Photographer bears witness to battle of Banff’s two biggest grizzlies

A large grizzly bear given the name The Boss is shown near Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, west of Calgary.

What started as a quiet evening camping with his family just south of Lake Louise back in early July quickly turned into the wildlife viewing event of a lifetime for Canmore-based photographer John E. Marriott.

Marriott, his wife and young son had been camping at Protection Mountain campground between Lake Louise and Castle Junction over the Canada Day long weekend. A few days in, they’d settled into a routine and had just finished dinner when Marriott and his son left their site to dispose of some cans in a recycling bin.

“It was about 8:45 (p.m.) and I decide I’m going to walk over to recycle a few cans with my 18-month-old son, Porter,” Marriott said. “I walked about 75 metres from our site to the recycling bin, popped a couple cans in there and then put my son on the ground. I go walking around the bin and around one tree there and I come face to face with Split Lip walking right towards me across the road.”

Split Lip, officially known as Bear 136, is one of the Bow Valley’s biggest male grizzly bears. The moniker comes from a large split on the right side of the bear’s lip down to his jawline.

At that point, Marriott hadn’t identified the grizzly as Split Lip yet, but he knew this male was not the infamous Bear 122, known as The Boss.

Marriott grabbed his son and yelled to his wife to grab the bear spray, also alerting the other few campers that there was a bear in the area.

“I immediately went into dad/wildlife photographer mode both at the same time,” Marriott said, laughing. “He didn’t look aggressive at all … I dropped my son off with my wife and grabbed my camera from the car and right from under the awning of my trailer I was able to photograph Split Lip in the very next site about 25 metres away.”

Through his zoom lens, Marriott said it was easy to identify the bear as Split Lip and was “excited” at the opportunity to photograph the elusive bear he’d seen only a handful of times before, more than a decade earlier.

“About 40 minutes had passed since we first encountered him and he’s just chowing away on dandelions when all of a sudden The Boss comes walking on to the scene and charges.”

The Boss is well known to the outdoors community of the Bow Valley as the toughest, meanest and most dominant male grizzly in the Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks. He’s been known to

eat black bears

, break into dumps, wander through Banff’s main streets in years past and

has even been hit by a train

.

Marriott knows The Boss well. He’s seen him at least every couple years over his nearly 30-year career as a wildlife photographer. But he’d never seen him like this.

“He takes a big swipe at Split Lip and Split Lip just ducked out of the way and goes racing through the little meadow onto the Bow Valley Parkway,” he said. “We quickly started up the vehicle and drove over and they’re running down about three kilometres, we measured it out afterwards.”

Marriott said the experience was one he’ll never forget.

“It was quite a remarkable encounter to see the two biggest, baddest, toughest grizzlies,” he said. “It was basically a heavyweight battle in grizzly bear terms.”

Grizzly bears will typically do everything they can to avoid a physical altercation because fights between them often end in death for both bears.

“It’s probably the closest anybody’s seen the two of them getting, but we can surmise they’ve encountered each other many times before.”

 A large grizzly bear given the name The Boss chases the grizzly named Split Lip near Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, west of Calgary.

Jon Stuart-Smith, wildlife management specialist for Parks Canada, agrees the interaction Marriott saw was special.

“This kind of encounter is fairly unusual to witness,” he said. “It probably does happen in nature more than we’re able to see, but it’s unique to witness an event like John did.”

Stuart-Smith said the bears are about the same age, between 18 and 21 years old, roughly the same size and were part of a Parks Canada monitoring program that ended in 2017.

“Those types of encounters are how bears determine their social hierarchy,” he said. “Often the physical interactions like that are less common whereas the dominance is played out in just simply interacting with each other through stances and vocalization prior to any physical contact between the two animals.”

The two have overlapping home ranges of about 2,000 square kilometres, Stuart-Smith said, but the main part of the range is within the Bow Valley. He added it’s not unusual to see bear activity in that area during spring and early summer but it’s important for all visitors to know the risks any time of year.

“It’s a good reminder for visitors whenever they’re camping in a national park to make sure that whenever you’re not at the campsite that you’re not leaving any attractants out,” he said.

If you do come upon wildlife in a campground or along roadways or trails, he said, visitors should adhere to distance guidelines to keep themselves and the animals safe.

“If a large animal like an elk or deer or moose is present, stay at least 30 metres away, even if you’re in a vehicle,” he said. “If it’s a bear or another carnivore like a wolf, you should stay at least 100 metres away, in your vehicle.”

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