Grizzly Bears on Vancouver Island

Are they here? If so, how many live here? How did they get here? Can I see one? Read on...

Scroll down to read about grizzly bear tours that depart from Campbell River. These tours do not spot bears on Vancouver Island, rather they travel to Knight Inlet on the mainland to view grizzlies from a safe vantage, up close in their natural habitat.

QUESTION: Do grizzly bears live on Vancouver Island?

ANSWER: Well, sort of. Yes... Kind of. Read below...

Between 2002 and 2008 there were multiple sightings of grizzly bears on the island. At least three of these sightings resulted in kills, which allowed for the positive identification of the species. Scientists believe that the majority of these bears are males, which tend to be more curious and stray further afield than their female counterparts. It is almost certain that the grizzly bears swam and island hopped from the mainland across the narrowest strech of water, near Port Hardy.

There is some speculation about whether or not grizzly bears will be able to establish a permanent population on Vancouver Island. Scientists are betting that this will not happen anytime soon, because they believe it is mainly males that are making the journey and there is no evidence of grizzlies mating with black bears. The scientists do believe, however, that some of the grizzly bears that arrive on Vancouver Island are making a permanent home here.

Alll of the grizzly sightings on Vancouver Island have been north of Campbell River.

Grizzly Banquet

By JIM AMOS
Photos: JEREMY LEETE

A bright pink stream of eggs shoots out of the salmon as the grizzly bear takes its first bite. He ignores the roe, leaving it to the squealing white gulls that flutter overhead like confetti in the wind. In four or five mouthfuls, the salmon is gone. Still hungry, he traps another fish against the riverbed and, grasping it with six-inch claws, sits comfortably in the water and continues to feast. Winter is fast approaching and the chance to fatten on a bounty of plump salmon is all that matters to this grizzly and 13 others on the Glendale River.

Close up of a grizzly bearHigh atop the surrounding evergreens, bald eagles survey the feeding frenzy, occasionally swooping down to skillfully pluck a wounded fish from the water. It's early October along the coast of British Columbia, the time of year when salmon by the millions return to the rivers to spawn. Now the tourists are arriving, paying up to $2,300 for an invitation to the wildlife banquet.

Clouds cling like wet gray foam to the mountainsides as the Beaver floatplane heads across Discovery Passage, the narrow body of water separating the mainland of British Columbia from Vancouver Island. We had taken off just minutes earlier from Campbell River, a city of 35,000 on north Vancouver Island. Our destination is Knight Inlet Lodge, a floating resort about halfway up the 100-mile inlet.

The low cloud and driving rain force the pilot to fly a zigzag path to the resort, turning the normal 25-minute flight into close to an hour. We stare down at the slate-gray water, its surface occasionally broken by the white V of a passing boat or the churning wake of a pod of dolphins at play.The trip takes us through a last mountain pass and over an S-shaped spawning channel built by the Canadian government in 1985. Here the salmon come to spawn, the grizzlies to feast, the birds to scavenge and the tourists to get close to one of the world's most magnificent animals.

A cluster of cedar buildings come into view as the pilot prepares for landing. Minutes later, we step on the dock of the lodge tucked up against a rocky foreshore. Surrounded by soaring mountains, the lodge has long been known as one of B.C.'s premier salmon fishing resorts. But new owners Dean and Kathy Wyatt are turning the resort to a new heading: eco-tourism. "We want to make it the Number One eco-adventure destination in British Columbia," says Dean, who bought the lodge in January 1996. While fishing will always be offered, it is more likely guests will be watching bears catch the salmon.

Today's tourists are different, says Wyatt. They want to see wildlife and the area has plenty: grizzly bears, killer whales, bald eagles, herons, otters, kingfishers and martens, to name a few. In 1997, 50 per cent of lodge guests have come to view - not kill. By the year 2000, Wyatt predicts 90 per cent will be eco-tourists.

Bear viewing platformDespite the time of year and the wet, chilly weather, the lodge is nearly full. The guests, mainly American, have paid anywhere from $450 (one day, one night) to $2,300 (eight days) to be plunked down in the wilds of British Columbia on a lodge that floats in prime grizzly habitat.The new guests are shown their rooms, cozy cedar cabins or dorms equipped with wood stoves and double beds. The lodge is a mix of old and new, with some buildings like the cookhouse and dining room nearly 50 years old. Built on top of huge old cedar logs, the floating resort is anchored securely to the rocky shore.

