September 1, 2017
The grizzly bear is one of the most glamorous and prestigious wildlife species in Alberta.
Seen by many as the perfect symbol of Alberta’s untamed wilderness, the grizzly is nevertheless under enormous pressure in Alberta. Grizzly bears require a credible recovery plan which is enforced, legislated protection of core habitat, and a reduction of human-caused mortalities. This will require comprehensive and well funded programs and a dedicated budget to grizzly recovery.
The grizzly bear – or brown bear – is one of Alberta’s two bear species. Coat colour is not always the best way of telling the two species apart; grizzlies vary from blonde to dark brown, while black bears are even more variable, ranging from yet black to white. Grizzlies are better distinguished by a shoulder hump, and a flatter, dish-shaped face. Males, at 2-300 kg, are larger than females, at 1-200 kg.
Grizzly bears are true omnivores. They will eat meat or carrion whenever they can find it, as well as fish and insects, but a large part of their diet is plant matter: roots, grasses, berries etc. In the fall, grizzlies are almost entirely focused on building up the fat reserves to last them through their winter hibernation. If they can feed well enough, they stand a good chance of surviving the winter: if not they won’t. High energy food sources such as berries or whitebark pine seeds are crucial at this time of year.
Grizzlies need a huge range to supply their needs. Female home ranges are from 150 – 3,000 km2; male home ranges are from 500 – 5,000 km2. Grizzly bear populations are limited by a slow reproductive rate. In Alberta, females first produce cubs at age 4 – 8 years; litter sizes are small, and cubs are only produced every 3 – 4 years.
Historically, Alberta is estimated to have held 6-9,000 grizzly bears. Grizzlies ranged across the whole of Alberta, across Saskatchewan and into Manitoba. Alberta’s current population estimate is 581 bears (not including parts of the National Parks and the Swan Hills area). With the extirpation of the plains grizzly in the late 1800’s, their range is now restricted to the Rocky Mountains, Foothills and northwestern parts of the Boreal forest. The Alberta government uses World Conservation Union figures, which suggest that a population of less than 1,000 breeding individuals should be listed as threatened.
The underlying cause of Alberta’s low grizzly bear population is habitat disturbance. Alberta’s mountains and foothills are traversed by a huge network of industrial access roads. Of 172 reported human-caused grizzly mortalities on provincial lands, 89% were within 500m of a road (Benn 1998).
Industrial roads allow increased access for both legal and illegal hunters. Grizzly bears are notoriously sensitive to disturbance. In the fall, grizzly bears need to feed extensively to build up the fat reserves to last them through the winter. Disturbances reduces the efficiency of feeding and may have an impact on the winter survival rate of hibernating bears.
Alberta’s grizzly bears have the lowest known productivity in North America. Females first produce cubs at age 4 – 8 years; litter size ranges from 1.4 – 2.2 cubs per litter; and mean interval between litters ranges from 3.0 – 4.4 years. This means that keeping grizzly bears alive, particularly adult females is vital. Current long-term mortality levels are too high to sustain the Alberta population.
Spring Grizzly Bear Hunt
In 2006, the government placed a three-year moratorium on the grizzly bear hunt pending additional population studies. AWA continues to oppose the spring grizzly hunt in Alberta. The hunt is not supportable on scientific, ethical or economic grounds. The grizzly bear hunt is not the reason that grizzly bears in Alberta are in trouble. Suspending the hunt has not “fixed” the grizzly’s troubles. A number of major steps must be taken if we are going to keep grizzly bears in Alberta. Other vital measures include:
The Alberta government’s 2010 report, Status of the Grizzly Bear in Alberta, puts Alberta’s current population estimate at 691 bears (not including parts of the National Parks). This figure is the result of a 5-year DNA population survey carried out by provincial grizzly bear scientists. To put this number in perspective, in 2002, when the population was believed to be 1,000 bears, the government’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee recommended that the grizzly should be designated a threatened species. This recommendation was finally adopted by the Alberta government in June 2010.
