Grizzly runs out of land

It’s a devastating blow that a healthy grizzly bear population can’t be restored on the Prairies.

It’s a devastating blow that a healthy grizzly bear population can’t be restored on the Prairies.

Those fighting to protect the numbers in Central Alberta’s West Country were encouraged a few years ago when it was suggested the majestic creature might be reintroduced to its natural ranges on the great plains of Canada.

But hopes were dashed in a new report. It carries a blunt message: “There’s no chance for grizzly bears that once roamed the tall grass of the Prairies to be recovered in the region,” said Environment Canada in its findings, compiled under the Species at Risk Act.

Carl Morrison, of the group Action Grizzly Bear, said on Monday that the report “highlights a tragic reality that once a species is lost, more often than not, it’s lost forever.”

The report concludes that the landscape of the southern Prairies has irreversibly changed since the bears’ range stretched as far east as Manitoba hundreds of years ago.

“Where bears once lived amongst wild bison and flowing grasslands, people and roads are now packed tightly around agricultural fields, leaving little land where modern grizzlies could survive,” the report concludes.

This is a sobering message to those addressing the grizzly bear situation in the West County. The bears could be gone forever if their habitat is further violated. And like the Prairies (and the fate of the plains grizzles), that violation cannot be reversed.

There are conflicting reports on the number of grizzlies now in the West Country.

Groups such as guides, outfitters and hunters put the numbers at more than 1,000. They base their opinions on unsophisticated, undocumented reports from hunters, trappers and others frequenting in the area.

Others, with scientific studies in hand, say fewer than 500 bears exist.

Number crunching aside, what does it take to get the message across that we are dealing with a species that, despite its massive size as a carnivore, is vulnerable and extremely sensitive to even the slightest changes in its habitat?

The West Country is overrun by industry and pleasure seekers, crisscrossing the forests and interfering with sensitive ecosystems and disrupting prime grizzly habitat.

And more change is on the horizon: a growing tourism industry will soon become a greater enemy to the grizzly in the West Country. The once-isolated Nordegg area, for example, is being aggressively developed.

The gene pool of the West Country’s grizzlies goes back to the great plains, its original range. The Prairie zone, stretching from just east of Winnipeg, up over top of Saskatoon and Edmonton and just west of Calgary, once supported a healthy population of grizzlies.

English explorer Henry Kelsey is believed to be the first white man to view the Prairies in the 1700s. It was then populated by grizzlies, bison herds and the many indigenous people. By the early 1900s, the bears had disappeared as settlers pushed them west towards the Rocky Mountains.

The federal report warns that without stronger protection, the grizzlies’ range could become even smaller.

“The report concludes that we can’t recover the Prairie population of grizzly bears, so in order to maintain health and viable populations . . . we need to focus on areas where they still exist,” said Morrison. “If we don’t want this trend to continue (as witnessed on the great plains) . . . then the government of Alberta needs to take some action to make sure that it stops here.”

But will the provincial government heed this warning?

The challenge is to control industry and development, and that’s a tall order.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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