How Kelowna got its name from 'grizzly bear', despite a distinct lack of grizzlies around - InfoNews

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How Kelowna got its name from 'grizzly bear', despite a distinct lack of grizzlies around

The Bear at Jim Stuart Park is one of Kelowna's most beloved public art installations.
July 04, 2020 - 12:00 PM

The story is that Kelowna derived its name from the Syilx word for grizzly bear but there's another, more odoriferous, tale about how the name came to be and it may surprise you.

The story told by a Syilx elder is a lot more interesting and seems more likely, especially since the Okanagan valley bottom is rarely graced by grizzly bears.

“It’s been told to me before (by an elder)," said Cailyn Glasser, the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s natural resource lead. "The story refers to a priest that came and camped in Kelowna when there was a settlement there and in fact, the place Kelowna is named after the priest who was cast out from the settlement. After so many days, he smelled so bad, the Indigenous kids started calling him ‘Kelowna,’ only because he smelled and looked like a grizzly bear.” 

The story is similar to Tourism Kelowna’s which posted on its website that August Gillard, an early settler, crawled from an underground shelter just as a group of First Nation people passed by.

“The local people called out, ‘Kim-ach-touch,’ meaning Brown Bear. Over time, this became Kelowna, meaning grizzly bear, which was easier to pronounce,” according to the website.

READ MORE: As humans isolate, this B.C. grizzly emerges from a snowy hibernation

What is clear, however, is that grizzlies are rare in the Okanagan. It is unlikely they would have settled in the valley bottom although there’s preferred habitat for them at higher elevations, Glasser said.

“Our elders and tech folk tell us that grizzly bears did reside in the Okanagan. That said, the habitat here, even if undisturbed, isn’t very representative of good grizzly bear habitat until you get up in elevation,” she said.

The Okanagan Nation Alliance has been conducting a number of projects on grizzly bears since they were listed as threatened and protected in 2014.

The ongoing Okanagan Highlands Project aims to find out how many grizzly bears there are near Big White, Little White and east of Naramata.

“We’ve had confirmed sightings of grizzly bears up there,” Glasser said, adding that there’s some speculation that there may be more bears in the area than originally predicted or that bears in the Monashee mountains and Kettle-Granby regions may be moving here.

Confirmed sightings don’t always translate into viable populations, she said.

READ MORE: 'Thought it was a panda:' Second rare grizzly bear seen in Banff National Park

“We had wildlife cameras up last year and we confirmed that there’s enough presence up there to start looking at genetic composition and how many bears there might be and with that information we can build the next step,” she said.

In the Okanagan, researchers are not looking to re-establish grizzly populations, but want to better understand existing populations and how can they better manage the bears. Grizzly bears are currently listed as extirpated in the region, which means the population no longer exists within a certain geographical location.

“Grizzly bears are, for the Sylix people, the overseer or the keystone species that holds the ecosystem together… one of our elders from one of our working groups said ‘if the land can’t support grizzly bears, the land can’t support people,'” Glasser said.

Don Journeay, owner of Bull Mountain Adventure Park, formerly Crystal Mountain in West Kelowna, spotted what appeared to be a grizzly bear a few weeks ago roughly 500 metres away on one of the ski hill runs. He saw the bear through his binoculars.

During the last four years on the mountain this is the first time he’s seen one in the park.

READ MORE: Huge spike in bear sightings reported in West Kelowna area

“He was only out for about a minute and then he went back into the bush,” Journeay said.

It was a large bear with a brown colour and a distinct hump.

“It’s possible that a grizzly bear came over from the west somewhere,” Glasser said, adding it’s unlikely but not impossible.

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith

In the 30 years Edna Johnstone has lived at Telemark Nordic Club on Crystal Mountain, she’s only seen a grizzly cub once in one of the cleared areas. But she’s had plenty of run-ins with black bears over the years. In recent weeks, one broke into her vehicle and one stole birdseed from her shed.

“It would be very uncommon to have a grizzly bear sighting locally. Occasionally males travel large distances looking for females so that they can get a mating opportunity and June is breeding season, so there’s certainly the possibility that there could be a grizzly bear sighting although it is unlikely,” said Meg Bjordal, with WildSafeBC.

Established grizzly populations to the west of the Okanagan are considered to be critically endangered so there are only a few bears in those populations, she said.

B.C. has roughly 15,000 grizzly bears, which counts for a quarter of the North American population.

Each year in the Okanagan there is a small number of reported sightings, but good evidence must be collected such as multiple sightings and photos to determine if it’s a grizzly, Bjordal said.

One of the most distinct differences, beyond size and the distinctive hump is the claws, Bjordal said, adding grizzly bears will have long claws.

This story was originally published June 27.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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