For residents of the resort town of Banff, located on the edge of Canada’s oldest national park, seeing wildlife on a daily basis is just par for the course. Animals are constantly moving around or through town en-route to the park and mountains close by. For the people of Banff, a bear-sighting is just part of a regular day.
That is, unless it’s the Boss.
The Boss, formally known by his identification number, Bear 122, is an adult male grizzly bear weighing over 600lbs (272kg) who lives and hunts in the vicinity of the town. Estimated to be around 20 years old, he’s the biggest bear in Banff National Park.
“He’s the boss of this landscape,” says Dan Rafla, a human-wildlife coexistence specialist with Parks Canada. “He’s the most dominant male grizzly in the Bow Valley…and there’s nothing else in the food chain that could push him off.”
But it’s about more than size; he’s also got quite the reputation. A few of his accolades that have made him Banff’s Top Bear include surviving getting hit by a train. He’s eaten a number of black bears. And apparently he has quite a way with the ladies because he’s fathered a considerable number of offspring.
“Stories from his life only raised his star value,” says Ryan Phinney, who also works in human-wildlife conflict management.
All these epic stories, along with his massive size, have fed into his status as a local cele-bear-ity; there’s even Boss merchandise sold at some of the tourist stores in town. But Rafla says that it’s also just the fact that he spends more time around town and gets seen more often.
“There are only a few grizzlies that big in the area, so people become more familiar with the bears they get to see more. He’s seen enough to be recognized,” explains Rafla.
“In most situations, large dominant male bears are elusive and are never seen unless on wildlife cameras or during the mating season, but number 122 has become a celebrity due to his appearances and actions,” agrees Phinney.
No one is quite sure how he got the nickname the Boss, although Rafla says it stuck after local wildlife photographers and the public started calling him that.
Because of his local legend status, the Boss’s comings-and-goings are a matter of gossip around town, and even further afield in nearby Calgary, where the Calgary Herald reported on him waking up from hibernation last year, as well as national news outlets like the Loop.
Another reason the Boss is so well known is that he was part of a collared tracking study of 26 local bears, with the goal of finding ways to prevent the park’s bears from being killed by trains.
Since 2000, at least 21 grizzlies have been killed by trains within the park, because bears spend a lot of time on the tracks. There are several reasons for this. For dominant males like the Boss (whose collared tracking data revealed that he patrols a remarkably large area of 965sq mi (2,499sq km), maintaining a presence not only in Banff but also in the neighboring national parks of Yoho and Kootenay), the tracks serve as a fast and efficient travel corridor along the valley floor, where snow melts earlier and there are fewer obstacles. But they also serve as a reliable food source: not only can bears find the carcasses of other wildlife killed by trains, but grain is frequently spilled off the top of trains, which the bears can also nosh on.
One of the top places for a Boss sighting is on the train tracks around Banff. “He has made the railroads part of his routine, using them to travel and feed, and is on them throughout his entire season,” says Phinney.
The Boss has already had a close call, having been reportedly hit by a train at some point at the beginning of the last decade. However, he recovered and is none the worse for wear. And it doesn’t appear to have fazed him one bit, as he still uses the tracks as his personal highway and pantry.
But that also means that sometimes the Boss makes his way into town along the tracks. It’s said that one time, he nonchalantly wandered right through downtown, unperturbed by humans and cars.
The Boss isn’t the only big, bad bear in town; there are challengers to his throne. The best known is Split Lip (Bear 136), a nearly 500lb (227kg) adult grizzly male nicknamed for his facial scars. He also haunts the area and has gotten into several confrontations with the Boss. Split Lip is definitely up to the task of challenging the Boss’s spot; he’s eaten a smaller grizzly.
“It’s always possible that another male could become more dominant for a season, but it depends on circumstances,” Rafla says, explaining that sometimes even when a dominant male bear is knocked down a rung one season, he may come back the next to be top bear again. So for now, the Boss’s position is secure.
Even considering how close he comes to town, there have never been any truly bad encounters between the Boss and humans.
“He’s learned to navigate the human landscape quite well,” Rafla says. “Any bear that lives in the valley bottom where there are more people, if that bear’s gonna survive for 20 plus years and be dominant, they have to be intelligent. It showcases how knowledgeable he is, that he’s learned how to avoid people and how to adapt.”
But therein also lies a problem, as well as the dark side to being a celebrity bear.
For all the epic tales, the Boss is still a bear, a bear living his life and doing what all bears do. There’s a danger that residents and visitors have started to see him almost as a cartoon version of a real bear, which can cause them to forget what he really is and the important role he plays in the ecosystem. And it could even endanger him and the people who want to see him.
“During the summer months, people flock to Banff National Park in hopes of seeing the park’s largest and most dominant male bear,” says Phinney. “It has personalized him to the point people think it’s just part of the park experience to go see and meet him.”
With the rise of social media also calling for pics or it didn’t happen and constant documentation, many park visitors have started to invade wildlife’s space to take pictures or videos. This could lead to nasty encounters, with people eager for a picture of the Boss putting themselves or him in danger by getting too close.
This is one reason many wildlife experts and park officials try to avoid calling him the Boss, referring to him as number 122, as giving animals names can anthropomorphize them.
“With a name, it attaches all kinds of ideas and expectations to an animal, it can define it,” says Rafla. “We don’t want people to see these animals as celebrities because it minimizes them, their impact on the environment and their richness as animals.”
But it can also be hard to not want to feel a connection to an animal you see and coexist with year after year.
“The biggest reason for agencies not naming the bears and just referring them to a number, it is believed it keeps a disconnect, and with a name becomes an emotional attachment,” says Phinney. “But we are human, you deal with the same bears year after year, it’s instinctual for there to be some attachment or personalized relationship,” says Phinney.
So perhaps in the future, park visitors will have to satisfy themselves with just the hope of seeing the Boss, or any other bear. A wildlife sighting is a gift, not a guarantee. But regardless of sightings, there’s still the knowledge that somewhere out there along the train tracks, Bear 122 — the Boss — will still be doing his thing.