The rain has stopped, and the stillness is broken only by the distant whine of the floatplane returning to Campbell River. Decked out in rain gear and rubber boots John Marriott, a wildlife photographer from Banff and one of four guides hired for the grizzly bear viewing season, instructs guests to gather for an orientation session.The gathering in the 'church', a social room with cathedral ceilings, begins our introduction to grizzly bears.

Following a short video on bears and bear safety, waivers are signed and the rules laid out - rules that put guest safety first, but also look out for the bears' interests.The idea, says Wyatt, is to have as little impact as possible on the wildlife. He does not want the bears to associate humans with either food handouts or as impediments to their natural habits.

The guides are all well-versed in bear habits, many having worked for years in the field. No guns are brought to the viewing site. Instead, guides carry bear spray repellent (an eye irritant containing cayenne pepper) and guests must follow an exact set of rules when at the spawning channel. "We are your eyes and ears," says Marriott. "You follow our instructions." No food. No drinks. No wearing perfume or other smelly stuff. No loud talking. No smoking. Oh, yeah. Go to the bathroom before you leave the lodge because you're not allowed to go at the viewing site.

A grizzly bear peeks over a safety railingThis approach is a far cry from two years ago, when the lodge first began bear watching tours. Then under a different owner, guests were sent out to the bear site along with their lunch, drinks and a gun-toting guide. You were allowed to walk along the channel, just feet from an animal that could kill with one swat of a paw. If a bear attacked, it would be shot.

Three times a day, guests are taken to the bears' banquet. To lessen the impact on the grizzlies, each trip is limited to a maximum 10 people and to about three hours in length. Those guests not viewing bears may be off on a tour of Knight Inlet and its waterfalls, towering mountains and wealth of Native Indian history. Others may be on an all-day boat trip to nearby Johnstone Strait to see killer whales.

It is mid-afternoon when we board a small aluminum skiff for a five-minute trip across the cove. There, guests board either a small bus or an open-backed pickup for a jolting ride to the spawning channel.The road is little more than a muddy trail punched through the second-growth rain forest of cedar, Western hemlock, Sitka spruce and alder, perfect habitat for grizzlies, black bear and bald eagles.

Standing in the back of the truck, the guest rattle around as the truck bounces over rocks, roots and into potholes. Some people have said the road should be improved, and Wyatt considered the idea until one well-traveled guest said the ride in was the first time he had ever felt like "Indiana Jones." Rain fills the ditches on either side of the road. In places, it spills over the top, carving new ruts across the path. Rain-soaked branches occasionally catch some riders off guard, giving them an unexpected face wash as the old truck wheezes its way through the forest. A final curve in the road and there, in the water, stand three grizzlies. The bears glance up, but, uninterested, go back to fishing.

We continue down the road, the spawning channel on our right. On the left, the narrow Glendale River wanders through stands of cedar. Up ahead are two plywood viewing platforms. Between the truck and the platforms a grizzly ambles down the road, veering off into the bush at our approach. At the first platform, Marriott cautiously surveys the area. Fifteen feet away, five grizzlies - some weighing 700 pounds - fish at an aluminum weir that spans the channel. The weir, raised by fisheries officials when enough salmon pass into the channel to ensure future stocks, is a favorite feeding site. There, the bears can easily dine on fish packed against the weir in a desperate attempt to get upstream.

Wet grizzly bear in a streamMarriott steps off the back of the truck, bear spray in one hand, his other motioning us to stay put and be quiet. Surrounded by grizzlies, the guests are silent, somewhat uneasy and quick to comply with Marriott's order. Making sure the area is safe, Marriott whispers for half the guests to step down. Tentatively, we step off the truck, eyes to the ground. We had been warned earlier not to make eye contact with a bear as it is a sign of aggression and an invitation for an attack. Huddled together, the guests do a silent shuffle to the platform and climb up a 12-foot flight of stairs. A trap door at the top ensures no bear will follow.The rest of the group is taken to the second platform, where another guide repeats Marriott's instructions.

