Alberta Looking To Maintain Grizzly Numbers

Canada News Service, Bear Hunting Magazine

Alberta hopes to maintain what it calls a "sustainable population of grizzly bears" by restricting roads in rural areas and reducing encounters with people, but there are no immediate plans to help increase the number of the animals, a government expert says.

And determining the sustainable number of grizzly bears will be based as much on the opinion of people in rural areas as on science.

"What the (grizzly bear) population is right now is often going to drive what the target is," George Hamilton, the province's chief bear expert, stated. "We are reluctant to see a decrease, but an increase is going to be difficult."

At one time experts estimated there were more than 1,000 grizzlies in Alberta outside of national parks. In 2000 the province suggested the number was 841.

After four years of counting, the government says biologists have found only 230 grizzlies, but that does not include the bears in the area that extends from Highway 16 north to Grande Prairie, which is still being surveyed. Gord Stenhouse, chairman of Alberta's grizzly bear recovery team, has speculated there may be fewer than 500 grizzlies left in Alberta.

The numbers are so low that Hamilton and other experts are concerned there may not be enough bears in parts of northern Alberta to maintain genetically healthy animals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that if the number of mature breeding individuals is less than 1,000, the population is considered "threatened." If the numbers is less than 250, the population is considered "endangered."

Alberta has suspended its spring grizzly bear hunt until at least next year. Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton has said that he will not consider listing the species as a threatened or endangered until the count is completed in 2009.

Hamilton said it may be possible to eventually increase the number of grizzly bears in remote areas by reducing poaching. "The biggest challenge will be to sustain the population in areas where there are more people or human activities such as agriculture," he said.

"Every time a bear comes in and kills a calf, there is a rancher who wants to go out and kill it or wants the government to kill it. We have to work really hard to ensure those conflicts don't happen," he said.

The province plans to consult with people in rural areas over the next two months about the first draft of its grizzly bear strategy that was released earlier this year.

It recommended setting specific standards for core grizzly habitats and to strictly limit motorized access on oilpatch and logging roads.

"When people see these maps they may say, 'Oh, that is my favourite snowmobiling area," Hamilton said. "We are saying, 'calm down for the moment, we are going to listen to everybody.' The point here is that we are trying to talk about grizzly bear conservation, not excluding people from the land."

The province also plans to more vigorously promote its BearSmart program to encourage people to maintain clean campsites in the woods to avoid encounters with bears.

Sustaining the grizzly bear population when Alberta's population and industrial activity is increasing can be done, but it won't be easy, he said.

"The (bear) numbers are a lot lower than what people used to believe," he said. "There are genuine challenges that require public support. They require political will."

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