An updated strategy for the recovery of threatened grizzly bears in Alberta establishes priority areas to recover populations and attempts to limit human access in core habitat by reducing the density of roads.
The draft 2016-21 Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, which is out for public review until July 15, focuses on reducing the amount of human-grizzly conflict and human-caused mortality of grizzly bears.
Key changes in the updated plan include the creation of new recovery zones that incorporate specific management priorities for each zone, and reducing the road density in areas to reduce human-caused deaths, such as from poaching.
Conservationists say the plan is a step forward, noting much of the grizzly bear habitat in Alberta is highly fragmented with roads and motorized trails, many times greater than what research indicates is good for bears.
Katie Morrison, conservation director with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) southern Alberta chapter, said addressing issues to connect habitat and limit disturbances is critical to recovering grizzly bears.
“Setting science-based limits on motorized access into grizzly bear habitat is a key part of ensuring we are managing our landscape for healthy bears and safety of people,” she said.
“However, these limits cannot just exist on paper. We will need to see real action to close and reclaim many of these roads and trails.”
In 2010, the estimated grizzly bear population was Alberta was approximately 700 to 800 bears. There has not been a population estimate completed since then, although inventory work has been done, or is underway in several areas.
Human-caused mortality remains a threat to grizzly bears in the province, and since the legal grizzly bear hunt was discontinued in 2006, there have been 131 known human-caused mortalities.
Almost 40 per cent of these deaths, where the sex of the bear was known, were female.
The recovery plan puts renewed focus on supporting communities in bear country and landowners, where there are bear conflicts with livestock, through education and conflict-mitigation strategies.
The strategy also identifies new zone classifications, including recovery zones amalgamating core and secondary zones. These are locations in Alberta where it is the government’s intention to manage for the recovery of grizzly bears.
Then there are new so-called support zones, which aim to help maintain grizzly bears, particularly female grizzlies with cubs, who have home ranges only partially in the recovery zone.
This zone will be a priority area for managing attractants for bears and see proactive management of human-bear conflicts.
Stephen Legault, program director for Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative, said progress is being made overall, and notes there is good news in the draft recovery plan.
He said it’s good to see a commitment from the government to lower the acceptable thresholds for the concentration of roads open to public motorized access.
“What we’re seeing is a commitment to lowering the acceptable road density to allow for broader conservation opportunities,” he said.
“The main thing that kills grizzly bears in Alberta is access, and anytime we’re reducing access to core grizzly bear habitat, we’re making progress.”
While the government is lowering the allowable road density in certain bear management areas, Legault said, it does appear the definition of what constitutes a road is changing.
“We will be pushing hard for the lowest possible threshold for recovery, for the lowest possible threshold for linear density,” said Legault.
Legault said he’s also pleased the plan identifies new strategies for restoring habitat connectivity for grizzly bears across major highways.
“Highways 3, 1, 11 and 16 are four big focus areas,” he said. “There’s good work already done on Highway 3 and we’re hoping to make tracks on Highway 1.”
But Legault said there are also areas of serious concern with the plan.
He said a greater amount of human-caused mortality would be acceptable under the plan in the two southern grizzly bear management units, one that includes the Castle area and the other that includes Kananaskis Country.
“These are flagship areas and it seems the rationale is, ‘well, human-bear conflicts are increasingly challenging in those areas, and in recognition of that we need to accept increased mortality’, ” said Legault.
“But you don’t say it’s really hard and accept greater human-caused mortality. This is where you say we have to step up our work in order to ensure human-caused mortality is reduced.”
Legault said he’s very troubled that the Porcupine Hills region in southern Alberta has been taken out of core grizzly bear habitat and is now considered a support zone for managing grizzlies there.
“This is a capitulation to off-highway vehicle use in that area, and to logging in that area. It feels plain and simple that they’re sacrificing that area,” he said.
“It’s the last vestige of Great Plains ecosystem that houses a healthy population of grizzly bears. We can’t let grizzly bears go on that landscape. We will push very aggressively to ensure Porcupine Hills continue to stay as core grizzly bear habitat.”
Paul Frame, the province’s carnivore specialist, said the province has done a “pretty good job” over the past 10 years of reducing human-caused mortality to an acceptable threshold.
He said there’s been an average of 19 human-caused grizzly bear deaths a year, from as low as 13 to as high as 28 in a given year.
The four major causes of human-caused mortality were poaching, collisions with vehicles or trains, self defense kills, usually by hunters, and black bear hunters misidentifying and shooting a grizzly bear.
“In the original plan there was a threshold laid out that if we keep human-caused mortality below the threshold of four per cent, we could expect to see the population increase, and we’ve done that every year,” he said.
Frame said there have been population inventories in most bear management units since 2010, noting the area between Montana and Highway 3 has seen a three per cent increase a year and the area between Highway 11 and 16 has seen a seven per cent increase.
“Since the original plan, all the evidence is the population is already recovering,” he said.