Citing increased grizzly visibility near their properties, a group of ranchers calls for a resumption of the grizzly hunt to deal with “problem bears.” The Alberta Fish & Game Association (AFGA) echoes this call in two resolutions passed during their February 28 AGM. AWA and other conservation groups remain firmly against the hunt, and remind the Government of Alberta regarding their commitments in this matter. There is no indication from AESRD that the hunt is to be resumed.
An AESRD “hair snare” study in BMA 6 that uses DNA samples taken from grizzly hair rubs to conduct a population estimate wraps up its second season of data collection. Results from the first season, 2011, indicated the same number of bears on public lands as had been previously estimated to live in all of BMA 6. Results from the second season, 2012, are expected to include private lands, and be finished analysis in June.
AWA and other conservation groups meet with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) Minister Diana McQueen regarding the Recovery Plan that is due to expire April 1, 2013. Reassurance is given that the plan is to be renewed for a further five years without substantial change. Assurance is also given that there are no plans to reverse the ban on hunting, which will not be reversed unless the necessary conditions as outlined in the Recovery Plan’s Appendix 1 are met.
Though recorded grizzly deaths fell in 2010, the number of bears relocated jumped noticeably, according to the Alberta government’s newly released annual update on grizzly recovery.
In the area between Highways 1 and 3, where the grizzly population is estimated at 90 bears, six bears were recorded killed in 2010, and another nine were relocated out of the area. Fifteen bears removed from a population of 90 in one year is obviously a huge hit for a threatened species, especially such a slow-reproducing one.
AWA and other groups call for serious investment in a coordinated program to reduce the attractants that bring bears into contact with people, to the detriment of both.
The first official grizzly record of the spring is an adult male shot and killed by a landowner near Coleman. The bear was defending a deer carcass and charged the man. This is an inauspicious start to the year for the imperiled grizzly, particular as mortality levels for bears in the Castle/ Crowsnest region have been unsustainably high for several years.
Environmental groups, including AWA, call for a moratorium on all new road development in grizzly bear range, until access density thresholds recommended in the 2008 provincial grizzly recovery plan are met.
A new report reveals that motorized access density in southern Alberta’s Ghost Watershed is more than three times that officially recorded by the Alberta government, and more than four times the maximum recommended in the province’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. The report, An Assessment of Cumulative Effects of Land Uses in the Ghost River Watershed, Alberta, Canada was prepared for the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society by ALCES Landscape and Land-use Ltd.
The 53,000-ha study area had approximately 2,780 km of roads, trails and other linear features:
Other key findings from the report include :
More detailed grizzly mortality figures for Alberta are released by the provincial government. These reveal that mortality levels in the Castle region remain at shockingly high levels. The population in this region was estimated in 2010 to be 51 individuals. In 2010, five bears were killed in the area and one more relocated out of the region. This adds to the 5 bears removed from the population (one killed and four relocated) in 2009. The Castle continues to be a significant population sink for grizzlies.
Mortality figures for Alberta grizzlies in 2010 are released.An estimated 29 grizzlies died in Alberta, approximately 4.2 percent of the population. This level of mortality is much higher than the 2.8 percent mortality rate suggested as “sustainable” in the Alberta government’s own 2010 report, Status of the Alberta Grizzly Bear in Alberta.
Global Forest Watch (GFW) Canada produce a new report: Castle Area Forest Land Use Zone: Linear Disturbances, Access Densities and Grizzly Bear Habitat Security Areas. The report finds that the total length of roads and trails that are potentially used by off-highway vehicles within the Castle is 1,283 km, or a density of 1.3 km/km2. The Castle falls within one of the Core Grizzly Bear areas recognized by the Alberta government: access densities in these areas are intended to be no higher than 0.6 km/km2. Motorized access in the Castle goes far beyond the designated trail system.The report concludes that the Castle Special Management Area is no longer secure for grizzly bears and that sustainable environmental management of the Castle wilderness is not occurring. The report concludes “The Castle Area Forest Land Use Zone is not being managed according to its mandate, regulations or stated purpose. Access is not being controlled, and is a threat to all other public values of this area.”
