On June 1, the Government of Alberta released the new draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan (2016-2021). CPAWS Southern Alberta will be reviewing the plan in detail and will encourage public feedback on the plan by July 15. At first glance however, we can see the new plan shows some areas of progress and some areas of serious concern.
Grizzly bears were first listed as Threatened in Alberta in 2010 due to concerns over low population numbers, deteriorating habitat caused by fragmentation and high levels of human-cause mortality.
The document identifies public motorized access associated with increasing road density as a major contributor to human-bear conflicts that have resulted in grizzly bear deaths. Human-caused bear deaths result mainly from:
• vehicle and train collisions
• self-defense kills
• hunters mistaking a grizzly for a black bear
These grizzly bear deaths are often facilitated by motorized access into bear habitat, which then puts bear populations at risk.
The draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan makes some progress to outline a provincial strategy of actions to address threats to the overall species population but fails to do address a number of issues. Here is our initial overview:
Major highways in Alberta are fragmenting grizzly bear habitat and causing populations to become isolated. One of the strengths of the new plan is recognizing the need to connect our grizzly bear populations across these major highways and ensure bears can move safely throughout the Rockies and foothills.
CPAWS Southern Alberta also strongly supports the plan’s renewed focus to support communities and landowners in bear country through education and conflict-mitigation strategies. To ensure this part of the recovery plan is successful, community programs will need dedicated funding to help people co-exist with grizzly bears as the species recovers.
Much of the grizzly bear habitat on Alberta’s public land is highly fragmented with roads and motorized trails many times greater than the research indicates is good for bears. These trails allow people to access core habitat areas, increasing the risk of conflict and of bear deaths. It is critical to limit disturbances and provide safe habitat for recovering grizzly bears. However, by focusing on limits to public roads only and excluding the effects of trails, the new plan actually increases the number of roads and trails that can be built in core grizzly habitat.
The plan states that research on the effect of motorized recreation has not been done in Alberta. In the absence of this research, caution is absolutely necessary when applying thresholds. We know research in North America demonstrates that human conflict with bears, facilitated by motorized access, is the highest risk to bears. Therefore, it should not be assumed that motorized recreational trails into grizzly bear habitat do not increase mortality risk. Rather there should be a focus on restoring motorized trails to sustainable levels.
Another key area of concern is the removal of the Porcupine Hills from designated Core Habitat to merely Support Habitat. The Porcupine Hills contains high value grizzly bear habitat and is important for facilitating the movement of bears. Downgrading this area would remove the limitations on road and trail densities in the Porcupine Hills, potentially pushing bears onto private lands and could allow for higher tolerance for deaths and relocations. As one of the last vestiges of grassland grizzly habitat on public land it is important to retain this area as core habitat in the plan.
The new plan will also accommodate higher allowable human-caused mortality rates in the Castle and Livingstone grizzly populations. As these populations appear to be increasing, it is more important than ever to reduce conflicts in these areas for the safety of bears and people. Having higher tolerance for grizzly deaths in this region could prevent action on addressing critical issues like intense off-highway vehicle (OHV) use and logging in grizzly bear habitat which may cause grizzlies to be displaced onto private land where the habitat is more secure. There should be a large focus on supporting communities and ranchers in the Castle and Livingstone population areas to reduce conflicts with bears.
Albertans are proud of their majestic wildlife. In particular, grizzly bears symbolize the wild and free spaces that Albertans value. There is room in Alberta for recreation, ranching, and resource development, but we also need to conserve and connect our best wildlife habitats. Managing the landscape for grizzly bears also provides habitat for many other species, helps maintain fish and healthy aquatic ecosystems, and protects clean and abundant supplies of water for downstream users.
It is important for Albertans to provide their input into this plan before July 15. A public survey can be found HERE.
CPAWS Southern Alberta will be doing a thorough review of the plan that will be available on the CPAWS Southern Alberta website. Stay tuned for more details.