The sun, which had made a brief cameo, has disappeared and it is pouring rain. But for the next three hours nobody will notice for, 12 feet below, are 14 grizzlies. They fish. They swim. They play. They wrestle. They prowl the road between the viewing platforms."This is the closest you can view grizzly bears in the world," says Marriott. A closer encounter was not far off.

While we watch the bears, a large male comes out of the water and begins to graze on grass at the base of the viewing platform. Hearing us above him, he rears on his hind legs, hooks his front claws over the top of a metal sign and, in a fury, shakes it. The sign, right next to the viewing platform, appropriately enough reads: Extreme Danger - Grizzly Bears.

"Wow! That's never happened before," said a startled Marriott, who has come to know the bears and their habits well during his six-weeks of guiding. So well in fact, he and the other guides have given most of them names.There's Nickhead, named for the scar near his one ear, Squareface, Redhead, Grumpy, named for his habit of growling at all the other bears, and Redhead. Everyone's favorite, however, seems to be Wimpy, a young male who jumps in fright at the slightest look from another bear.

While many of the grizzlies spend the whole time feeding near the weir, others fish the 200-foot stretch of water from the weir to where the spawning channel empties into the Glendale River. The river is packed with salmon and the fishing is easy, if sometimes a little unorthodox.There is something humorous about seeing a bear saunter through the water, its head below the surface as it 'snorkels' for its dinner. Only its ears, and shoulder hump - the distinctive mark of a grizzly - are visible above the water. Suddenly, a huge dripping head comes up, a squirming salmon clamped between its jaws. The bear sits down, grasps the fish between its paws and feasts.

Like humans, the bears have individual eating habits. Some just tear right in, finishing the fish off in a few bites. Squareface likes to take his meal to a nearby rock where he holds the fish down with one paw so he can easily rip off strips of pink flesh with his teeth. Others will only take one bite before dropping the fish and going after another. Some bears eat quietly. Others enjoy a lip-smacking meal. In nearly all instances, the tail is left behind.

Two grizzlies wrestle in a riverIt is hard to imagine that just a few years ago grizzlies were non-existent on the Glendale River. Before the spawning channel was built, the salmon run had been virtually destroyed due to logging debris cluttering the water, causing the bears to feed elsewhere. Now, a little more than a decade after its construction, the channel has returns of pink salmon as high as 750,000 some years. In 1987, two years after the channel was built, one grizzly came to dine. By 1996, 36 individual bears were counted.

"It's wonderful," says Trayte 'Anne' Naber, of Hamburg, Germany. Anne and her husband, Gerd, were nearing the end of a two-week trip to Canada when they decided to take a one-day grizzly trip."You don't see wildlife in Germany," she says.

The bears continue to feed. Some - usually the biggest - maintain their place at the weir, while others roam the channel. Nearby, two large males playfight, rising up on their hind legs, growling and snapping at each other. A female circles one viewing platform, taking a moment to glance up at the people before silently moving off to fish again. Up the road, a mother and triplets emerge from the bush. Warily checking for danger, she leads the cubs into the water for a lesson in fishing.

The bears, which arrive at the end of August, will feed at the channel until the end of October, then head into the mountains for winter hibernation. In May, they will come down to the river's estuary to feed on new grasses before wandering off into the forest, feeding on roots, berries and various mammals. Come August, they will again take up the annual invitation to dine at the spawning channel. Tourists from around the world will also be on hand.

"I never in my life thought people would pay for this," says Wyatt. So great is the demand, (this year, the fall spectacle has attracted over 400 eco-tourists), he can see it becoming a year-round business: Grizzlies in the spring and fall; killer whales from May to October; bald eagles, herons, otters all year. The trip caters to a certain clientele, Wyatt notes, and by charging a premium price he is attempting to make sure the numbers don't get so high they impact the bears. He also wants to see an increase in the area's no-hunting zone. Currently, there's a one-kilometer protected area around the spawning channel. Grizzly bear hunting season coincides with the fall viewing times and Wyatt would like to see the no-hunt zone expanded substantially.

Ultimately, he would like a complete ban on grizzly bear hunting."You can only shoot a bear once with a gun," he says. "You can shoot it thousands of times with a camera.

Grizzly Bear eating salmon near Vancouver Island

 

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