Bear awareness programs pay off in Alberta

The province has funded research to determine grizzly population, but surveys, relying heavily on DNA, are not complete

CLARESHOLM, Alta. — Bear-proof bin doors, electric fencing and regional containers to store dead livestock have reduced landowners’ problems in southern Alberta related to unwelcome visits and damage from grizzly bears, wolves and other large carnivores.

The Communities and Carnivores program, organized through the Waterton Biosphere Reserve, has statistics on reported problems in four municipalities: Cardston County and the municipal districts of Willow Creek, Pincher Creek and Ranchland. They indicate that program efforts to assist ranchers and other landowners in bear-proofing property are gradually paying off.

However, numbers for livestock kills related to predation by large carnivores has risen over the past number of years.

Jeff Bectell, Cardston-area rancher and co-ordinator of the Communities and Carnivores program on behalf of the biosphere reserve, said he hopes the next batch of statistics will show improvement.

“The trend line is still upwards, but the last three years, there might be a break in the data. We might have started to see a downward trend,” he said after a Feb. 28 meeting in Claresholm.

Many ranchers at the meeting said they had lost livestock to predators. Wolves, cougars and grizzly bears are the most common culprits, although most of the talk centered on Ursus arctos horribilis, the mighty grizzly.

Several wondered aloud if the increase in grizzly kills of livestock was a result of an increase in bear numbers. The province has funded research in attempts to determine the grizzly population but surveys, relying heavily on DNA collection and analysis, are not complete.

“More bears in theory will lead to more predation,” said Bectell, but that’s not necessarily the whole story.

“Any number of factors, the winter that we have, what it’s like when the bears emerge from hibernation, what’s available for food — all those things can affect what happens in a year.

“People ask how many bears we can sustain. I would say, when we do projects that decrease conflict, the number of bears that we could have, without conflict, is higher. And when we don’t do projects, to have that same number of bears is a problem.”

Mark Heckbert, provincial wildlife conflict specialist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife, said there were 72 livestock compensation claims in 2018 resulting from grizzly bears, 11 from black bears and another eight in which the type of bear was not determined. Wolves were responsible for 129 dead livestock claims last year and cougars for 72.

It has been illegal to kill grizzlies in Alberta since 2006. The bears were designated as threatened in 2010 under Alberta’s wildlife act and in 2012 the western Canadian grizzly population was federally designated as a species of special concern.

Bear conflict biologist Jay Honeyman of Alberta Environment and Parks said grizzly bears are increasing their range eastward and more are being seen in areas outside the provincially designated recovery zone.

The province is divided into seven bear management areas (BMAs) with areas five and six comprising southwestern Alberta west and south of Calgary. The goal in the bear recovery zone is to see establishment of a sustainable population based on habitat and mortality rates.

Honeyman said grizzly populations in BMA five, the area from the Trans-Canada Highway south to Highway 3, has “a stable population of grizzly bears and some would say even likely increasing,” based on results from three DNA inventories.

He said grizzly numbers in both BMA five and six (the zone south of Highway 3 to the U.S. border)are above levels where they would be considered threatened and the population appears stable.

However, that means systems should be put in place to ensure bears and people can co-exist, and that isn’t easy.

Bectell said that’s where the Carnivore Working Group can help, although it can’t solve all the issues related to predators. The actions of even a single bear with a big taste for livestock can skew the numbers.

“Projects alone cannot solve all of the problems. We need good compensation and wildlife management,” he said.

“It has to do with population numbers, it has to do with projects, it has to do with management. Because a lot can happen when there’s a problem bear and a lot of improvement can happen when the problem bear gets removed.

“So all of those things are part of the success, they’ve all got to be part of it.”

Bectell added that ranchers’ efforts to mitigate bear damage and predation gives them “a leg to stand on” when it comes to getting compensation after predators circumvent their efforts.

“When we do what we can, we can say we’ve tried it, we’re doing it, we still have a problem. What now? Doing this stuff … it gives us credibility in the outside-of-ag world.”

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