Background Information: The Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary
The Khutzeymateen Valley is Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary and the home of one of British Columbia’s most important coastal populations of grizzly bears. Located on the northwest coast of BC, the Khutzeymateen is a stunning land of dense Sitka spruce rainforest, fjords and high, rugged mountains. The Khutzeymateen lies at the northern end of the The Great Bear Rainforest which is one of the largest contiguous tracts of temperate rainforest in the world.The Khutzeymateen River watershed plus the neighbouring drainages of Larch and Cedar Creek, make up the 44,000 hectares of the sanctuary.
At one time, grizzlies were widespread and found throughout much of North America. Due to human population growth, extensive development, and direct persecution, grizzlies have been extirpated across much of their historic range. Even in the remote coastal regions of BC viable grizzly bear habitat has been reduced to small, isolated pockets. Here on the coast clear-cutting has devastated much of the grizzly’s habitat and has also caused erosion along streams, thereby destroying one of the primary food sources for grizzlies – the salmon spawning grounds.
In the early 1970s the threat of logging to the Khutzeymateen was first identified. Two small areas were cut in 1950 and 1956, but the rest of the Khutzeymateen was left untouched. Intense lobbying by environmentalists in the 1980’s ultimately led to the creation of the sanctuary in 1992. Ocean Light Adventures under the leadership of Tom Ellison joined forces with the Valhalla Society in 1987 and offered the boat as a floating base camp for the many environmentalists and media people who came to help save the valley. Guided by the mentoring of bear biologist Wayne McCrory, and later Charlie Russell, we learned much about the grizzly bears. And, we became intimately connected to – and acquainted with – the many bears of the Khutzeymateen. Ocean Light Adventures has spent every spring since 1987 in the lush, green Khutzeymateen and is currently one of only two commercial operators allowed to take visitors into the estuary.
“Khutzeymateen” is a native word meaning “…a confined space of salmon and bears” and is an apt description for this area! The river mouth estuary provides important spawning grounds for pink, coho, chum and chinook salmon upon which the grizzlies depend.
The Khutzeymateen Valley contains three main ecosystem types: mountain hemlock, coastal western hemlock and alpine tundra. Each of these ecosystems has its own assemblage of flora and fauna and areas where ecosystems meet (which are often referred to as ecotones) are typically very high in biodiversity.
It is thought that a minimum of 60 grizzlies call the pristine wilderness of the Khutzeymateen home, which is perhaps the largest known concentration of grizzly bears on the entire BC coast. The grizzlies share the watershed with black bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain goats, mink, otters, martens, porcupines and beavers. Marine mammals such as seals, otters, and whales frequent the area and over 100 species of birds are also found in the valley.
Currently the Khutzeymateen is co-managed by BC Parks and the First Nations. Visitation is strictly regulated with only two commercial operators allowed into the sanctuary. Other operators are allowed to view grizzlies further out in the Khutzeymateen Inlet. There is a floating Ranger Station at the Sanctuary Boundary and two First Nation Rangers reside there and ensure that the human/bear interactions in the sanctuary and inlet fall within official guidelines. The original mandate of the park was to protect the valley for the grizzly bears and for more than 20 years BC Parks has been doing a stellar job. To this day the Khutzeymateen remains a place where wild grizzlies can be viewed intimately while they share all aspects of their daily lives with a small number of very privileged human visitors.
The Grizzly Bear
Grizzly (or brown) bears are North America’s largest terrestrial carnivore. Size and weight vary considerably with region, but the largest bears are typically found in coastal areas. The grizzly bear gets its name from the light tipped guard hairs which give them a grizzled appearance. In the spring grizzlies emerge from their winter dens very hungry – during this season the grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen focus on eating sedge grass, skunk cabbage and roots near the shoreline of the inlet. They can also be seen foraging in the intertidal zone for clams and shore crabs. Coastal grizzly bears are powerful swimmers and in their estuary home are in and out of the water almost constantly. They can often be seen snorkelling with just their heads below the water.
Grizzly bears are solitary animals for most of the year. However, in spring it is mating season and adult bears congregate. Female grizzlies stay with their cubs for up to three years, so often in the Khutzeymateen in the spring we will see female bears with cubs.
On the coast grizzly bears enter their dens to hibernate in late October/early November, and cubs are born in the dens in the deep of winter. Typically the bears emerge from the dens in early spring. Female grizzlies on the coast have between 1 and 3 cubs.
Grizzly bears have a great sense of smell and phenomenal hearing. Contrary to folklore, grizzlies can also see very well and their vision is comparable to humans. They use their powerful senses to locate food and to detect danger.
We find that the best time period for viewing grizzlies in the Khutzeymateen is from mid-May through to mid-June. During this time the bears are normally present in relatively large numbers and exhibit (and share with us) an amazingly wide array of behaviours, including courting and mating behaviour, dominance struggles between young males and their older counterparts, mother-cub interactions, and more. At this time of year the sedges and grasses are still reasonably short and don’t obscure the bears, making for both ideal bear viewing and bear photography conditions. As an added bonus, the hours of daylight at this northerly latitude during this May-June time period are very extended, thus giving us many hours to view the bears each day.
Travelling to the beautiful Khutzeymateen Valley and sharing a few days with the grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen is a unique and unforgettable experience that you will cherish forever.