Minister Mel Knight announces that the province is now designating the grizzly bear athreatened species. This comes 8 years after the recommendation from the province’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee. Although the listing under Alberta’s Wildlife Act does not commit the government to much more action, it is an important symbolic act, recognizing the perilous plight of the province’s grizzlies and suggesting that recovery actions will now begin.
A major new report, Grizzly Challenge: Ensuring a Future for Alberta’s Grizzlies, is published. The report, commissioned by seven organizations (AWA, CPAWS, Y2Y, Wild Canada Conservation Alliance, Sierra Club Canada, David Suzuki Foundation and Natural Resource Defense Council), and written by biologist Jeff Gailus, is released May 28 at a packed news conference at Calgary Zoo.
The report looks at the current status of Alberta’s grizzly population – “small and very likely declining” – and reviews the provincial Grizzly Bear Recovery plan, released in August 2008. “The current recovery plan is a good first step, but parts of it are not adequate to achieve the plan’s stated goal to ‘restore, and ensure the long-term viability of, a self-sustaining grizzly bear population’ across ‘current provincial distribution and occupancy levels’.”
The provincial Endangered Species Conservation Committee repeats its 2002 recommendation that the grizzly be designated a threatened species.
The Government of Alberta publishes it’s new report, Status of the Grizzly Bear in Alberta. The report estimates Alberta’s grizzly population at 691 (not including parts of Banff and Jasper parks), of which 358 are likely breeding individuals. The report notes that “Human activities in bear habitat, particularly the expanding network of roads, lead to unsustainable levels of bear mortality,” and suggests that “An examination of known mortality… suggest(s) that some local populations with a high level of habitat alteration are declining.”
One of the 6 grizzly population units, the Grande Cache area, has relatively healthy numbers. This is the area with the largest amount of protected land. But “A large area of grizzly bear habitat, particularly south of Highway 16, currently appears to be a population sink, but could support a self-sustaining if human-caused mortality was reduced.” The report is clear on the solution: “To reduce mortality, motorized access to bear habitat must be minimized and human activities that lead to conflicts with bears must be mitigated.”
Minister Mel Knight announces that the spring grizzly bear hunt will be suspended for 2010.
Results of the fifth and final year of the government’s detailed DNA study of grizzly bear numbers is published. The study was ended with some parts of the province – the Swan Hills area, and northwestern Alberta – still unstudied. The population estimate for those areas surveyed is 581 individuals. Bear researcher Dr. Steve Herrero estimates a provincial population of no more than 700. This compares to the 2002 estimate of 1,000 bears, which triggered the first scientific recommendations to list the grizzly as athreatened species.
The Alberta government postpones its decision on whether or not to reinstate the grizzly hunt. It will wait until finalization of an upcoming Status Report, being prepared by an anonymous independent scientist. This report will then be reviewed by the provincial Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC), which will again recommend whether the grizzly should be listed as a threatened species. (ESCC made this recommendation back in 2002, but it has been ignored by the Alberta government ever since).
In a Calgary Herald poll, September 23, 78% of respondents agree that “grizzly bears should be designated an endangered species in Alberta.” The Herald’s editorial board is also clear that grizzlies should be designated a threatened species: “Today we have far more people, roads and development that interferes with grizzly habitat. The province says its goal is “to ensure grizzly bear populations are maintained in Alberta indefinitely.” Yet, judging from the numbers, if things continue as is, Alberta grizzlies will exist in memory only… Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton must step in and declare the grizzlies a threatened species, saving this powerful national symbol from extinction.”
Results for 2007 grizzly DNA population study are released, estimating 51 grizzlies south of Highway 3. Grizzly biologist Gord Stenhouse is quoted in the Calgary Herald: “With about 65 per cent of the province’s grizzly bear habitat surveyed over four years, […] there have been 230 grizzlies counted.”
