Grizzly Bear: struggling to survive in Alberta

September 21, 2013

Alberta’s grizzly bears

Grizzlies are listed as ‘threatened’ in Alberta but it has not done them much good. Resource extraction continues unabated and roads, trails, seismic lines and pipelines proliferate throughout their habitat in the foothills, bringing more and more people into contact with this species which needs wilderness in order to survive. Practically nothing has been done by the Alberta Government to close any of these access routes although it admits they are the main problem and should be scaled back.

The last four years of Alberta Government records indicate the pressure the bear is under from humans in the province.

• 2012 fifteen killed: 14 human-caused (36% self-defence). Six adult females killed.

• 2011 eighteen killed: 15 human-caused (47% illegal). Three adult females killed

• 2010 twenty-one killed: 19 human-caused (47% illegal). Three adult females killed

• 2009 twenty-one killed: 17 human-caused (65% illegal). Six adult females killed

Although the total number of bears killed has decreased, the killing of 18 adult females is very worrying as survival of reproductive females is the key factor affecting population persistence.

Where a viable population of grizzlies would need to number 2000, there are now no more than 700 in the province. Jasper and Banff national parks, with less than optimum habitat, are home to 150 or so of them but it seems they are only marginally safer there.

Jasper’s Grizzly Bears

Grizzlies need room to move, find mates and reach traditional feeding areas. The females need secure, undisturbed areas in which to raise their cubs.

What is Jasper National Park doing to provide safe habitat for its 80-90 bears? Parks Canada is saying the right things. The 2010 Management Plan is full of encouraging statements such as “maintaining or improving habitat security for grizzly bears.” But is it following through with them?

Fifty percent of the park is alpine rock and ice, and bears are seasonally forced to search for food lower down in the park’s river valleys. If they can’t find it here they may be forced out onto more productive – but dangerous –provincial land.

The Three Valley Confluence

“Habitat is considered secure when there is little likelihood grizzly bears will encounter people. When their habitat is secure, grizzly bears can feed undisturbed and maintain their wary behaviour” (Management Plan 4.4.1)

The 3 Valley Confluence (3VC) is the area of the Athabasca Valley where the Maligne and Miette rivers flow into the Athabasca. In spring, the valley bottom is where the first shoots of new vegetation appear. Grizzlies leave their winter dens in the snow-covered sub-alpine and alpine areas to access this first food since going into hibernation the previous fall. Later they will follow the greening vegetation back to higher elevations but first they will prey on newborn elk calves in May and find themselves mates in June. Thus, it is a critical area at a critical time in the life cycle of park grizzlies.

But this area has become hopelessly fragmented by human multi-use trails running every which way, many of them no more than two hundred meters apart. The bear is either forced to find food and a mate among hundreds of trail users or retreat to the slopes on either side of the valley. It is probably only a matter of time before there is a serious confrontation.

It seems Parks Canada’s assurance of “maintaining or improving habitat security for grizzly bears” is no more than empty words.

Commercial pressure

Local commercial interests now directly lobby the federal government for development. The Jasper National Park Management Plan states:

“Ecological protection goals and associated indicators of success, such as maintaining or improving grizzly bear habitat security will be respected when considering new or changes in development, infrastructure and recreational activities.” (Management Plan 8.3.1 Key Strategies)

Just how is Parks Canada going to balance what its Management Plan says with orders that are coming from head office in Ottawa to accommodate the demands of business people?

Two potential projects that will adversely affect the bears:

• Proposal to construct a hotel and tent cabins at Maligne Lake

• Marmot Basin Ski area’s upcoming long-range plan to expand operations into a wilderness area of its lease and possible future summer use of the hill

Both of these proposed developments will affect important grizzly habitat in the sub-alpine and alpine areas.

New recreational activities and more visitors

Parks Canada’s changing policies on introducing new activities could spell more trouble for wary species like the grizzly. How will Parks’ lack of data on bears – due to underfunding – allow sound management decisions on these proposals?

The federal government and commercial interests seem determined to treat the national parks like ‘cash cows’ by trying to attract 2% more visitors each year. In that case the grizzly bear is going to be less likely to find conditions favourable for its survival in this one part of Canada that might have saved it from eventual extinction.