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The bear facts: humans the problem

The next time you’re hiking, horse-back riding, dirt-biking, fishing, or ripping up the West Country on an ATV in bear country, beware of humans, dogs, bees and lightning.

Forget the bears.

And the next time you’re driving down a road in Central Alberta, especially in the fall, beware of ungulates, especially deer.

All of the above pose a bigger danger than being attacked or killed by a bear. And the deer cause more deaths and injuries than any other wild animal in the province, making it our most dangerous of bush creatures.

Yet some ranchers in southwestern Alberta are urging the government to reopen the grizzly bear hunt because they claim this threatened species is on the prowl in increased, dangerous numbers.

Their claims lack of credibility.

In 2008, the provincial government launched the Grizzly Bear Recovery Program after studies showed there were fewer than 700 of the magnificent omnivores roaming Alberta’s wilds. In 2010, the bear was designated “threatened.” This year, the plan expires and the provincial government promises an update on the recovery strategy early next year for another five-year commitment — hopefully.

But “what does this mean for the intervening year or so before the updated version takes place?” asks the Alberta Wilderness Association. “Will the existing plan continue to drive operational policy?” the AWA asks. “Will Alberta’s grizzlies be without any management plan for this year? This is a matter of no small concern.”

Recent stats show grizzlies in southwestern Alberta have increased. But experts warn the numbers are higher because bears from Montana and B.C. are moving freely throughout the area.

There are too many unanswered questions before another grizzly bear hunt is justified. “If we are seeing an increase of bears wandering across the border, what is the fate awaiting them here?” asks the AWA. “Do they form a transient population that then returns to Montana? A permanent population? Are they just coming to Alberta to encounter an elevated rate of mortality?”

Rancher Don Bruder wants the hunt to deal “with the problems” given the “current situation.”

Where’s the evidence that problems exist?

The AWA further asks: “Has the population actually increased, or is it just that bears are moving away from degraded habitat on public lands, and on to more appealing, but visible, habitat on private lands?”

Conservationists argue that it’s too early to determine if the species has recovered sufficiently to allow another hunt.

“Opening the hunt wouldn’t be appropriate until the target populations of the recovery plan are achieved,” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

So what does the government plan to do? The Minister of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Diana McQueen pledged in October the plan would continue with only minor changes. But in a recent interview, McQueen said the new plan will “reflect a lot of new information and research that has come in since the last recovery plan was developed.”

Government carnivore specialist Nathon Webb has not ruled out a hunt. He said the possibility could be considered if the conditions laid out in the plan are met — including reducing bear/human conflicts.

But are the bears the problem?

Researchers say development and recreational use within bear habitat are leading factors in confrontation. Further, misunderstanding of bear behaviour and biology, and the lack of tolerance towards bears, also cause conflict.

And you think bears are dangerous. For each person killed by a bear attack in the U.S., 13 are killed by snakes, 17 by spiders, 45 by dogs, 120 by bees, 150 by tornadoes, 374 by lightning, and 60,000 by humans.

Let’s not forget Alberta’s deer: in 2008, there were 15,950 vehicle/wildlife collisions killing nine people, injuring 498, and causing $240 million in damages.

In short, we are the trespassers, not the bears. Habitat intrusion is the leading cause of bear/human conflicts.

That’s what the government has to start addressing, and soon.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.



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