Alberta’s scant grizzly bear population could grow by up to five per cent a year if fewer logging roads are built in the animals’ habitat, according to University of Alberta scientists Scott Nielsen and Mark Boyce. A study, published recently in the journal Biological Conservation showed that, regardless of any ecologically friendly harvesting practices adopted by industry, if road density is not reduced in logging areas, the grizzly population may continue to decline. With controlled access to logging areas, Boyce estimated that the province’s beleaguered bear population could increase by up to five per cent a year, based on a similar situation in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Grizzly Bear Recovery Team is dismissed, in a letter from Assistant Deputy Minister Ken Ambrock: “With the finalization of the plan, the work of the Recovery Team is complete.” The Team is somewhat surprised by this dismissal, as the Recovery Plan had made it clear that their work should be ongoing: “The Team assists the Minister and the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division (FWD) with Plan implementation… The Plan is a dynamic document. The initial life span of the Plan is five years, during which the Team will meet at least annually to review and update the Plan as required.”
Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan finally approved. Although language in the plan points to the need for habitat protection, nothing has yet been done to protect grizzly bear habitat. The focus is on mapping and counting bears, but nothing to address habitat disturbance. The plan is clear on the causes of the perilous plight of the province’s grizzlies: “human use of access (specifically, motorized vehicle routes) is one of the primary threats to grizzly bear persistence.”
Still the grizzly is not designated as a threatened species, as recommended by government scientists in 2002, when the population was believed to be 1000 bears.
Grizzly bear hunt is suspended for another year.
The results of the 2006 grizzly population study, year 3 of a 5-year study, are released in June 2007. They make for gloomy reading. Although an overall population figure for the province is avoided, calculations from the 3 years of survey work, plus older population numbers, lead to a figure of less than 500 grizzlies in Alberta. In 2002, when the population was believed to be 1000 bears, government scientists recommended that the grizzly be designated as a threatened species. The situation is now known to be considerably worse than previously believed, but still the grizzly is not designated.
After several years of lobbying, Canadian Pacific Railways announces a new program to repair and replace hopper cars on trains running through the national parks. Between 2001 and 2006, four grizzly bears were killed by trains, and a further five orphaned cubs removed from the wild, after feeding on spilled grain on railway lines.
March 3: Alberta government announces three year suspension of the spring grizzly bear hunt. Decision is in no small part due to outpouring of opposition from Alberta public, and considerable media coverage. AWA congratulates Minister David Coutts on this decision, but stresses that habitat loss is the number one issues affecting Alberta’s grizzlies, and no recovery will be possible until this is addressed. In a subsequent Calgary Herald on-line poll, 85% of readers agree with the hunt suspension.
After two years, the draft provincial recovery plan is still not finalized or implemented.
The long-awaited grizzly bear population results from 2004 and 2005 are finally released and paint a sobering picture. Figures for 2005 are difficult to compare to the previous studies because they cover different areas, but the 2004 figures are much clearer. In 2003 there were an estimated 147 bears in the area between highways 11 and 16. The more accurate 2004 figures put this number at 53 (or 36% of the 2003 estimate). DNA study for 2006 covers the area between Highways 1 and 3; results to be publicized early 2007.
Gord Stenhouse, Chair of the provincial Grizzly Bear Recovery Team, speaks out publicly in January about the withholding of information from the Team and the delay in implementing its draft recovery plan (submitted in December 2004). Stenhouse is promptly demoted as Provincial Grizzly Bear Specialist though, bizarrely, there is an initial attempt by Sustainable Resource Development to deny that he held this position in the first place.
March 3: a group of 19 high profile scientists send a letter to Premier Klein, recommending that the government should endorse the recommendations of its own Endangered Species Conservation Committee and designate the grizzly as “threatened.” “The rate of industrial expansion in grizzly bear habitat is accelerating so rapidly that scientists cannot keep pace in predicting how these activities influence the survival of Alberta’s grizzly bears. At best, we are left with monitoring the species’ demise,” says Dr. Paul Paquet, director of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project.
Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project report is released:
There is no sign that the draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, submitted to the government in December 2004, is being adopted. Some peer review of draft plan is undertaken, and the plan is reviewed by the Endangered Species Conservation Committee, although this does not include results of up-to-date genetic studies. Although the Terms of Reference for the recovery team state the “Final report will be provided to the Minister three months prior to release for public review,” there do not seem to be any plans for a “public review.”
The Director of Fish and Wildlife asks the Recovery Team to provide “greater clarity” on its principal recommendations (including suspending the spring hunt and reducing road densities) and it is suggested that the recommendations be reconsidered. The Recovery Team replies that its recommendations are clear, and that the plan does not need changes.
