The future of Alberta’s grizzly bears has been of significant concern for many Albertans for at least two decades. Recent research, summarized in the Government of Alberta’s 2010 Status of the Grizzly Bear in Alberta report, indicates that the grizzly bear population in Alberta is in dire straits. Alberta’s grizzly bear population, which occurs on both provincial and federal lands, is small (760) and becoming increasingly fragmented into even smaller population units, many of which are fewer than 100 individuals. Mortality rates are unsustainably high, and populations in many parts of Alberta are declining.
Industrial activity and the road networks required to harvest timber and extract oil and gas threaten grizzly bear survival and they are expected to increase dramatically in grizzly bear habitat, as are motorized recreation, and urban and agriculture development. The outlook for Alberta’s bears under current conditions is a 98.6 per cent risk of population decline by 30 per cent or more over the next 36 years.
Volumes of scientific research and experiences in Alberta, the United States and elsewhere prove that the key to recovering at-risk grizzly bear populations is to reduce the likelihood of people and bears coming into close contact with each other. The primary way to achieve this is to limit the number of roads in grizzly bear habitat. Attempting to prevent the use of existing road networks, even those officially closed by gates, signage and regulations, has proven ineffective. The solution is clear: maintain large, unroaded wilderness areas and reduce road densities in the rest of grizzly bear habitat to a sustainable level of 0.6 kilometres per square kilometre.
Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery plan was painstakingly drafted by a team of committed citizens from a variety of sectors and approved by the Alberta government in 2008. Although this plan points us in the right direction, it does not go far enough to protect Alberta’s grizzly bear populations from further decline. Proposed human-caused mortality limits are too high, and the universally accepted sustainable road density thresholds do not apply to enough of Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery area to ensure that bear populations can recover to sustainable levels.
Even more troubling, the provincial government seems to have reduced the size of the recovery area stipulated in the recovery plan, shrinking the area that will be able to support grizzly bears. Recent evidence also suggests that the government is not enforcing the recommendations and guidelines laid out in the grizzly bear recovery plan . Even with the adoption of the inadequate recovery plan, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development has approved, renewed or amended several forest management plans in important grizzly bear habitat that do not meet the requirements of the recovery plan and put grizzly bears at even greater risk of decline.
The good news is that there is still time to pull Alberta’s grizzly bear population back from the brink, just as our American neighbours have done. If the recovery plan is updated and improved to include the new information and analysis in the government’s recent status report, and if the Alberta government implements the recovery plan in an open and transparent manner, there is no reason why Alberta cannot recover a “viable and self-sustaining” population of approximately 2000 grizzly bears.
Alberta’s ongoing Land-Use Framework process provides an ideal opportunity to include the management strategies from a new and improved grizzly bear recovery plan into all relevant regional plans. Currently, the South Saskatchewan and Athabasca regional planning processes are underway. The Red Deer, North Saskatchewan, Upper Athabasca and Upper Peace regional plans also will provide an opportunity to better address grizzly bear habitat needs. If these plans strictly limit road densities and provide adequate habitat security for grizzly bears (including large core, roadless areas) across their current range, they will secure a future for grizzly bears – and at the same time protect other natural resources that Albertans value, including clean drinking water, healthy fisheries and abundant game species.
If the Alberta government isn’t up to the task, the federal government will have no choice but to invoke the safety-net clause in Canada’s Species at Risk Act and step in to protect Alberta’s most threatened grizzly bear population units.
CPAWS is a part of the The Grizzly Bear Coalition, which is comprised of a group of Environmental Non-government Organizations (ENGOs), including Y2Y, Wild Canada Conservation Alliance and others, that collaborate to strategize and address grizzly bear conservation in Alberta.
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