Story by Ron Wiebe

The beauty and splendor of the mountains lure hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts to the spectacular Kananaskis area every year. Against this scenic backdrop last summer, Alberta's conservation officers embarked on a hide-and-seek adventure that consumed them for almost a month and will not soon be forgotten.

What began as two separate August adventures in the mountains of Kananaskis, ended in a fight for survival for two outdoor enthusiasts. Pierre Richards of Canmore and Jeffrey Fortin of Calgary both encountered the same bear on two very separate days resulting in very similar terror-filled situations.

On August 14, 2000 at 5 p.m., Pierre Richards and his friend Geoffrey Fowler mountain biked up the trails in Canmore that lead to an area south of the Nordic Centre Provincial Park. The ride was very steep and covered difficult terrain. So steep was the descent portion of the trail, the cyclists carried the bikes to the top of the run. From this point both Richards and Fowler mounted their bikes and proceeded down the steep terrain, trying to achieve their top speed and maximum pleasure.

As the steep trail tapered off a bit about one minute into the ride, Fowler heard a noise to his left. Looking back he saw a grizzly bearing down on him. Fowler was still travelling at a good speed, headed down the winding trail. His front tire found a good-sized log that launched him headlong down the path. He got up and continued running into the bush and fell in a slight impression with the grizzly still right on his tail. Behind him Richards was yelling and trying to get the bearÕs attention. Fowler looked behind him and realized he was on the ground and vulnerable. Fortunately for him the grizzly, not more than an arm's length away, turned 180 degrees. The bear was headed for Richards. Fowler continued down the trail for help, not stopping until he found someone below.

Meanwhile Richards watched the grizzly turn toward him with about 30 metres to cover. Richards hopped on his mountain bike and tried to outrun the bear. Within a short distance he changed direction and the bear knocked him off his bike. He tried to fight the bear, using the bike as cover and actually punched and yelled at the grizzly, to no avail. The grizzly got the better of him and Richards was forced into playing dead Ñ the bear's power was immense and unstoppable. Richards quit moving and the grizzly stopped the attack. Richards knew he was hurt and alone and needed to make it to help. He began the journey for aid by dragging himself down the mountainside to an area within the Nordic Centre Provincial Park.

The first on the scene was an employee of a local rental shop who grabbed a can of pepper spray and bicycle and headed to the mauling location. Fortunately he came across Richards and administered first aid without further incident involving the bear.

Shortly afterward, conservation officers and RCMP arrived on the scene and extricated Richards, who was taken to an ambulance waiting below. He was admitted to the Mineral Springs Hospital in Banff where he underwent surgery and received numerous stitches. Richards was in a lot of pain and swollen up but still alive.

Thirteen days later a similar set of events lead another pair of outdoor enthusiasts into an event no less terrifying. This time the event transpired in the Skogan Pass Area, around 22 kilometres away from the first mauling. The terrain to get from one location to the next is mountainous and rough.

On August 27 at 11 a.m., two hikers, Stephen Miles and Jeffrey Fortin were walking along Skogan Pass Trail. As they rounded a corner they saw before them two grizzlies feeding on buffalo berries. Immediately one of the bears saw them and began to charge the two men. Miles stumbled and fell to the ground as he tripped on a rock. The grizzly, still charging, passed Miles on the ground and headed for Fortin who was still fleeing from the scene. Fortin received a swipe from the grizzly, which ripped the strap off his day pack and spun him around. Fortin removed the pack and threw it toward the bear and he dropped to the ground. The aggressive grizzly sniffed at Fortin's pack and turned towards Miles, who had just gotten up from his fall.

The grizzly turned and jumped onto Miles. The attack lasted for 20 to 30 seconds, an eternity as anyone involved in a traumatic incident knows. Miles was yelling at the grizzly and it eventually stopped. The bear then backed off and scanned over the two downed men. Then both grizzlies fled the area.

Fortin looked over at his friend only a short distance away and knew he needed help. He administered first aid to slow the bleeding and tried to remove him from the area. They only made it a few hundred metres when they decided Fortin would go for help and leave the mauled Miles on the hill. With no bears in site Fortin headed down the hill towards Nakiska Ski Resort and found the assistance of one of their staff members. Thanks to them, Miles was then taken out of the area by truck. He was driven to the Kananaskis Emergency Centre where onsite paramedics treated him. With treatment and some stabilization Miles was then taken to the Foothills Hospital in Calgary where he received surgery and numerous stitches. Like Richards, he was lucky to be alive. Perhaps the only thing that saved both men from the incredible strength of the grizzly was their own submission and surrender.

Little did anyone know the two incidents would be as connected as they were. Conservation officers spent hundreds of hours of often exhausting work in order to determine this. From the time of the maulings and the final capture of the grizzlies, to the trail closures (until November) which protected these incredible bears, Alberta Environment staff worked diligently to ensure no further incidents arose.

From some of Alberta's best-trained conservation officers, teams and resources were created and pooled.

Bear Response Team (BRT) leaders such as Officers Stan Hawes, Rocky Hornung, Randy Flath, Dennis Urban, Keith Linderman, Egon Larsen and Kirk Olchoway assembled their teams and worked long days. BRT leaders were responsible for assembling each six-man team and overseeing daily operations as they took their turn at working on a completely unique situation in the mountains of Kananaskis.

Public and officer safety was a large concern and so was the safety of the animals involved.

In both cases other conservation officers had responsibilities involving interviewing witnesses and victims. They reviewed past and present occurrences, set up the closures and worked closely with the BRT leader to ensure all bases were covered. Media relations was a frontline issue as the reporters tried to determine all that happened. This work consumed days of officer manpower.

Alberta Environment managers were kept abreast of the situation at all times and were in touch with team leaders and other staff. Closed areas were patrolled daily, yet some members of the public still chose to ignore them. This resulted in prosecutions.

Alberta Environment utilized highly skilled staff in Edmonton which assisted in DNA analysis to positively identify the bear or bears involved. It was learned that the same grizzly was responsible for the mauling of both Richards and Miles.

It took hundreds of hours of work coupled with many kilometres of travelling, setting traps and snares and working from the early morning hours to dark to find the grizzly responsible for the events. She was captured by one of the BRTs on September 12 near the second mauling site. To all involved the capture was a tremendous relief and success.

As was believed by BRT leaders the grizzly involved was a sow with two cubs. The cubs were large in size, appearing almost as big as the sow when free-ranging. They were around four years old and the sow in her late teens. Upon capture, DNA samples were taken to Alberta Environment staff in Edmonton and a positive match was found to both maulings. The sow grizzly had initiated both attacks and was deemed a threat if released. She was accepted by the Calgary Zoo and is believed to be fitting in well and gaining weight with her high-protein diet.

The cubs, however, were a different concern. They were both female and good candidates to be a productive pair of breeding females for the mountain areas. They were released into the Wind Valley area and were fitted with collars and tags. Regular monitoring found the grizzly cubs had split up shortly afterwards and began their new life in their old habitat areas. Biologists, technicians and conservation officers alike have watched with anticipation as these two cubs settled in, bringing a new future to the area. They denned up late in November and now sleep peacefully as the mountains watch them and look over them.

Hats off to all the staff involved, from the frontline up to the top, for making the best of a very difficult summer. This summer and your help will not be forgotten.

Ron Wiebe is a member of the Conservation Officers Association of Alberta in Canmore.