Recovery plan is reviewed by Drs. Chris Servheen and Charles Schwartz, two scientists involved with the successful Yellowstone grizzly recovery process. They are not, however, shown the most recent population study results. Dr. Servheen later says “In Alberta you have got the biological data and the organization to implement conservation. The weak point is the political will.”
David Coutts, Minister for Sustainable Resource Development, ignores the recommendation of recovery team to suspend the spring grizzly bear hunt, and announces that 73 licences will be issued this spring. A ministerial news release refers to a “conservative approach” to the hunt, and officials cite “anecdotal evidence” that the grizzly population is healthy enough to support a hunt.
There is strong opposition to the hunt from environmental groups, Alberta public, scientists and opposition politicians. 10 bears are killed in the spring hunt.
The second year of the DNA population study looks at grizzly population between Highways 11 and 16. Still no results are released publicly. According to an SRD spokesman, the results are being withheld because the Alberta public “won’t understand them.”
PhD study by S.E. Nielsen – Habitat ecology, conservation, and projected population viability of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos L.) in west-central Alberta, Canada:
Provincial Grizzly Bear Recovery Team send draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan to Minister of SRD. Plan will undergo a lengthy period of discussion before approval by the Minister.
The draft plan is weak in addressing the need for habitat protection, though it does recommend the suspension of the spring grizzly bear hunt, and establishment of ‘Grizzly Conservation Areas’, where management will be more favourable to grizzlies.
Three Alberta grizzly bear scientists concur that population on provincial land is ‘less than 700 bears’. Alberta government ignores precautionary principle, and recommendations of its own scientists, and decides to continue with the spring grizzly hunt. 1300+ letters and emails sent to the Premier to protest the hunt.
Alberta government website provides reasons for continuing to provide grizzly hunting opportunity including:
There is no known scientific justification for any of these assertions.
Spring grizzly hunt: 73 hunting licences issued. Hunt suspended in southern Alberta. Six bears killed.
The first year of new DNA population study looks at grizzly population between Highways 1 and 11.
Four Alberta grizzly bear scientists concur that population on provincial land is ‘less than 700 bears’. Alberta government ignores precautionary principle, and recommendations of its own scientists, and decides to continue with the spring grizzly hunt. 1300+ letters and emails sent to the Premier to protest the hunt.
Spring grizzly hunt: 73 hunting licences issued.
Gord Stenhouse is removed as Chair of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Team after suggesting to CBC TV that road densities in Alberta need to be reduced if grizzly bears are to remain on the landscape.
Report on Alberta Grizzly Bear Assessment of Allocation (Alberta SRD). Suggests most recent population estimate of 968 bears on provincial land not ‘biologically possible’ due to incorrect mathematical formulae (see 1990). Estimates population of 500 grizzlies on provincial land (a further 175 estimated in Alberta’s National Parks).
Spring grizzly hunt: 101 licences; 18 bears killed.
Known grizzly bear mortality in 2003 – 45 grizzlies.
The Alberta government’s Endangered Species Subcommittee recommends the grizzly should be designated a ‘Threatened’ Species’. For the first time, the government has refused to act upon this recommendation.
Grizzly Bear Recovery Team (GBRT) set up by Minister for Sustainable Development, Mike Cardinal. For ‘threatened’ species, recovery teams usually have two years to draw up a recovery plan. GBRT is given one year.
Government’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) recommends that the grizzly be designated a ‘threatened’ species. Rationale for recommendation is: ‘Very small population size (fewer than 1000)’; and ‘Dispersal and exchange with adjacent populations limited’. Although the Committee notes that ‘there is no evidence that Grizzly Bear populations in Alberta are declining at present,’ it adds ‘it is likely that current and future land-use and human activity will result in declines.’
For the first time, the government refuses to act upon the ESCC’s recommendation.
