Bear encounters on the rise in Alta.

Man-made food sources on farms such as granaries, silage, gardens and livestock are more nutritious than natural feed

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Everybody has a bear story, but the Korth family encounter with a grizzly this spring was too close for comfort.

Norman and Irene Korth lamb their 200 ewes from January to May at their farm near Rocky Mountain House. They knew there was increased bear activity in Clearwater County in west-central Alberta but when a hungry 450-pound male coming out of hibernation started preying on their lambs, they were worried.

“It was a little hair-raising because we were lambing and we have to protect our sheep. We couldn’t go out because that guy was running around,” Irene Korth told a group of visitors.

The grizzly wandered through their farmyard and killed nine animals over a few days before Fish and Wildlife officials could capture it.

Fish and Wildlife installed a camera to watch the bear’s activity in their yard and in a nearby grove of trees.

They set snares and it was eventually caught but tore a tree apart in an attempt to get away. The bear was tranquilized and microchipped, then removed from the area.

If it comes into conflict with humans again, it will be euthanized.

Jim Duncan’s ranch consists of deeded and crown grazing lease where there is plenty of wildlife and risks of conflicts.

He calves in March and April and sees cougars, wolves, bears and coyotes, but so far has had few problems.

The land west of Highway 22 runs on a south to north route through forested land and provides diverse wildlife habitat.

“It is that kind of cover that makes some of the best wildlife habitat as long as they are not disturbed too much,” said Duncan, who is also a wildlife biologist.

“Certainly, the attraction on the farmland is the food,” he said.

Wild animals follow creeks and rivers but ample man-made food sources are more nutritious than natural feed. Granaries, silage, gardens and livestock are all attractive.

Dead stock can also attract wildlife. Once wild animals are drawn into a populated area, they can pose a danger to people.

“I am a lot more careful at night when I go outside,” Duncan admitted.

“I don’t think there is a correlation between bears feeding on dead stock and then switching to live ones,” he said.

Grizzlies are relatively new to west-central Alberta but people are seeing bears walk through their property.

Alfalfa and swath-grazed fields are popular with deer and the wolves follow them.

Duncan has stopped swath-grazing because it attracted too many deer.

“If we start to get some bad winters and we lose a lot of deer, I would see more bear trouble and wolf trouble,” he said.

He keeps his cattle herd close together when grazing on 2,500 acres and keeps them moving through rotational paddocks. Electric fences are used.

Calving is done close to home and he admits he has fired on wolves patrolling the electric fence.

Composting dead stock helps as a deterrent.

Trail cameras are relatively inexpensive and show what wildlife is moving through at night so farmers know what precautions to take.

Understanding bear behaviour is important, said Chiarastella Feder, wildlife biologist with the provincial government.

Bear numbers are increasing and they travel long distances searching for high calorie food.

“The confluence between the foothills and the agriculture land provides them with attractants that are extremely nutritious and extremely easy to get. Why would you go and pick blueberries for 20 hours a day versus going into a grain bin and sit there for two hours?” she said.

Bears are powerful, intelligent and learn quickly. They have a good sense of direction and geography.

“Once they learn a behaviour, right or wrong, they repeat it as long as the benefit of that behaviour is higher than the price they have to pay for it,” she said.

Prevention of conflicts is important.

Male bears are more common in spring. They come out of hibernation and they are hungry for protein, then switch to energy-rich foods. They may consume 20,000 calories a day and will clean up dead stock along rivers or raid farms.

Females tend to hold back to protect their cubs and are seen more often in summer.

“This year we have had a lot of bear sightings and a relatively high number of conflicts,” she said.

Officials do not know how many grizzly bears are roaming in Alberta.

“For my mind, numbers are completely irrelevant. A black bear is as dangerous as a grizzly bear when it comes to hurt you,” she said.

Prevention techniques are advised for people in this region but in the far southwest regions, the approach is more aggressive.

“What those guys need to do in order to keep their livelihood and their families safe and coexist with those predators is at a completely different level than what we are doing here,” she said.

It is against the law to shoot a grizzly bear. They are on the protected wildlife list so Fish and Wildlife officials need to be called.

However, there are a limited number of Fish and Wildlife officers in the province so prevention is encouraged.

“Think in terms of what can I do to prevent an attractant to be found and consumed,” she said.

This needs to be done on a community basis. If one farm is taking every precaution, the neighbour might not and the bears will still roam through searching for food.

Electric fences are effective but they must be installed correctly.

“People say electric fences cost a lot of money. When you start to lose five, six or seven animals and each day your operation is not running and you lose a few thousand dollars, that electric fence becomes really cheap,” she said.

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