EDMONTON — Alberta is delaying a decision on whether to lift a ban on hunting grizzly bears until next year and will base its decision on science and an independent review, a government official says.
The move comes after the Alberta Fish and Game Association urged the province to immediately reinstate the hunt, saying grizzlies are becoming bolder and the best way to keep the bears wild is to allow them to be hunted again.
At the same time, environmental groups are calling for the iconic animals to be declared as threatened and the ban on hunting maintained.
Darcy Whiteside, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said the province wants to thoroughly weigh all the information it can before making a decision.
“We are advocates of hunting. We promote hunting,” Whiteside said Friday.
“But we would never hunt a species that is not sustainable. What this information will provide us with is whether a hunt would be a sustainable aspect of grizzly bear management or not. Right now we simply do not know that.”
Alberta suspended its grizzly hunt in 2006 over concerns the bear population was too low.
Recent research has suggested that there a fewer than 500 of the bears in an area south of the Yellowhead Highway west of Edmonton to the U.S. border.
Whiteside said an independent reviewer is going over information and reports about grizzly bear numbers in Alberta, including loss of habitat.
Final DNA research data on the number of bears located in a huge area north of the Yellowhead Highway to Grande Prairie is expected in a few weeks.
The reviewer, whom the government would not name, is then to deliberate with a federal endangered species conservation committee. A report is to be sent for scientific peer review and then back to the government for a final decision, Whiteside said.
“We expect the process to continue into 2010,” he said.
“This is a process that we want to follow through to the end and I think that doing something premature, when we are relatively close to it, wouldn’t be proper management of wildlife.”
Quentin Bochar, president of the 19,000-member fish and game association, said a decision on the hunt is already overdue and he noted that British Columbia has a grizzly hunt.
A fatal attack on a person by a grizzly bear last winter near Sundre, Alta., and recent attacks by bears on livestock show that suspending the hunt was a mistake, he said.
Bochar said the association is skeptical about reports that there may be only about 500 grizzlies in the province.
“With all these attacks occurring on a regular basis, you have to wonder just how many bears there really are,” he said. “It’s common knowledge that the best thing to do to keep animals wild is to have a hunt.”
Christyann Olson, executive director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, applauded the government’s commitment to making its final decision based on science.
Olson said she’s also pleased the government study will include habitat loss and other factors affecting grizzly bear numbers. She said the hunt is only one factor in the decline of the species.
“AWA is hopeful. We strongly believe that any decisions made about grizzly bears must be made with the best available science,” Olson said.
“Having a scientific peer review of that data and the results the government has collected in the past few years is a really important milestone. It is an important step towards informed science-based decision making.”
Jim Pissot, of the group Defenders of Wildlife, said a government decision on a permanent grizzly hunting ban is long overdue. He notes that government scientists have been urging Alberta to declare the bear a threatened species since 2002.
Since then, habitat loss and deaths by motor vehicles, trains and poaching have made a bad situation worse.
“Alberta’s grizzly bears are in peril now more than ever before,” Pissot said. “Grizzlies need more conservation, not more bullets.”