Feds abandon prairie grizzlies

🕔Nov 19, 2007

Mexico: home of the grizzly bear. This is not the slogan you’d expect to see on the brochure for your next sunny vacation.
But at one time, North America’s grizzly bears roamed as far south as central Mexico and as far east as Winnipeg. The species was plentiful across the Canadian prairies, as attested to by the area’s first European explorers back in the 1700s.
Last summer, Environment Canada officially announced that it will not attempt to recover the prairie grizzly population, which had mostly disappeared by the 1880s except for a few small populations. (In Manitoba, the last grizzly bear was shot in 1923.) According to the Recovery Strategy for the Grizzly Bear, Prairie Population, released in July 2007, hunting, habitat loss due to farming and ranching, and encroaching human development have made grizzly survival east of the Rockies next to impossible.
What that decision means for us in northern British Columbia is that a line drawn on a map—the grizzly’s range boundary, which has been moving progressively north and west—is beginning to constrict around northwestern Canada, leaving us at the doorstep of disappearing grizzly populations.
As to whether that boundary will continue to move westward: “Oh yeah,” says Prince George-based grizzly bear biologist Lana Ciarniello.
“There’s no doubt that as human populations expand, bear populations become in trouble. They’re a large carnivore and we have a difficult time sharing our landbase with large carnivores,” says Ciarniello, who worked with the Parsnip Grizzly Bear Habitat Inventory Project looking at effects of forestry operations on the distribution and abundance of grizzly bears in the Central Interior.
With an 18,100 square kilometre study area spanning roughly from Prince George to Mackenzie and east into the Rocky Mountains, a DNA population census was done, which showed there were 49 bears per 1,000 square kilometres in mountainous areas and only 12 per 1,000 square kilometres on the plateau.
In fact, out of about 30 grizzlies studied on the plateau, more than a dozen were shot, Ciarniello says.
“We found that one of the largest differences in density was actually attributed to the number of roads on the landscape and the number of human-caused mortalities,” says Ciarniello who, while doing her doctorate through the University of Alberta, discovered the biggest reason for grizzly mortality was hunting.
“Bears were being shot during hunting of other species, particularly moose, in conflicts with hunters. The majority of those were shot and left, so had the bear not had a radio collar on, we would have never known about its mortality. They were unreported.”
Most of British Columbia’s grizzly populations are currently classified as “viable,” or sustainable over the long-term, with 17,000 individuals estimated by BC’s Ministry of Environment. That’s in stark contrast to our neighbour to the east, which has seen shocking declines in grizzly numbers over recent years.
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development is currently in the midst of DNA sampling to determine population numbers. So far, results have shown roughly between five and 12 grizzlies per 1,000 square kilometres in three areas studied. The government has shied away from guessing overall numbers for the province, but conservationists are estimating only 400 or 500 grizzlies remain on provincial land—roughly half of what was estimated a few years ago.
Declining grizzly numbers have prompted groups like International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to call for government action to legally protect the remaining northwest grizzlies, despite the population’s perceived stability.
“An important first step for the government would be to list them under the Species at Risk Act (SARA),” IFAW Canada communications manager Erica Martin says. “The northwest population has been scientifically designated as species at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) since 1991, yet the Canadian government has still not listed the species.”
The prairie grizzly population was designated as extirpated (non-existent) in the prairies in 1991 and was officially listed under the SARA in 2003. Under SARA, the federal government is required to prepare a recovery strategy for listed species.
In its recovery strategy for the prairie grizzly, Environment Canada stated simply, “It was determined that the recovery of the grizzly bear, Prairie population, is not technically or biologically feasible at this time. The species still may benefit from general conservation programs in the same geographic area, and will receive protection through SARA and other federal and provincial or territorial legislation, policies and programs.”
Despite the disappearance of grizzlies from the prairies, it has been less than two years since the Alberta government imposed a three-year moratorium on its annual spring grizzly hunt while its DNA population census is completed. Just this September, the province said it would accept and implement a Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan that it has had in its possession for three years.
To date, it has refused to list Alberta’s grizzlies as “threatened,” despite population estimates being well below the 1,000 individuals required to do so.
For conservationists like Northern Lights Wildlife Society’s Angelika Langen, it’s hoped that increasing public pressure will cut through some of the red tape in grizzly conservation.
In spring 2005, a Banff National Park grizzly known only as Bear 66 emerged from her den with three cubs. All eyes were on the bear family; local media reported on them almost weekly, updating residents on their whereabouts and escapades.
In August that same summer, Bear 66 was hit by a train and killed. Despite public outcry, her cubs were left to their own devices. Less than a month later, two were killed on the Trans-Canada Highway near Banff townsite. The remaining cub was taken to the Calgary Zoo.
Smithers-based Northern Lights fought to take in the young bear and rehabilitate it into the wild, but a political loophole prevented the process: if rehabilitated in British Columbia, the Alberta government refused to take the cub back; the BC government was unwilling to accept the bear if it couldn’t be released back to Alberta.
When Langen and her husband, Peter, moved to Smithers in the 1980s, she says most orphaned bear cubs had little chance of survival and were often destroyed. The couple fought for four years to get a permit allowing them to take cubs in and rehabilitate them. Since 1990, 126 black bears have moved through the facility and most appear to have been successfully returned to the wild.
To this day, not a single grizzly cub has been officially rehabilitated, Langen says, but she hopes public pressure and increased media reporting about grizzly bear issues are starting to change that.
The shelter’s first grizzly arrived June 26, 2007. It’s suspected that the cub, named Suzy and born nearly one year ago, was orphaned when its mother was shot by poachers. With no precedent for grizzly rehabilitation, the Langens are taking every precaution to make sure Suzy’s rehabilitation is a successful one. Next year, Suzy will be released near Dawson Creek, her original roaming territory.
“We’ve been pushing hard for grizzlies here in BC before we only have 200 left,” Langen says, noting that it’s important for British Columbia to get its grizzly management dialed before there is no longer a margin for error.
Grizzlies are slow reproducers, breeding for the first time at six or seven years of age and only every few years after that. They average two or three cubs per litter, with cub mortality at about 50 per cent.
Tony Hamilton, large carnivore specialist with BC’s Ministry of Environment, says the province does have concerns about that boundary continuing to move westward, and that managing motorized access into grizzly habitat remains high on its list of concerns.
“The same issues of industrial expansion, human population increase, climate change, increased road density, higher backcountry tourism and recreational use are very much of concern to us,” he says, noting that all Grizzly Bear Population Units are relatively healthy, except one extirpated area in the Peace that the government won’t try to recover.
Can British Columbia learn from how grizzlies have been managed to the east of us? “Yes, always,” Hamilton says. “I have several contacts in Alberta and will be visiting with them at the International Bear Association Conference next week in Mexico.”
Ah, Mexico: former home of the grizzly bear.