Calgary family spots rare, white-headed grizzly cub outside Banff

When Julia Turner Butterwick snapped a drive-by photo of a grizzly and two cubs on the weekend, the Calgary mother of two had no idea what she was getting.

“I said ‘Oh, I’m just going to snap a picture out the window’ and then as we drove by — we didn’t want to pull over and stop and disturb them — but as we drove by, I realized this cub had a totally white head and it caught me by surprise,” Butterwick said. “I had never seen anything like it.”

It turns out, Butterwick was capturing one of the first known photos of a rare, white-headed grizzly cub.

So rare, parks officials have asked her not to identify the exact location for fear that a flood of nature lovers will flock to the area, potentially endangering the cubs, the mother bear or themselves.

Parks Canada has recently issued a reminder to motorists not to stop on the highway when they see wildlife. The warning comes in the wake of recent excitement over a rare, white grizzly spotted in the mountain parks of Alberta and B.C. That bear, nicknamed Nakoda by locals, was spotted two months ago and has been stopping traffic ever since.

“When visitors see wildlife in other areas, they should consider not stopping or, if safe to stop, always stay in their vehicles and give the animal space,” Parks Canada said in a release. “Bears and other wildlife that become comfortable around people and roadsides are at greater risk of being struck by a vehicle.”

Butterwick says her family did not stop when they spotted the trio during a drive home from Banff National Park.

“We just slowed down a bit because she was quite close to the road, and as we got closer we saw she had two cubs with her.”

It wasn’t until she shared the photo that Butterwick found out what she’d captured.

“I didn’t realize it was that rare,” she said. “I thought, oh that’s unusual, people might be interested in this. But if I’d realized how rare it was I would have called Banff Parks right away. But it was a pretty cool sighting, apparently.”

‘It looks like a panda!’

Butterwick was travelling with her husband and two young children.

“My four year old was really excited,” she said. “As we drove by we said to him ‘Look there’s a momma bear and she has cubs,” she said. “As we got closer … my son said, ‘It looks like a panda!'”

Butterwick says she’ll make sure to keep the location quiet.

“They asked me for some more information on where we saw it, and what side of the road and that kind of thing, and they said that they were going to go out and put some measures in place to protect the bears,” she said. “They don’t want a whole bunch of photographers going out looking for the bears … so I agreed to do that.”

A rare white grizzly is shown in Banff National Park in this undated photo. Parks officials are reminding motorists not to stop their cars if they see wildlife in the mountain parks. (Jason Bantle/Canadian Press handout)

Butterwick said the mother grizzly had a yellow tag on her ear, meaning she is known to parks staff. She thinks that will help staff identify and learn more about the cub. 

In early May, when a Canmore woman spotted a rare white grizzly, conservation biologist Mike Gibeau, told CBC the unfortunate thing about such rare sightings is that the publicity can bring harm to the bears.

“These unusual looking animals get hunted ruthlessly by photographers, and so the less we talk about them, the better,” he said in an email.

For her part, Butterwick hopes people will just enjoy the photo she is sharing, and not try to seek out their own.

“I feel very privileged to have seen this unique sighting and I wanted to share the picture because I think people will only respect wildlife if they love it and appreciate it,” she said. “But I hope it doesn’t encourage people to go out searching for it and disturbing it.”

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