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Shutting the door on bears

Ranchers in southwestern Alberta are taking steps to protect their property while maintaining their respect for grizzly bears. | File photo

Keeping grizzlies at bay | Ranchers share methods that protect livestock and feed from predators

TWIN BUTTE, Alta. — Poplar fluff winked in the sunlight that dappled a burbling Yarrow Creek June 21 as ranchers in this corner of southwestern Alberta recounted far less peaceful scenes.

Mac Main had to repair a metal grain bin and pour a concrete floor to prevent grizzly bears from gaining access.

Helen Cyr suspected a grizzly had killed a cow, but the animal’s meager remains made it hard to prove. Her husband, Clarence, discovered a hole in a wooden grain bin and a motion sensor camera showed grizzlies were the cause.

Dick Hardy stepped into his yard one day to find the door ripped from a metal grain bin.

Tony Bruder lost an estimated 40 tons of silage a few years ago when a grizzly sow and her cubs ripped open the plastic, ate some of the contents and played in the rest.

Upsetting, yes.

But each of these ranchers has taken steps to protect their property while maintaining their respect for grizzly bears.

“I don’t think there’s a rancher in the country that doesn’t like to see a bear walk across the hill over there, but when it starts causing trouble, we have to have a way to deal with it,” said Bruder.

He spoke at a Watershed and Large Carnivore Project tour that attracted 80 people to scenic ranching land north of Waterton National Park.

Grizzlies are designated as threatened in Alberta, which means specific efforts are made to protect and increase existing populations.

Surveys indicate numbers are growing by six percent per year in this region of the province, bringing grizzlies into more frequent contact with ranching operations.

“It’s not just about my livestock. It’s not just about my grain bins. It’s about the safety of my family,” said Bruder, whose ranch is nestled in a hollow beside Yarrow Creek.

“Since ’97, we’ve had a huge, and I mean huge, increase in grizzly bears. We have them in our yard. We have them walking by when we’re working under machinery. Just last year, what we counted from our deck was 16 different grizzly bears.”

He and other ranchers formed the Drywood Yarrow Conservation Partnership several years ago, and with participation from agencies such as Alberta Fish and Wildlife, Alberta Sustainable Resources, Cows and Fish, Trout Unlimited, Bear Smart and the Waterton Biosphere Reserve, have undertaken projects to limit adverse human-grizzly interaction.

It began with attention to the things that attract bears. Dead livestock topped the list.

After the BSE crisis, rendering companies began to charge ranchers to pick up dead stock. Rather than incur the expense, ranchers disposed of their dead animals on their own property. Then came the bears.

The ranchers group used grants to install bear-proof bins in which producers can deposit dead stock. The partnership also reimburses ranchers for pick-up fees for larger livestock carcasses.

Since initiating the system, the County of Cardston and the Municipal District of Ranchlands have developed similar operations, which they fund themselves. The MD of Pincher Creek, where the idea began, does not provide support for the program.

Grain and silage also attract bears. Projects using electrified fences have successfully protected bins and feed yards.

Jeff Porter is a key driver behind these projects. He is the southwest conservation co-ordinator for a partnership among the MDs of Ranchlands, Willow Creek and Pincher Creek. He said better communication between ranchers and government and wildlife groups has helped complete projects that limit bad bear events.

“It not only benefits the producers, but it also benefits the bears and it benefits Albertans as a whole,” he said. “These projects are key in moving the grizzly bear recovery program forward.”

Nigel Douglas of the Alberta Wilderness Association said he was impressed after seeing several projects that ranchers have completed to manage bears.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about the problems and the issues recently, but to me, this is where the solutions start and it’s really encouraging,” Douglas said.

“I’m really kind of inspired by this. This is what we see the future of grizzly bear management being.”

However, Douglas is concerned about the likelihood of further projects because the current ones are based on grants rather than guaranteed funding.

“There isn’t the funding on the table now to do this sort of thing on a scale that it needs to be done.”

Porter agreed that is an issue, but he is hopeful the province and funding agencies will recognize the benefits and put permanent funding in place.

“Our hope is that the proof is in the pudding. We’re starting to lay some of the numbers to these projects. Not only the cost, but the reductions in officer time (to deal with bear relocation and respond to bear damage complaints.) When you compare those costs and the cost savings, and also less bear conflict issues … it’s a win win.”

Jeff Bectell, co-ordinator for the Waterton Biosphere Reserve’s carnivore working group, sounded a warning about the need for project funds.

“If there’s going to be bears here, then there’s got to be something to do to manage it. Otherwise we’ll go back to not having bears here.”

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