Introducing Quill and Morant!

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After last week’s tragic wolf deaths in Banff, I figured it was high time for some good news from our mountain parks.  Over the past few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to run into two of my favourite bears in Banff National Park, the twin grizzly bear cubs that were orphaned last spring when their mother, Dawn, was killed by a Canadian Pacific train near Lake Louise.

As I reported in my blog post, Remembering Dawn, several weeks ago, the twins emerged from hibernation this spring as healthy as can be, much to the delight of all involved in this poignant story.

And while they have a long road to go before this story will be considered a success in terms of Banff National Park’s grizzly bear population and, perhaps even more importantly, in terms of the bigger picture of Alberta’s seriously threatened grizzly bear population, their survival to date does provide a lot of hope and joy to locals, tourists, parks staff, and everyone else that’s been following their tale.

Near the end of May this year, one of the orphans was observed limping badly near Lake Louise, so Parks Canada made a decision to tranquilize the cub and check him out.  To everyone’s surprise, the small, male cub had more than forty porcupine quills lodged in one of his front paws, which were promptly removed and treated.

In the days following his capture, I began calling the little guy (he was only 72 pounds when he was captured on May 29th) Quill, and the name seems to have stuck as the Bear Guardians are also now calling him Quill, as are several Parks Canada staff in the Lake Louise field unit.

Introducing Quill, one of Dawn’s orphaned twin grizzly bear cubs

I’ve photographed Quill twice now this spring (though I’ve seen him a total of nine times), for the most part leaving him be if there’s no other traffic or photographers about, as it’s critical that he gets good access to roadside vegetation at this time of year.

While checking up from time to time on Quill, I’ve also been fortunate enough to view and photograph his more reclusive sibling (the two are rarely seen together anymore) — a slightly bigger, taller, and more rotund version of Quill.  For a week I struggled to come up with a name for this beautiful bear, and then, early one morning, sitting above Morant’s Curve where the orphans’ mother was killed, it came to me: whether male or female, the second cub had to be Morant.

And introducing Morant, Quill’s twin brother (or sister??)

Together, Quill and Morant had the comfort of knowing that they had several hundred pounds of force in combination, as well as each other’s eyes, ears, and noses to rely on.  Separate, they face an even more daunting task as they struggle to grow into adults in a landscape rife with cars, trucks, trains, tourists, and towns.

Thankfully, some of you can do your part to help them survive to adulthood. I know that many of you that read my posts are locals, frequent visitors, or amateur/professional wildlife photographers, so I’d like to ask each of you to take on a temporary role as being a bear guardian of sorts with these cubs.  Because we’re often the first ones out each morning and the last ones to leave the roads and trails in the evenings, we have an unique opportunity to watch over these two cubs and make sure that they don’t get into trouble with people, roads, or railways.

So what can you do to help?  For starters, stay in your vehicles around these cubs if they’re near the road (in two years of photographing them, I have yet to step out of my vehicle to get a shot), and better yet, speak up if you see someone else getting out of their vehicle near the cubs. A simple, “Excuse me, would you mind getting back in your vehicle?” will often suffice, though I often follow this up with something along the lines of, “Parks has been monitoring these little guys to make sure they don’t get in trouble and they’re asking everyone to take their pictures from inside their vehicles, thanks for helping out!”

Why is it so critical that people remain in their vehicles around Quill and Morant?  Because they don’t have their mother with them to teach them how close is too close and to guide them in how to deal with people, to know when and how to react, and to know when to run from or avoid humans.

There are already several reports of people feeding these bears, so it’s also important that you refrain from sitting in your vehicle right beside them for hours on end.  It’s one thing to pull up and photograph them out of your car window with a 500mm telephoto lens from 50-100 meters away (50 meters is close enough to get a full frame shot with a 500mm lens); it’s quite another to sit there ten feet from a cub craning out your window with your smartphone to take a pic. If you do see unnatural behaviour from either bear (like walking up to a car window), please intervene and do what you can to get the bear off the road and give it a bit of a scare (pulling up right beside them and hammering your horn seems to work well).

There is no doubt that these cubs are going to have to deal with people and traffic, but we can really help their learning process by being cautious and helping ensure that others, especially tourists from out of town, view the bears in a responsible manner.

A local photographs Morant from 70 meters away with a telephoto zoom lens.

If all else fails and you see one of the cubs feeding on the railway tracks or getting too close to cars or anything else that concerns you, then please report it immediately to Parks Canada dispatch at 1 (403) 762-1470 (program it into your cells!).

With a bit of help and a lot of luck, hopefully we’ll still be talking about the exploits of Quill and Morant in Banff National Park long into the future.

Happy shooting!

John

Remembering Dawn

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This week’s local paper in the Canadian Rockies was awash with bad news for our struggling wildlife: a rare female wolverine killed on Highway 93S in Kootenay National Park, a young male grizzly bear run over at night on Highway 68 in Kananaskis Country, an adult male black bear shot in downtown Canmore, and a young black bear hit by a train in Yoho National Park.

Perhaps fitting, then, that today marks the first anniversary of the magical morning that wildlife photographer Cai Priestley and I spent with a female grizzly bear and her two yearling cubs in a late spring snowfall one year ago near Lake Louise.  Less than 48 hours later, Dawn, the mother grizzly, was dead, hit by a Canadian Pacific train only a few kilometers from where Cai and I had photographed her, leaving her tiny cubs to fend for themselves in a landscape rife with hazards.

Dawn with her two cubs on May 27th, 2011 near Lake Louise in Banff National Park

I would like to think that her death was not in vain; after all, the incident got press all over the world and led to major news programs like CBC’s The National covering the story and discussing concerns with the section of Canadian Pacific track that knifes through the heart of Banff National Park.  Dawn’s photo graced the cover of national magazines like Canadian Geographic and the controversy over her death eventually led in part to a number of research studies that began this spring to address the issue of bear-wildlife-train conflicts in Canada’s first national park.

Dawn playing with one of her cubs

On a more personal level, Cai and I launched a Facebook group, Save Banff’s Wildlife, to keep interested parties up to speed on the fight to keep our mountain national parks a refuge for wildlife rather than a sinkhole. We were both really encouraged to see the response and felt like we were getting somewhere with our conservation efforts.

Yet when we have weeks like last week where wildlife carnage seems to be the order of the day in our Rocky Mountain national parks, it quickly seems as if nothing’s changed.  Dawn is dead, and other animals continue to follow in her footsteps at an alarming rate. I begin to question myself, as do my friends and colleagues, wondering if we’re actually making any difference at all.

But then, last night, a ray of hope emerged from the shadows. A text arrived from a Parks’ friend.  It was short and sweet, saying simply, “They’re alive!”

And just like that, I remembered Dawn and I remembered exactly what I’m fighting for — two young, beautiful cubs.

Dawn’s cubs have survived the winter.  Now let’s hope they can navigate the coming summer.

Happy shooting everyone.

John