BOW VALLEY – Grizzly bears and human motorized access into their core habitat can be a dangerous mix.
Research shows that industrial roads, and the easy motorized access they give people into vital grizzly bear habitat in Alberta and B.C., can have huge implications for the species at individual and population levels.
Gordon Stenhouse, one of the authors of a new study and a research scientist and program lead for fRI Research’s grizzly bear program, said it has shown a very positive way that scientists can work together to share data and tackle these big challenges facing wildlife.
“One thing that I think is very important was that the analysis showed very similar results in terms of grizzly bear responses, whether it was Alberta or B.C.,” said Stenhouse.
“The findings were the same, which should be clear direction for management.”
Hundreds of thousands of kilometres of roads, built for mining, logging or oil and gas development and cut through the forest of Alberta in B.C., have serious impacts on wildlife populations through their direct footprint, and by providing increased human access.
The team of researchers reviewed the scientific literature on the relationship between grizzly bears and human motorized access, including industrial roads and off-highway vehicle tracks, and how controlling that access benefits grizzly bear conservation in western Canada.
They found that motorized access affected grizzly bears’ habitat use, home range selection, movements, population fragmentation, survival, and reproductive rates, which ultimately reflected in population density, trend and conservation status.
It leads to increased human-caused mortality, habitat displacement, fragmentation, and direct habitat loss.
“Motorized access management was effective in mitigating these effects,” the researchers concluded.
The study was published by the International Association for Bear Research and Management in BioOne Complete earlier this year. The other authors of the report include Michael Proctor, Bruce McLellan, Garth Mowat and Clayton Lamb.
They concluded that industrial road management would be a useful tool when roads exist in high-quality grizzly bear habitats with energy-rich foods; open road densities exceed 0.6 km per square kilometre; and less than at least 60 per cent of the area is more than 500 metres from an open road.
The first priority, they say, should be managing motorized access in areas where grizzly bear populations are threatened or there are conservation concerns, such as a suspected population decline, excessive mortality rates and areas with high human use and development.
Secondly, managing vehicle access would also be best in areas where roads cut though the highest quality habitats. They say managers should allow for habitat security with zero or low road densities in areas with high quality summer and fall energy-rich grizzly bear food, like berries, needed for bears in the lead up to denning.
“This could entail maintaining low road densities in currently safe habitats where habitat quality is high and mortality risk is low, and applying motorized access controls in areas of sink habitats, where habitat quality and road densities are high,” according to the researchers. “In some instances, when lower elevation spring or autumn habitats have high mortality risk, access controls should be considered.”
A third priority identified by the researchers is protection for areas within and near to known linkage areas between populations, like wildlife corridors, which allow bears to move safely among habitats, including connected sink habitats that may be affecting a larger area.
Given it’s much easier to manage motorized access before the public begins using the road, the final priority is for areas with increasing road densities due to recent or planned industrial activities, such as increased resource extraction in northeastern B.C. and portions of Alberta.
“We conclude that motorized access is best monitored and applied across smaller geographic areas to optimize the protection of important habitats to benefit the distribution, survival, reproduction, and density of females across a broad area,” they say.
“Most jurisdictions manage motorized access across areas approximately 500–800 square kilometres – the approximate size of several overlapping female home ranges.
“Incorporating habitat quality into management strategies will require working at these smaller scales; but across B.C., larger units may be more practical in some cases.”
After protected areas, controlling motorized access on roads and off-highway vehicles has been the cornerstone of the recovery of threatened grizzly bear populations for the past 20 to 30 years in the United States, in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Legal debates, however, are ongoing.
“Much of southern and central B.C. and all of Alberta’s provincial lands have high road densities, and bears would benefit from increased motorized access management,” according to the researchers.
“We recognize that motorized access controls have been applied effectively in some areas of each province. However, whereas much has been done, large tracts of heavily roaded bear habitat still exist.”
Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative welcomed the research.
Hilary Young, Y2Y’s senior Alberta program manager, said this study not only has implications for grizzly bears – but for other animals as well.
Young said roads are one of the top problems facing wildlife, not just in the Bow Valley or in western Canada, but across the Yellowstone-to-Yukon region, noting this is especially apparent when looking at bear movements in Alberta and B.C.
“Resource roads are necessary to support industry such as forestry, mining, and energy, but we have a choice in how we move forward. It’s not just that roads fragment habitat, it’s that they allow for easier access for people and increase direct human-wildlife conflict,” she said.
“When resource roads remain open, it can be costly for our environment and wildlife. But government, industry, recreationists – all of us, in fact – can help bears thrive by making good decisions early on. That includes limiting the number of roads built in grizzly bear habitat, but also reclaiming those already built.”
In places where humans and grizzly bears share the same landscapes, Young said it is especially important to consider the needs of the bears as well as people.
“The potential cost to a grizzly bear of getting this wrong could be high: losing its life, the chance to have cubs, or loss of its home or access to food,” she said.
“The paper does a good job of looking at those costs and what we could lose if we do not carefully manage roads and their density, especially important in areas with high-quality grizzly habitat. More roads means humans are sharing space with grizzly bears more often.”
One of the major takeaways from the research, Young said, is that it is easier to manage motorized access before the roads become too numerous, or limiting access becomes a challenge to people using them.
“Another important move? Making the roads data public so better decisions are made, for people and wildlife,” she said.
The researchers involved in this study say they are optimistic that grizzly bears populations can persist indefinitely with continued vigilance, and doing more than is currently being done here.
“The point is that others have realized that grizzly bears have a special place in wildlife management,” they concluded.
“They require special attention and management to coexist with humans where they overlap significantly,” they added.
“That type of overlap is occurring in most of the Alberta grizzly bear distribution and in the southern, central, and northeastern distribution of B.C.”