Threatened grizzlies seeking bear necessities

The grizzly bear is a symbol of rugged wilderness. When we think of the grizzly, cold rivers, mountains and dense forests come to mind. However — though it is not well known — grizzlies are a plains species that had a population of around 6,000 that once roamed the prairies, and they behave accordingly. This means that they often stand and challenge instead of running for cover. Nor can their cubs climb trees like the smaller black bear. Even so, most bears would avoid contact with people if they could. Like many species that came into contact with humans as we explored and settled the globe, the grizzly bear had three “options:” adapt to living in close proximity with people, face extinction or take refuge in less hospitable areas.

Grizzly bears in Alberta are now relegated to a small strip of land along the Rockies. As anthropogenic activities increase in these areas, including logging, oil and gas exploration and expansion of both recreational activity and, worst of all, roads and the traffic on them, the mortality and fragmentation of the bears increases. Despite this, apparently hunters, ATV riders and off-roaders are seeing more bears than ever. But what is their frame of reference? Scientists base population estimates on gathered data, past documentation and knowledge of the animal in question. If a person, say an ATV rider, sees more grizzly bears over time, is it because a) there are more grizzlies, b) humans have greater access to remote areas or c) the bear’s habitat is being encroached upon and fragmented, thus forcing them to search for food in areas with more people. I think that in this case I will lay my bets with the scientists and guess that b and c are most likely.

Gordon Stenhouse, of Alberta’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Team, has been working on a government project to count every bear in the province, using several methods including DNA testing of fur collected from stations set up for this purpose. Seven years ago, Alberta’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee recommended that grizzly bears be listed as “threatened” as the population was estimated to be as low as 1,000 reproducing bears. Since then the estimate dropped to 500 bears in total, and then well below that. Taking into account that the latest estimate of 350 bears includes all of the independent non-reproductive bears, and the fragmentation of the population due to roads and other anthropogenic activity, we have a serious issue.

Of course, you may be asking why we should care, aside from the obvious intrinsic and symbolic value of grizzly bears. The bears do play an important role in their ecosystem. For example, when they eat the berries of plants, the bears eat such massive quantities that a lot of the seeds pass through intact. As the bears travel from patch to patch they help disperse and fertilize the plant’s seeds. The grizzly bear is also a flagship species, so, by protecting them and the habitat they need, we protect a lot of other less “charismatic” plants and animals — like amphibians, small mammals, fungi, insects and birds. Economically they are an important tourist attraction for our parks and wilderness areas. The 140 to 450 kg grizzly bears really are cool animals. I think most of us wouldn’t mind if areas were closed off to protect them, and this prime habitat has already been identified. You could probably walk into MEC and find a whole slew of hard-core wilderness recreation enthusiasts that would rather our grizzlies be protected, even if it meant blocking off their favorite trail during certain times of the year.

Alberta Fish and Wildlife is pushing to reopen the hunt, one of the groups out there that believes hunting bears will reduce the number of problem bears by “teaching” the bears to be afraid of humans — although I still haven’t figured out how these dead bears learn from being hunted. The provincial government is waffling around counting them instead of putting in legislation to protect them. Scientists already know that Alberta’s grizzly populations are dangerously low, so why does the government need to count every bear in order to give them the protective status they need?

Gordon Stenhouse lost his title as Alberta’s official “grizzly bear biologist” for telling a newspaper that the government was dragging its feet. The government won’t finalize conservation plans until the count is done and various assessments take place. The longer we take to protect prime grizzly bear habitat the harder it will be to stop the encroachment of people in those areas as we become accustomed to using it for recreation. Will this be another case of going . . . going . . . gone if we fail to act in time to protect the few bears that remain?

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