WRITTEN BY ANDY GOODSON
Bumbling black bears were not always the apex predators of Saskatchewan's boreal forest. Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos, formerly known as 'ursa horribilis') were once an abundant species in the prairie provinces whose range extended from the Rocky Mountains to east of Winnipeg.
Although the plains population of grizzly bear was deemed extirpated in the 1880s, reports in east-central Saskatchewan and western Manitoba occurred relatively late within the past century. The last reputable sightings occurred in the Pasquia Hills until 1950, and Porcupine Hills in 1960.
One September morning, Sean, Mitch, Nate and I were driving north on the Saskota Highway for a weekend backpacking trip at Rice River in the Pasquia Hills. We were passing by some farmland south of Hudson Bay at the skirt of the forest when a black bear caught our attention just before sulking off into the bush across the highway.
The sighting sparked Sean's memory of an experience he had while camping in the Rocky Mountains when distant grizzly bear calls had kept him up all night in an anxious sweat. He said: "Say what you want about the prairies, but at least we don't have to deal with the threat of six-hundred-pound carnivores, where the only thing to do if you get attacked is roll over, play dead and hope they don't rip off too many limbs."
I, too, believed wolves and cougars are enough of an added concern while camping in the backcountry. The hills may have been a refuge for the prairie-dwelling grizzly bears, but the chance of finding any today, or in the near future, is highly unlikely.
WHY DO BEARS SUDDENLY DISAPPEAR?
Written accounts of grizzly bears in the prairies and boreal regions date as far back as 1691, with several reports from explorers, surveyors and fur-traders in the following two centuries.
Encounters with grizzlies were often near major river valleys and wooded uplands, such as the Saskatchewan River and fringes of the northern forest. These areas offered high vegetation productivity and greater quantities of large prey species such as deer, elk and bison.
As the number of European settlements increased during a period of rapid colonization, so did fur trade expeditions and the proliferation of firearms. Grizzly furs passed through Fort Pelly on a regular basis by 1857 and were reported in trading posts near the Saskatchewan River delta up until the First World War.
A large population of grizzlies thrived in the Cypress Hills where hunting the species was taboo among indigenous tribes (Nielsen 1975). The influence of the fur trade eventually overcame superstitions, and hunting in Cypress became a profitable venture. Isaac Cowie, an explorer and fur trader of the Palliser Expedition, received 750 grizzly skins at Cypress Hills in 1871. Just twelve years later, Cypress was reported empty of grizzlies (Stegner 1962 in Nielsen 1975). Horses still beared claw marks from grizzlies that no longer existed.
The entire plains population of grizzly bear took its final nose-dive in tandem with wild bison by the turn of the century. Habitat loss, lack of food, and the grizzly's slow reproductive rates provoked their quick decline. Widespread agriculture, hunting and fur-trading were chief contributing factors in the plains grizzly's demise.
The Last Encounters
Grizzly bear sightings occurred in the Pasquia Hills for decades after their supposed extirpation. The indigenous people who lived in the Nipawin area had a separate name for a species that was different than a black bear and had a reputation of being fierce. They would not venture into the nearby Pasquia Hills unless they were in a large group and well armed (White, 1965).
In 1965, Thomas White wrote an article detailing the latest stories of grizzly sightings in Saskatchewan. One was a story he had heard of a local towerman, stationed at the Pasquia Hills' plateau known as Wildcat Hill. The man was trapped for several days while a large bear returned each evening, trying to force its way into the tower. He finally escaped by leaving food outside and running to a nearby reserve. The size, aggression and persistence were not typical for black bears.
White recounted another story of Gerry Murdock, who killed a grizzly bear south of the Pasquia Hills in 1939 and had photographic evidence. The bear terrified Murdock's family for several days, and at one point had "broke into the home, drank a five gallon crock of cream and caused much damage." The bear was shot between the eyes with a gun triggered by a trip wire on the other side of a shed door.
In a 1967 article by R.W. Sutton, a story originating from Duck Mountain raised the question of how far south the dwindling population may have lived. In 1923, two men trapping for pelts, found a black bear in one of their traps that was already dead and partially eaten. The men reset their trap with some adjustments for a larger, more powerful creature, but when they checked the trap the next day, it was missing. They later found the bear and were rushed several times despite it being bound by the trap. The bear was eventually shot and the men collected the remains—long claws, a massive skull and a heap of twisted metal, the likes of which impressed the men who had trapped hundreds of black bears in their lifetime.
The last grizzly bear in the area was spotted by helicopter in the Porcupine Hills, between the Duck Mountains and Pasquia Hills, in 1960. Most of these hills and forests had little to no road access at the time and were far removed from human disturbances allowing for a small population of grizzlies to survive undetected. Within the last fifty years, however, logging operations, motor vehicles and trail cutting encroached once again on the grizzly's refuge.
In 2009, Environment Canada published a recovery strategy for the prairie population of grizzlies. The controversial reintroduction was laid to rest in the report's opening statement:
"Recovery of this species is considered not technically or biologically feasible at this time."
There was no doubt a collective sigh of relief among some rural residents and naturalists who did not feel strongly for releasing violent animals into their backyard. Deciding which animals to protect out of personal convenience, however, was the peak of wishy-washyness and a point scrutinized by conservation groups.
The one-sentence dismissal hid the fact that the chief problem was an issue of public acceptance—grizzlies required vast tracts of public land to hunt and reproduce, as well as, you know, not being shot in the face.
Unfortunately for bears, attitudes hadn't changed and the grizzly's history on the prairies was left to obscurity. The loss remained worth noting, if not for future reintroduction, then as a reminder that our concept of wilderness preservation has always been self-serving.
Environment Canada. 2009. Recovery Strategy for the Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos), Prairie Population, in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Environment Canada, Ottawa. v + 28 pp.
Nielsen, P.L. 1975. The past and present status of the plains and boreal forest grizzly bear in Alberta. Canadian Wildlife Service, unpublished report 75-40. Edmonton, Alberta. 65 pp.
Sutton, R.W. 1967. Possible recent occurrence of grizzly in Manitoba. Blue Jay 25: 190–191.
White, T. 1965. The possibility of Grizzly bears still existing in Saskatchewan. Blue Jay 23:136- 140.