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Alberta government reviewing threatened status of grizzly bears

“The endangered species conservation committee must first review all available information and make a recommendation to the Minister of Environment and Parks,” said John Muir, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Parks.

BOW VALLEY – The Alberta government plans to review the status of grizzly bears based on an increase in population of the threatened species.

New estimates put the total number of grizzly bears in the province between 856 and 973, up from 700 to 800 bears in 2010. The foothills east of Banff National Park have seen a near doubling of grizzly bear numbers to 88.

With the new population studies and an updated grizzly recovery plan released last week, government officials say they to plan to begin work on reviewing the status of grizzly bears, which will take well over a year.

“The Endangered Species Conservation Committee must first review all available information and make a recommendation to the Minister of Environment and Parks,” said John Muir, a communications director for Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP).

AEP Minister Jason Nixon and his department seem to be at odds at what this may mean for the controversial grizzly bear hunt, which ended in 2006. The minister indicated to CTV News Calgary on Tuesday that limited hunting of grizzly bears could be up for discussion if the species is taken off the threatened list.

But Muir said there are no discussions about reinstating the hunt. 

"We are focused on the recovery of the species first and foremost," he told the Outlook.

Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species by the province of Alberta in 2010. At that time, the population estimate was between 700 and 800 bears, including bears in Banff National Park and the southern half of Jasper National Park.

Researchers with the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative say the new population estimates are worth celebrating, but indicated there are still serious challenges ahead for grizzly bear recovery.

Aside from the need for high quality, safe habitat, grizzly bears must be able to navigate around some of the fastest growing human communities while staying connected to populations throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

Hilary Young, senior Alberta program manager for Y2Y, noted about 85 per cent of grizzly bear deaths between 2009 and 2018, excluding those killed under Treaty rights, were still human-caused and largely preventable.

“I do think there’s the greater context that grizzly bears are threatened in this province, and this increase doesn’t get them past the point of security,” she said.

“I think it's a matter of making sure we don't loosen any restrictions," she added, noting Albertans by and large would not be supportive of reinstating the trophy hunt. "We need to continue to work hard and focus on what we can do to improve that population number.”

Officials say this is the first time that Alberta has science-based population estimates for all provincial bear management areas – which were compiled based on DNA analysis from hair snagged from grizzly bears. 

For the updated population studies, more than 20 field crews went into 173 sites, including some very remote areas, to collect grizzly bear hair samples. DNA from the hair was examined to identify each bear.

Researchers established an elaborate grid cell pattern on the landscape, where 10-by-10-metre sites were set up with barbed wire.

“We put rotten blood and fish oil and stinky stuff in the middle of the corral to attract the bears,” said Gordon Stenhouse, research scientist and lead for Foothills Research Institute’s (fRI Research) grizzly bear research program.

“The bears come in and leave their hair on the barbed wire and we go back every 10 days and we collect that hair.”

From the hair, scientists can run genetic analysis, which tells them whether the bear is a black bear or a grizzly bear, a male or female, and the relationship between individuals.

Stenhouse said the same methodology was used as in previous population counts.

“It’s really important when you do these things you don’t start changing your methods,” he said.

“That has been a problem in the past in some other areas. When you do that, you don’t know if what you’ve seen is an actual increase, or whether it’s a function of changing your methods.”

Bear management area (BMA) 4, which includes an area east of Banff National Park to Highway 22, has an estimated 88 grizzly bears, which is approximately twice as many as in 2005 when the first count was done in this area.

In the re-survey of the Yellowhead region east of Jasper known as BMA 5, researchers found that the population had approximately doubled, from 36 in 2004 to 74 in 2014.

In the area between Whitecourt and Lesser Slave Lake, referred to as BMA 7, 39 unique grizzly bears were identified through DNA analysis.

BMA 1 in the Chinchaga River and Peace River region in north-west Alberta has an estimate of 14 grizzly bears based on DNA, compared to 75 previously, which was based on expert opinion at the time.

“Although there’s two units where we’ve had a doubling, there’s another population that people don’t talk much about where we found far fewer bears than what people thought,” Stenhouse said.

