A Mother Grizzly’s Last Day

Jun 11, 2013

Photographers capture a wild mother grizzly’s last day with her cubs.

On May 27, 2011 at 6:30 am, wildlife photographers John E. Marriott and Cai Priestly were driving onto the TransCanada Highway from Lake Louise and were thrilled to catch sight of a mother grizzly and her two cubs. “Even after seeing many bears over the years, I still feel a jolt of excitement every time. We pulled onto a side road and hoped she would come close enough for us to safely capture her family on film,” says Marriott.

Marriott was fortunate to get some truly wonderful photos of this bear family. Sadly, he captured some of their last moments together. The next evening the mother grizzly was struck and killed by a train near the edge of Lake Louise. Marriott readily admits he was personally devastated by this news and posted the photos online calling his poignant collection “Their Last Day Together.”

People might ask, “What’s all the fuss about? It’s just one bear.” But the death of just one bear, especially a breeding female, is a devastating blow to the grizzly population. This female grizzly was 12 years old, experienced, knew the landscape well and was one of only three breeding females in the Lake Louise area. “If she had lived to between 25 and 28 years old – the lifespan for a normal grizzly – she would likely have had another six to eight cubs,” says Sarah Elmeligi, Senior Conservation Planner with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

The landscape can’t do all things for all people and all animals – all at the same time.

Making up for the loss of just one bear takes a long time. “Grizzly bears reproduce slowly. Females are sexually mature at five, but there are female bears in Alberta older that – age eight to 11 – that still haven’t had cubs,” says Gord Stenhouse, Program Lead Wildlife Carnivore Biologist with the Foothills Research Institute. “It can take 12 to 15 years for a female to replace herself in a landscape. If there are a small number of reproducing females in a population and you lose just one or two you can have a declining population – each female death is a huge loss.”

Since 1999, Stenhouse and a team of 18 scientists from the Foothills Research Institute have studied bear populations in the province and conducted a variety of research projects focused on Alberta’s grizzlies making them the most thoroughly studied mammals in Alberta history.

This extensive research resulted in habitat maps and scientifically based population estimates that were used to change the grizzly bear’s status to threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act in 2010, just one notch below endangered.

“The landscape can’t do all things for all people and all animals – all at the same time. We need to decide what’s important to us now and in the future,” says Stenhouse. “We may need to designate specific areas for some activities and reserve other areas of core habitat for grizzly bears and focus on conservation. Space is a challenge for many species – not just grizzlies.”

Excerpts from the Fall 2011 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s member magazine.

Photos by John E. Marriott,

Learn more the Calgary Zoo’s grizzly bears