Like a recovering alcoholic, Alberta has admitted it has a problem protecting its grizzly bear populations.
But the province hasn’t taken the necessary steps to reduce access to forested areas, says an Alberta conservation group.
A recent report for Sundre Forest Products Ltd. said that the public who access roads developed for activities like forestry must be managed. The province agrees.
Nigel Douglas conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association, said it’s a good thing that the access problem has been identified.
“The more access we put into bear habitat, the more bears die,” said Douglas on Friday, responding to the report about grizzly bears in the Clearwater Forest.
He said bears die when people on motorized vehicles have contact with bears, whether it’s from bears being hunted or poached, getting into dangerous encounters like deer hunters who come across bears, or hit by vehicles.
Grizzly populations are struggling around Alberta, except for the Grand Cache area because its near a large protected area Willmore Wilderness Park, he said.
So far the province is just “encouraging” industries to use temporary roads where possible and reclaim them and that’s not good enough, he said.
“What we’re talking about is public land and the Alberta government makes the rules.
“(Industry) goes where the government allows them to go and access it the way the government allows them to access it. Leadership has to come from the Alberta government and that’s been lacking.”
Douglas said the province has set a threshold of 600 metres of road per square kilometre in core habitat area. That threshold is based on a successful grizzly recovery program in Yellowstone National Park in the United States and dealt with all access routes. But in Alberta, it only refers to roads and doesn’t include for example, access from pipelines.
He said the onus is also on companies to decommission access if they create new access, and that access should be gated because the province doesn’t have the enforcement staff.
“We need to reduce access if we’re going to keep grizzly bears in Alberta,” Douglas said.
Todd Zimmerling, president of Alberta Conservation Association which works closely with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said access roads attract both feeding bears and people because the roads make it easy to walk and drive.
“The number of interactions between people and bears are on the rise because we have more people heading off into the bush because the access is that much easier,” Zimmerling said.
The province has been working with industry to figure out how to limit access. Simply stopping access isn’t always necessary, he said.
“It depends on the time of year and type of habitat. Some areas bears will be in the fall feeding to get fattened up before they head into hibernation. Other areas they’ll show up in the spring because it has good spring feed.”
Zimmerling said people can go around gates and they can remove locks from gates so a shift in thinking through public education is required.
“We want more people to go out into the forest and enjoy the wild lands of this province because we need to have people value them. But the flip side is, the more people out there, the more potential there is for these impacts. It’s a balancing act for sure.”