Co-existing with Grizzly Bears in Southwest Alberta

Grizzly bears are a hot button topic in southwest Alberta.  For years, there was much debate, but little scientific evidence, surrounding grizzly populations.  A province-wide study from 2004 to 2008 estimated that there were less than 700 grizzly bears in Alberta. In 2008, a five-year recovery plan was created to help restore populations, and grizzlies were officially designated as threatened in 2010.

As a keystone species, a robust and vigorous grizzly population is an excellent indicator of healthy ecosystems, and of sustainable land use.  When grizzly bears thrive, there is confidence that the entire ecosystem is doing well. Recovery of the population is critically important, not just to keep an icon of the Canadian wilderness, but to also contribute to the overall wellbeing of our ecological systems.

In Alberta, restoring our population of grizzlies to a healthy number, and then finding ways to co-exist, are the main challenges associated with recovery. Humans are the main source of grizzly mortality. Habitat disturbances and conflicts between grizzly bears and people in southwestern Alberta have escalated over the last decade. In the last few years, landowners are reporting increased conflict as bears are moving eastward onto private lands.

Recognizing the need to better understand the grizzly population in the area, the Alberta government, in conjunction with the University of Alberta and Parks Canada, began its Southwest Alberta Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project in 2011. Working on public and private lands, the Project is measuring populations and spatial patterns of grizzly bears in the region. The Waterton Biosphere Reserve (WBR) Carnivore Working Group (CWG) helped to facilitate the inclusion of private land in the project, and the involvement of local landowners in the monitoring efforts.

This unique collaboration has many benefits. By working together with landowners, the  Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project is successfully monitoring the entirety of Bear Management Area 6, 60% of which is private land. At this time, more than 70 landowners have been directly engaged in the identification of sites frequented by bears and in data collection. This creates a complete and thorough monitoring effort.  It also ensures that future management and conservation actions are effective, appropriately targeted, scientifically defensible, and locally supported.

With support from Alberta Ecotrust, the WBR and CWG have been implementing conflict reduction and attractant management with landowners in southwest Alberta.  They have also been monitoring the effectiveness of these measures.  Current attractant management projects include removing dead livestock from the landscape, making grain and feed storage facilities more secure, and installing electric fencing to keep carnivores away from other attractants.

“Demand for our programs is as high as ever,” says Jeff Bectell, local rancher and Project Coordinator for the Carnivore Working Group. “Landowners are definitely concerned about more bears in the area. It’s important for us to know what conflict mitigation measures are effective and have the greatest impact.”

With a new draft recovery plan slated to come in the next year, there are many challenges ahead. Stewarding large carnivores is complex, and there are many questions. What is the proper amount of bears? How do we manage a larger population? With an increase in bears, there is almost guaranteed an increase in conflict.  Who pays when there are losses to ranchers?

In the last few years, the community and the government have really come together. According to Bectell, “We can say with near certainty that the grizzly bear population has recovered in southwest Alberta. But co-existence is a long term challenge. We need to decrease conflict by preventing bears from damaging facilities and stored feed, we need proper compensation when livestock are killed, and we need understanding.”

Did You Know?

The Southwest Alberta Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project, with support from the WBRA, has been monitoring the grizzly population in southwest Alberta since 2011. Last year, the efforts from all groups detected 128 individual grizzly bears. In the three years of DNA sampling done since 2011, they have now built a genetic database of 177 individual grizzly bears. These numbers represent the number of bears detected at some point over the duration of the field work.


12 Grants of Christmas

This story is the tenth in our 12 Grants of Christmas series. In the days leading up to Christmas we will be featuring some of the best projects and stories from our grantees in the last year. Please return to our blog in the coming days and weeks to learn more about the incredible environmental work being done across Alberta. Other stories:

1. Making a Statement in Fort Chip

2. Living With Coyotes

3. Calgary Can: Recognizing People for their Environmental & Economic Contributions

4. Answering Hard Questions in Our Grasslands

5. Learning From the Ground Up

6. Help Protect Big Island-Woodbend

7. Meeting Alberta’s Climate Goals with Energy Efficiency

8. Using Science to Figure Out What is Special

9. Connecting Citizens to Science in the Oldman

10. Taking Collaboration to the Next Level: Putting Beavers to Work

11. Co-existing with Grizzly Bears in Southwest Alberta

12. Our Story: Alberta Ecotrust 2014 Year in Review

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