Grizzly effort falls short

Before the champagne corks start popping in celebration over the province finally opening its eyes to the plight of Alberta’s dwindling grizzly bear populations, it’s time for a reality check.

Before the champagne corks start popping in celebration over the province finally opening its eyes to the plight of Alberta’s dwindling grizzly bear populations, it’s time for a reality check.

While Mel Knight, the minister of sustainable resource development, was basking in the announcement last week, the move to designate the grizzly bear as a threatened species is simply window-dressing. It does not go far enough to protect this magnificent omnivore.

What the government humbly did concede was that the state of the grizzly population is a cause for concern. But Knight did not assure Albertans that grizzly bear hunts will be halted. And, most importantly, he did not commit to a program that would aggressively protect prime grizzly habitat by declaring it off limits to human intrusion — period.

Human intrusion is the leading cause to the declining bear populations. Allowing lumbering and energy projects to set up in prime grizzly territory says clearly that the government puts the buck before environmental concerns.

Allowing recreational users to rip up grizzly habitat on their ATVs similarly puts the bears at risk.

It’s estimated there are upwards of 700 grizzlies in Alberta and they are struggling to survive.

While environment groups welcomed the threatened designation, a red flag of caution has been raised. Jim Pissot of the WildCanada Conservation Alliance, for example, said this to Knight in a letter: “We remain concerned . . . that announcements from your Ministry continue to refer to efforts to sustain the population. Sustaining current numbers means that Alberta’s grizzles will be forever condemned to a threatened species status.”

Knight said that once the province’s grizzly bear recovery plan has met its criteria, the grizzly bear hunt — suspended in 2006 — may resume in some areas.

But the real solution is imposing regulations that dramatically restrict access to grizzly country.

The lumber and energy sectors don’t want that. Nor do many recreationists. But it’s a hard pill of reality that must be swallowed.

University of Calgary biologist Robert Barclay, former co-chairman of the province’s now-disbanded Grizzly Recovery team, said the key to increasing the bear population will be to reduce human-bear interaction, which goes beyond a hunting ban.

Barclay said the bears are threatened by human and industrial sprawls and there is a need to set aside high-quality bear habitat.

The threatened designation “in itself doesn’t do anything for grizzly bears” other than emphasize there is an issue, he said.

Opposition NDP critic Rachel Notley said that if the province doesn’t meaningfully restrict access, grizzlies will remain at risk.

“We can designate grizzly bears threatened, we can suspend the hunt, but until we take real action to limit contact with these animals, they will continue to be killed unnecessarily,” said Notley.

Among the most profound findings of a precedent-setting, five-year study of grizzlies in Alberta — the most comprehensive ever — is that the bears in a study area with seriously restricted human intrusion showed a vibrant population.

This immense protected area of 20,000 square km takes in the Willmore Wilderness, Kakwa Wildlife Parks and part of Jasper National Park. It represents some of the last unexploited wildlife habitat in Alberta where motorized vehicles are prohibited and there are no developed facilities.

The bears thrive there. The message is clear.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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