If 10 oil technicians stomped around a confined bush area in the heart of Alberta’s grizzly bear country, and each spotted a bear, does that mean there are 10 grizzlies in that neck of the woods?
After a long-awaited, intensive five-year study of this magnificent carnivore, chances are that in the above scenario, the technicians all saw the same bear — given the vast, undisturbed habitat required to sustain a single grizzly. Unsophisticated tallies such as these were once used to help determine the grizzly population.
But this recent landmark study, the most comprehensive ever, is undisputed. It has pegged Alberta’s grizzly population outside the national parks — an area of provincial lands stretching from Grand Prairie to the Montana border — at only 581.
It concludes that Alberta grizzlies are in big trouble and the provincial government must act immediately by declaring the bears as threatened under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. A threatened status would require the implementation of recovery strategies.
Under the rules of Alberta’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee: If the numbers of mature adults are less than 1,000, they should be listed as threatened. In 2002, with the mature grizzly population estimated at under 1,000, the committee recommended the bears be declared threatened. The government defied its own rules by failing to act on the recommendation.
Today, the picture is more bleak. The study estimates there are only 400 mature adults among the 581 bears accounted for.
Declaring these animals as threatened is a no-brainer.
“There’s no question to that,” says Nigel Douglas, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. The new population data “doesn’t look good,” says Douglas. “Albertans will not accept continued government delays on recovery; the time to act is now.”
Among the most profound findings in the study proves that habitat protection is vital for the grizzlies’ survival.
A 20,000-square-km study area from south of Grand Prairie to Hwy 16 confirmed, where human intrusion is severely restricted, the existence of 353 grizzlies — 18 for every 1,000 square km. This is an immense protected area, taking in the Willmore Wilderness, Kakwa Wildlife Parks, and part of Jasper National Park. It represents some of the last unexploited, high-quality wildlife habitat in Alberta. Motorized vehicles are prohibited and there are no developed facilities.
“The higher density of bears in this study area highlights the importance of parks and protected areas with limited access for boosting grizzly numbers,” says Wendy Frances, director of conservation for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
With 353 grizzlies rooting up home in that pristine area, that leaves the bear population south of Hwy 16 to the Montana border at only 228. Bear habitat in those regions has been seriously fragmented by energy exploration and the encroachment of humans hungry for recreational opportunities and dream homes in the wilderness.
DNA studies in those areas show the grizzly population in the mid-Rockies is 45; in the Jasper-Yellowhead region, 42; in southeast slopes west of Nordegg, 90; in the southwest corner of Alberta, 51.
“Now that the numbers are in, it’s clear that urgent and concerted action is needed to recover Alberta bears,” says Carl Morrison, of Sierra Club Canada’s Action Grizzly Bear campaign.
Jim Pissot of the Defenders of wildlife says “It’s time to move aggressively. The longer the action on recovery is delayed, the cost and duration of recovery will increase.”
Despite all this recent evidence, the Alberta Fish and Game Association still scoffs at the idea the bears are in trouble and is charging ahead with a campaign for the province to reinstate a limited grizzly hunt.
AFGA president Quentin Bochar, says the population count indicates there are “enough bears to maintain a limited sustainable hunt. We’re not asking to go and kill every grizzly bear, but we’d like to be able to get a few, like we used to.”
Ignorance in failing to recognize the needs of the grizzlies is killing a creature that requires an undisturbed habitat to survive. They don’t need more bullets; they need more protected habitat.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.