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Secrets of the Griz - Fernie Wildlife Tours

Saturday • August 27, 2011

source: Calgary Herald August 24, 2011. Article by Rebecca Edwards

I’m standing in B.C.’s Flathead Valley at an open viewpoint looking across to the China Wall, an imposing cliff face on the side of Mount Broadwood.

Using a scope, Fernie Wilderness Adventures owner Kim Sedrovic scans the mountainside and picks out a grazing herd of eight Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, too far away to see with the naked eye.

He beckons me over to the scope, which is trained closely on the animals, and points out how to tell the male rams apart by their darker wool and curly mass of horns on their head.

“I came here with my kids once and we spent two hours watching a grizzly teaching her cubs how to hunt sheep,” he tells me.

“They would crouch up in the trees uphill from the sheep, and then go running into the herd, trying to grab whatever they could.

“Each time the sheep would move on to the next crag, the bears would follow them, and try it again.

“That’s why everyone wants to see grizzlies — they are such majestic creatures, and so clever.”

You don’t get better odds of seeing a grizzly bear than in the Flathead Valley, population 156 grizzlies.

At one grizzly bear per 15 square kilometres, the 153,000-hectare river valley near Fernie has the largest concentration of grizzlies in interior (non-coastal) North America, and is also a sanctuary for moose, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk, deer and wolves.

The Canadian Flathead Valley starts around 30 kilometres southeast of Fernie and stretches to the U.S.-Canada border, leading to Glacier National Park; to the east is Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park. The Flathead wilderness rivals either park for peak after peak of wild Rocky Mountain terrain.

It has no permanent inhabitants and is accessible only by a web of gravel logging roads, a remote but coveted destination for hunters and wildlife watchers alike.

Sedrovic started his year-round wildlife watching, fly-fishing and cat-skiing operation in 1986 and has guided groups through the Flathead ever since.

The company’s lodge is at the gateway to the Flathead, giving Sedrovic a front-row view of local wildlife and unrivalled knowledge about where to watch them safely, with concern for both wildlife and the environment.

Tours can be a half-day, full day or several days, combined with ATV travel, hiking, fly-fishing or assisted backcountry camping trips, when Sedrovic supplies equipment and training to give first-time campers more confidence.

On this trip, we are only a few kilometres off the highway when we turn a corner and encounter a large bull moose ambling majestically along the forest road.

“If I whistle at it, it should stop for us,” says Sedrovic, jumping out of the truck as the moose catches sight of us and starts to head down an embankment.

Sedrovic whistles excitedly, as though calling for a runaway dog, and the massive beast halts for a few seconds to look for the source of the sound, giving us a good view of his wide horns and beady eyes before he disappears out of sight.

As it turned out, the moose and the bighorn sheep were my jackpot on the trip; I left the Flathead without seeing any grizzlies. However, coming up in the next few weeks is the best time to spot a Flathead grizzly, as they move to lower altitudes in search of fall berry crops that will help sustain them through winter hibernation.The Flathead Valley is at the centre of international debate on how to best manage its land and ecosystems.

The Crown-owned valley in B.C. is bordered by Montana’s Glacier National Park to the south and Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park to the east.

Environmental groups from both sides of the border are campaigning to turn the lower third of the B.C. valley into a national park, which would connect Glacier and Waterton parks.

Others, including hunting and pro-access organizations, oppose a park, arguing the area’s wildlife is already thriving under its current management program.

In 2010, the B.C. government banned mining in the B.C. section of the watershed, but the federal government shows no sign of creating a park.Guided tour: Fernie Wilderness Adventures runs half-day, full day or multi-day wildlife watching tours, from $125 with lunch included. Tours may be combined with fly-fishing trips and assisted backcountry camping. Stay at Fernie Wilderness Adventures lodge in Morrissey ($135 per night), or arrange a shuttle from your hotel: fernieadventures.com.

Watch Out: The best times of year for grizzly bear watching are fall, when bears can be seen eating huckleberries and Saskatoon berries at low altitude, and during the spring mating season.

Stay a while: The nearest town to the Flathead Valley is Fernie, B.C. For accommodation listings visit tourismfernie.com.

Rebecca Edwards is a journalist from Fernie, B.C.

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