Project grizzly: film tracks bears in K-country

By Fifi Enyi

Unbeknownst to Hollywood producers, an untapped reserve of talent lies deep within the icy depths of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. The grizzly bears of the Canadian Rockies are the stars of an hour-long documentary on survival techniques in Kananaskis Country.

The documentary began in 1994 due to a need for scientific information on the nature and status of the grizzly bear population habitat in and around Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country and surrounding areas. The Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project is the site of the film because of the project’s work on how grizzly bears are affected by human activity. The project is composed of six graduate students and University of Calgary Environmental Science Professor Dr. Stephen Herrero, who is also the Chairman of the U of C Eastern Grizzly Bear Project, with Herrero acting as supervising professor for each student researcher.

“There’s an urgent need for information because there’s probably more human development and human activity in this area than in any other area in North America where grizzly bears still survive,” said Herrero. “It was crucial to have detailed information on the status of the population and habitat to be able to evaluate the effects of various forms of human use, whether they be for the development of oil and gas fields or forestry operations or just the huge numbers of people visiting Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park.”

According to co-producer and co-director Ken Beitel, the location presented unique difficulties while filming

“Grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains [are much sparser] than on the coast of British Columbia, where there are may be dozens of bears within a few square miles,” said Beitel. “Here in Banff park a single male grizzly bear might have a range of 1,000 square kilometres. There are a lot fewer bears and they are far more dispersed.”

Due to the low population density of grizzly bears in the Banff National Parks, 25 bears were tagged with radio collars to track their movements. Again, filmmakers encountered challenges along the way.

“Despite the fact that you have a radio signal coming from a bear, it doesn’t by any means mean that you can see it,” said Herrero. “Often times they’re in the cover of forest or woods. Even if you can see it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is safe for you to film it. Beyond that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe for the bear to be bothered with the filming, either.”

Beitel added the difficulties contributed to the lengthy amount of time it took to complete the film.

“It was a long process,” said Beitel. “For every 10 days of being out there in the field we would only see a bear once or twice. There were a lot of days when we would be out there filming and all we ended up with were some really good habitat shots.”

However, the grueling production was offset by the challenge of learning wildlife production and increasing interaction with the audience.

“Once we got the project, we had to change things from the perspective to which we approached this because we had never done anything like this before,” said co-producer and Direc-
tor of Program Development Rob Bromley. “We had to learn real quick what wildlife was all about and what we could bring to it. We also wanted to introduce storytelling and involve the audience in a way that was cost effective.”

Senior producer and co-director John Ritchie enjoyed the benefits of combining grizzly bears and the world-class research of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Projects.

“As a TV producer you are always looking for a story that’s interesting,” he said. “When you add that to one of the best research institutes of grizzly bears in Canada, that makes for winning ingredients.”

Beitel relates a lighter moment that occurred during filming that helped him regain his sense of perspective during difficult periods.

“The mother grizzly bear is heading up the slope and she pauses to kind of stand up and scratch her back against an overhanging branch, and then one after another her two cubs do exactly the same thing,” said Beitel.

The project was funded in part by CBC TV, Discovery US and broadcast television sales. The research overall has been preceded by a hearing committee, with representatives from Banff National Parks, a number of different divisions of the Alberta government, and everything from the Calgary Outdoor Council to oil and gas companies like Shell, Husky and Amoco.

Sponsor organization Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Conservation Director Dave Poulton emphasizes the society’s concern for the preservation of wildlife and continued awareness of large carnivores.

“We believe in supporting this research as it is fundamental in understanding the status of maintaining the eco-system,” said Poulton.

Both Herrero and Beitel would like to see a series of actions implemented that result in the improvement of preserving the natural habit of the grizzly bear and increasing overall awareness to their cause.

“The population is just about at the balance point in terms of birth and death,” said Herrero. “What that means is that we have to continue to manage all of the development activities in the region so that they don’t have bad impacts on grizzly bears or else we’re going to see very declined populations.

“Once people have a good understanding of what grizzly bears need for habitat then all the players involved–the tourism industry, resource development, and park managers–will be able to make good decisions that will allow the grizzly to have enough wilderness habitat to survive.”

The Grizzlies of the Canadian Rockies premieres on CBC Television on March 26 at 8 p.m. There will be a gala reception and screening at MFH 162 during the same day and time.


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