An encounter between two male grizzly bears in Banff Provincial Park brought new meaning to Shakespeare’s famous stage direction: ‘Exit, pursued by bear.’ Canmore wildlife photographer John E. Marriott was camping with his family at Protection Mountain Campground in Banff National Park on July 3, 2020, when two dominant grizzly bears showed up at the campsite at the same time, setting off a chase that Marriott was able to capture on film and video.
The two bears, who are officially numbered as Bear-122 and Bear-136 but nicknamed The Boss and Split Lip respectively, are well-known to residents of the Bow Valley area. Both are dominant male grizzly bears whose antics have turned them into social media stars. “They’re both notorious for causing news, and they’re probably Canada’s most famous bears at this point,” says Marriott in a phone interview. Split Lip made headlines earlier this year for killing a grizzly bear cub, and The Boss has killed and eaten black bears in the past, says Marriott.
Marriott has photographed both The Boss and Split Lip before, with his earliest encounters with The Boss going back to 2008. But “extraordinary circumstances” led the photographer to capture a meeting between the two bears as they both strolled by his campsite in early July.
Split Lip was the first bear on the scene. Marriott was taking out his recycling with his son when he caught sight of the bear entering a nearby empty campground before sitting and chowing down on dandelions. “Split Lip knew very much what he was doing,” says Marriott. “He had a look of comfort about him.” Marriott describes the bear’s expression towards the humans as a complete look of disinterest. “Oh, human, big deal. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
On his website, Marriott describes the full account of what happened next. Being early July, the campground had only just opened for the season and was fairly quiet. Marriott rushed his son back to his wife and the safety of a vehicle, shouting a warning that the few other campers heard and responded to. He also grabbed his bear spray and photography equipment.
While photographing Split Lip from the safety of his car, Marriott saw The Boss arrive. None too pleased with the sight of Split Lip, The Boss gave chase. Swiping at Split Lip, The Boss chased the rival bear down the highway and out of sight.
Marriott described the thrill of the encounter to Cottage Life, recalling The Boss “literally coming within inches of taking a big gouge out of Split Lip when he took his first swing at him, and Split Lip just spun away from him.”
Grizzly bears pursue a solitary lifestyle, but because they need a large amount of space to survive, their home ranges will overlap with those of other bears. “We estimate that Banff National Park has between 60 to 80 grizzly bears,” says Jón Stuart-Smith, Wildlife Management Specialist with Parks Canada for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay National Field Unit. There are probably only two or three adult males in the Bow Valley, he adds, and the Boss and Split Lip are the dominant males in the area.
To avoid crossing paths, bears rub against trees to leave behind a scent marker, says Stuart-Smith. One the rare occasion that two males do encounter one another, they’ll establish dominance through stances and vocalizations. If posturing isn’t enough to confirm the pecking order, meetings can turn physical. Stuart-Smith says scars on both the Boss’s and Split Lip’s faces are likely results of run-ins with other male bears.
Stuart-Smith advises visitors that if they see a bear they need to retreat to a vehicle as quickly as possible, regardless of what the bear is doing. Campers should then notify park staff of the bear’s presence. He adds that even within a vehicle, campers should stay at least 30 metres away from large animals such as elk and deer. For carnivores, bump up the distance to 100 metres.
When travelling on trails, visitors should carry bear spray and make noise as they walk. Even in COVID-19 times, it’s safer to travel in groups. Just make sure you are doing it safely, adds Stuart-Smith.
Marriott also maintains the importance of giving wildlife their space. “If you were sitting out in your backyard, you wouldn’t want people wandering right up to you and taking your picture with their cellphone.” Treat wild animals like a dog you don’t know, he says.
Taking precautions that give grizzly bears the space they need will help the species survive in national parks for future generations to see. Marriott predicts that as more wildlife photographers and nature lovers explore Banff National Park, they too will come to know and be enchanted by the stories of grizzly bears like the Boss and Split Lip.
For more about the chase and to see wildlife photos, visit John E. Marriott’s website.