians?

“We have to step up.”