Grizzly Bear Recovery Team (GBRT) set up by Minister for Sustainable Development, Mike Cardinal. This is a multi-stakeholder team made up of representatives from Ministries of Sustainable Resource Development (5 representatives) and Energy; Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Forest Products Association, Western Stockgrowers Association, Fish and Game Association, Universities of Calgary and Alberta, Parks Canada and Federation of Alberta Naturalists. One non-voting member represents AWA, Canadian parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Grizzly Bear Alliance and Y2Y.
The Bear Necessities: A Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for Banff National Park produced by Bow Valley Grizzly Bear Alliance. Strategy recommends:
Spring grizzly hunt: 130 licences; 15 bears killed
Report by B. Benn – Grizzly Bear Mortality in the Central Rockies Ecosystem, Canada – states that 89% of human-caused mortalities (n=172) were within 500m of a road on provincial lands, and 100% of mortalities (n=95) were within 200m of a trail in National Parks.
Report by Steven Pimm – A Pragmatic Approach to Grizzly Bear Conservation – highlights the need for new thinking in grizzly bear management. ‘Neither maintaining the status quo in grizzly bear conservation nor relying solely on major reform is a reliable strategy. Instead, concerned people should take a pragmatic approach to developing innovative processes for forming reason-based public opinions that in turn inform effective public policies.’
838 recorded human-caused grizzly bear deaths.
Report by Mike Gibeau – Grizzly Bear Habitat Effectiveness Model for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks – questions the established thinking that National Parks form an effective core of habitat for grizzly bears. ‘Much of the three National Parks is only moderately productive habitat, excluding human influences. Adding the effects of humans, the modelled availability of the landscape to support bears is significantly reduced. The model suggests widespread habitat alienation in what is supposed to be core refugia for grizzly bears, questioning the ability of the landscape to support a viable population.’
Provincial Management Plan for Grizzly Bears in Alberta produced. Estimated population 790 bears.
Province divided into 21 Bear Management Areas (BMA’s). Baseline population estimates established for each BMA. Subsequent population estimates used these baseline figures, with mathematical formulae to calculate changes each year, based on known mortality, cub production etc.
Management goals include :
Alberta Wildlife Act empowers the Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee to ‘identify species that may be formally designated as endangered or threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act’.
1050 grizzly hunting licenses issued. Average 42 bears killed per year.
Fish and Wildlife Policy of Alberta. “The primary consideration of the Government is to ensure that wildlife populations are protected from severe decline and that viable populations are maintained.”
Fish and Wildlife Policy for Alberta:
‘The wildlife resource, as a Crown resource, will be utilized in a manner which contributes the most benefit to the citizens of Alberta.”
850 grizzly hunting licenses issued. Average 25 bears killed per year.
200 grizzly hunting licenses issued. Average 12 bears killed per year.
Fall hunt eliminated; compulsory registration of grizzly kills initiated.
Grizzly population declining due to inadequate regulation of hunting, and indiscriminate anti-rabies poisoning.
Grizzly classified as ‘Big Game’ in Alberta.
Isaac Cowie from the Hudson Bay Company took 750 grizzly skins from the Cypress Hills area in one year.
Estimated grizzly population of 6000 – 9000
Management of grizzly bears in Alberta is the responsibility of the provincial government on provincial lands, and the federal government in the National Parks. Management is directed by Alberta’s Wildlife Act, as well as by the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. Despite recommendations by government scientists since 2001, the grizzly is still managed as a ‘big game’ species in Alberta, although it is also listed as “may be at immediate risk of extirpation.”
The plan clearly points out the cause of the grizzly bear’s troubles: “Human use of access (specifically, motorized vehicle routes) is one of the primary threats to grizzly bear persistence.” Objectives include :
The plan concludes that “Bears and humans can coexist on the same landscape if there is a willingness to conduct human activities in ways that are conducive to grizzly bear conservation.”
Many of the initial steps towards grizzly bear recovery have been started:
Unfortunately grizzlies themselves are not much better off: little has been done to actually recover grizzlies on the ground, and nothing has been done to protect grizzly habitat or reduce access density. The Alberta government now rarely refers to grizzly recovery, preferring instead to use the term maintenance. Ultimately, grizzlies will only be allowed to recover in Alberta if enough people make it clear to their politicians that the great bear is important enough to protect.
April 7, 2017