Planning a better future

Grizzly bears need more than lip service from provincial government

It’s spring and Alberta’s grizzly bears have left the relative security of their dens for the rather more complicated world they find in Alberta’s forests and foothills. Before April could fade into May one grizzly was shot and killed near Coleman when it charged a homeowner who made the mistake of approaching a hungry bear eating a deer carcass. Provincial wildlife officers trapped and relocated a couple of grizzlies that got into grain and livestock southwest of Caroline. Grizzly season has begun and as usual it ain’t pretty.

Given Danielle Smith’s anti-science comments about climate change and grizzly bear management in Alberta the bears are probably happy the Wildrose Party didn’t win the election. But that doesn’t mean they should be happy. The Progressive Conservatives who have been overseeing grizzly bear management for the last 41 years haven’t done much better. Sure they developed a grizzly bear recovery plan to prevent Alberta’s grizzly bear population from slipping further down the rabbit hole but they seem to have forgotten to implement it.

While transparency has improved somewhat and the seeds of an effective Bear Smart Program have slowly begun to germinate little has been done to actually reduce the number of attractants that lure bears to their untimely deaths. More importantly nothing has been done to realize the heart of the recovery plan which is to reduce the number of roads and trails and thus the number of trucks and ATVs that sprawl through grizzly bear habitat.

The recovery plan to its credit recognizes what bear biologists and land managers across western North America know to be true: grizzlies and roads don’t mix. Where densities of roads and trails are greater than 0.6 kilometres per square kilometre grizzly bears die faster than they reproduce. It would be nice if it were otherwise but the fact is that grizzly bear populations decline without enough secure (i.e. roadless) habitat.

The stronghold of Alberta’s grizzly population is in and around the Willmore Wilderness Park where not surprisingly there are few trails and motorized access is limited. According to two recent studies the concentration of roads cutlines and pipelines in much of Alberta’s grizzly habitat exceed the recommended thresholds laid out in the grizzly bear recovery plan; in some areas they exceed these thresholds by two and three times. At these levels it’s just too difficult for grizzlies to avoid the people who kill them and when they encounter us (especially those of us who carry guns) the bears lose every time.

Thankfully environmentalists in Alberta have been encouraging the government to actually implement the road density thresholds stipulated in the recovery plan. But as Wendy Francis program director for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) reminded me recently their requests “have fallen on deaf ears.”

To inspire the government to get busy Y2Y has commissioned a study that will recommend improvements to the policies for creating using managing and eliminating these “linear features” in grizzly habitat. Francis hopes “this study will help us start a dialogue with the Alberta government and industrial land users as well as lay out a plan that allows conservationists government and landowners to work together to recover Alberta’s grizzlies.”

If the government hasn’t already taken the initiative to implement the road density standards it’s unlikely that another report about how to do so will change much. It’s the government’s responsibility to implement the policies on the books. And the fact is there already is a plan. I hope Y2Y’s study recognizes that the foundation of grizzly bear (or caribou or sage grouse) recovery is legislation that not only empowers the government — whether it’s dominated by the Wildrose Party or the Green Party — to protect these threatened and endangered species but obligates it to as well. And if the government refuses to do so as it has for more than a decade then Albertans can hold it accountable by taking it to court and making it.

There’s been much talk of how “radical and extreme” environmentalists are but it doesn’t seem too outrageous to expect that the government would actually invest the resources necessary to implement a recovery plan it adopted as government policy four years ago.

In a province as well-heeled as Alberta is that really too much to ask?

Jeff Gailus’s next book Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for the Tar Sands will be published by Rocky Mountain Books this fall.