Researchers with fRI believe there are a few different factors that contributed to a population increase, including a change in the landscape from logging, which created more bear food in some areas. 

Stenhouse said younger forests replacing older growth areas creates more bear food such as berries and attracts more ungulates like moose and deer for grizzlies to prey upon.

“When you change old forest to younger forest, you create different habitat for bears and then you have different bear food available for bears,” he said. “With more food and more prey, grizzly bears do better.”

When female bears are getting ready to head into the den in fall, Stenhouse said they require at least 20 per cent body fat.

“That means they have to get a lot of nutrients and most of that comes from berries and meats … more food, more cubs, productivity goes up,” he said.

“We’ve done some analysis in places where we’ve had areas of landscape changes, and those are the areas that have seen the greatest increase in bear numbers. We’re still doing more work on that.”

The researchers also suspect fewer bears are dying, or certainly at a level that have allowed the population to increase.

They also believe the end of the grizzly bear hunt in 2006 has played a significant part in the rise in numbers.

“We did stop one kind of human-caused mortality that we’re able to control through management,” Stenhouse said.

“We said we were not going to hunt grizzly bears anymore, so there were a number of bears that would have been shot on an annual basis and that stopped.”

Y2Y cautioned against making a direct link between improved grizzly bear food associated with changing habitat from logging, and increasing bear numbers.

Forestry, as with other industrial development like oil and gas, also creates more roads, which impact habitat for grizzly bears.

Research has shown areas with higher road densities are associated with an increased risk of human-caused grizzly bear mortalities.

Female grizzly bears and, in particular, females with cubs were at increased human-caused mortality risk because they were more likely to use road edges.

“Roads bring in people, people then contribute to the morality of grizzly bears,” Young said.

“If we really want to maintain grizzly bear populations, we need to better manage and reduce the number of industrial roads.”

In BMA 4 east of Banff National Park, researchers also found that more female grizzly bears were showing up on the eastern side of region compared to the last inventory in 2005.

Stenhouse said that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more conflicts, but it’s a “bit of an early warning” that there is potential for that to happen.

When bears come into conflict with people or livestock, they often end up dead or get relocated.

“Of course, if you start losing female bears, that might also have an impact on the rate of population change going forward,” Stenhouse said.

“Grizzly bears are a species that are long-lived and have low reproductive rates, so change occurs slowly.”

Stenhouse said researchers have been looking at carrying capacity of the landscape and are expecting to publish the study’s findings soon.

“We know, at least BMA 2, 3 and 4 from a habitat carrying capacity standpoint, can sustain many more bears,” he said.

“The question would be, when are bear populations going to be at a number that we feel is socially acceptable?”

Recovery of a species is always about more than just numbers, and Stenhouse said discussions also need to include habitat recovery targets.

“We do lots of things in bear habitat – we harvest forest, we have oil and gas, we recreate, we have roads,” he said.

“What are we going to maintain for habitat supply for these bears over time … so that bears can continue to either increase or sustain themselves,” he added.

“I think those are going to be the next big management challenges … to actually come up with those kind of targets.”

The updated grizzly bear recovery plan identified the importance of improving the ability of grizzly bears to disperse across habitat linkage zones.

The rationale is to address the emerging threat of genetic isolation between BMAs that is likely to be exacerbated with increasing traffic volumes and expansion of urban and rural development along major highway corridors.

Young said that is relevant to development plans on Three Sisters lands, which could lead to a doubling of Canmore’s population in the next 20 to 30 years.

“The Bow Valley is a critical linkage area and knowing that, it’s important we consider everything we are doing in this valley and how it might impact threatened grizzly bear population,” she said.

Young said the updated recovery plan, while not specifically mentioning it, is fodder for the investment that the province is making into the Bow Valley Gap wildlife overpass.

“We’d love to see additional crossing structures through Canmore and east of Canmore as well,” she said.

Some of AEP’s continued focus includes helping wildlife biologists and industry to ensure habitats are maintained; determining where to focus bear-human conflict management efforts; and working with communities on bear-human conflict management.

“The grizzly population studies and updated grizzly recovery plan will be used to continue our grizzly bear management work,” said Muir.

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