Installing hopper-bottom bins, bear-proof grain doors and electric fences may have played a role in reducing conflicts
Grizzly bears have been known to kill calves and break open grain bins and beehives in southwestern Alberta.
For the bears, the incidents are a free lunch.
For ranchers, farmers and beekeepers, it constitutes money lost and conflict between their livelihoods and bears’ inclinations.
The number of grizzly and rancher conflicts rose steadily from 1999 to 2014, but in 2015 the number dropped by half.
It is an encouraging sign for Jeff Bectell of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association and for property owners in bear management area six, which extends across southern Alberta.
The biosphere has had a carnivores and communities program in place to mitigate problems created by grizzlies.
“Regardless of the reason, we’re glad it was a better year for people,” said Bectell.
“There were some people that still got hit hard. It wasn’t a better year for everybody, but in general it was a better year. No matter what the reason, we’re glad of that. We hope that it’s a trend.”
Installation of hopper-bottom bins, bear-proof bin doors, electric fencing and bins for dead livestock are among the projects designed to help ranchers live with grizzly bears.
Those efforts likely play a role in conflict reduction but are just as likely to be only part of the picture.
“In 2015 it did go down. Hopefully the projects have some role in that,” Bectell said.
A poor berry crop in 2014 may have prompted grizzly bears to adjust their home range and spend more time in Montana or British Columbia.
Bears that consistently damage property may have been relocated, reducing conflict. Some may have died or been killed.
Yet another possibility is that the people affected reported fewer incidents. The number is dictated by those who call the provincial fish and wildlife department about bear sightings, property damage and livestock killed by predators.
“As people maybe understand what to look for more … maybe they don’t call in as much,” Bectell said.
Grizzly bear researcher Andrea Morehouse has studied rancher-grizzly conflicts and undertook a DNA project in 2011-15 to determine how many grizzly bears inhabit the region.
She acknowledged the many variables that can affect bear contact with people and property.
“It’s hard to say because there are so many potential explanations. It’s probably some combination,” said Morehouse.
She collected hair samples from trees and objects where grizzly bears rub and identified 213 bears in the four-year hair collection phase of her project.
“That breaks down to 95 females and 118 males. That’s cumulative over those four years, so we’re not saying that all of those bears are here all at one time,” she said.
“On average, we’re detecting about 118 bears per year, but not all at once. That’s over the course of a year.”
The number of bears that live permanently in southwestern Alberta is probably lower than 118, and the number that use the area at some point is probably higher because not every bear stops to rub and leave hair behind, said Morehouse.
However, the 118 per year average and 213 total is much higher than the previous estimate of 51 grizzly bears, which was based on 2007 data.
Morehouse defends her thesis later this month, which is based on her research. She said she will provide a full report to the Waterton Biosphere Reserve once the thesis is peer reviewed.
Her report is expected to include modelling that will indicate the range and health of southern Alberta’s resident grizzly population.
The bears are considered a threatened species and cannot be legally hunted or shot. That has presented problems for some ranchers who frequently sustain the costs of property damage and livestock loss.
Bectell, who is also a cattle rancher, hopes Morehouse’s data will improve options for dealing with problem bears.
“I think in general, as we can kind of establish that grizzly bears are secure, that the science says this is a healthy population and its increasing … then if there needs to be a higher mortality rate, if we need to allow for a higher mortality rate to, for instance, take out a problem bear … it shouldn’t be as hard to say, ‘yes, let’s remove that bear.’ ”
Bectell said ranchers might be more comfortable accepting the presence of grizzly bears if they know they have options to deal with problem animals.
The province implemented a recovery plan when grizzlies were deemed endangered in 2007. Bectell said an updated plan has been drafted, and will soon be ready for public comment.