The biggest value of the Eben-Ebenau collection is scientific, says Roland Eben-Ebenau. A few years ago a grad student at the University of Alberta contacted him to see how many grizzly bear skulls were in the collection. The student was shocked when he said 22, all catalogued. The University of Alberta had two grizzly skulls – one labeled and the other not. The researcher took a bone chip off the back of each, this gave baseline evidence for the Swan Hills grizzly before logging, oil, and the Swan Hills hazardous waste treatment plant.
Roland’s father Reinhold homesteaded on the north shore of Lesser Slave Lake starting in 1930.
“There were no jobs in Alberta back then,” says Roland. Homesteading in the bush was tough. There was no way to make a living from the land for several years. To make a living, Reinhold had a trapline 30 kilometres south of his homestead on the other side of the lake. His trap-line was in the northern section of the Swan Hills, south of Canyon Creek. An active conservationist, hunter, and outfitter, Reinhold collected and catalogued various animals for 60-odd years, starting in the 1930s. He died in 1997.
In the 1970s, the family built a museum building to get the skulls, mounted animals, and other artifacts out of the house. Roland still gives tours by appointment.
The bear skulls are from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, says Roland. Two of the skulls are Western Canadian record grizzlies. The museum also has the 1944 recorded bear mounted. These are also connected to the large grizzly in the Kinuso museum, which was shot in the 1980s or 90s.
The story goes: Reinhold was trapping in the Swan Hills. Year to year, he became aware that he was “in the company of a particularly large grizzly bear,” says Roland. Over about 10 years, he didn’t see the bear, but saw evidence, which suggested that the bear was no longer afraid of him. Trappers attract bears because they take the fur, but leave the meat of squirrels, rabbits, mink, etc.
On November 6, 1944, Reinhold shot the bear. It was the largest grizzly shot in North America.
In 1953, Bella Twin, from Slave Lake, was shooting squirrels in the same basic area. She shot a grizzly through the eye with a 22. She and her partner took the hide, but left the skull. From the description, Reinhold suspected that it was related to his bear, so he bought the skull, cleaned and measured it. It was a new record.
Unfortunately, says Roland, in the 1950s and 60s the general policy with development was “every bear was shot and left to rot.” However, now the grizzlies are coming back. They are common in both the Marten Hills north of the homestead and in the Swan Hills where Reinhold trapped.
In 2010, the Alberta government listed grizzlies as threatened, says an overview of the Alberta government’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. At the time, the entire population in Alberta was only 700 to 800 bears.
Reinhold was involved in scientific discussion that the Swan Hills grizzly were the biggest in North America, so might be the descendants of the plains grizzly, which were 10 to 15 per cent larger than others.
The plains grizzly hunted the bison, says Roland. This is something smaller grizzlies couldn’t do.
The Eben-Ebenau collection also includes bison bones which people have found throughout the area. Roland has also added a few modern skulls from his own herd of bison.
Bison roamed this area before the late 1800s, when the plains herds were almost wiped out. After Roland Eben-Ebenau took over the homestead in the late 1990s, he started bison ranching.
Now there are over one million bison in Canada, says Roland. Most of them on ranches and farms.