Recovering Grizzlies and Caribou

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

I have often pointed out in this column, one of the chief sources of our problems trying to conserve our renewable resources, like fish and wildlife, is our ever-growing human population and its increasing demands on our environment. Two recent examples of how we are trying to cope with this reality are the announcements made this June about the province’s threatened grizzly bears and woodland caribou.

Grizzly Bears

grizzly bear tracks

Grizzlies are seldom seen because they prefer to avoid human activity.

On June 1, the province released a draft 2016-2021 Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan (to replace the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan 2008-2013). The public had until July 15 to provide input to the plan, online through a survey. One thing that was not on the table for discussion was the resumption of a grizzly bear hunt. The government cancelled that hunt in 2006 and it is doubtful it will be reinstated any time soon. The Threatened designation for the species would first have to be removed and that won’t happen until the population increases substantially. And that’s not going to happen until the province gets a handle on all the habitat destruction and fragmentation that is occurring in grizzly range.

The draft plan looks at these issues, as did the 2008 plan. The difference is the draft plan is providing more detail. For example, the 2008 plan designated seven grizzly Bear Management Areas (BMAs) to tailor management to specific geographical units containing distinct grizzly bear populations. During implementation of that first plan it became obvious that access of motorized vehicles into the habitat was a chief factor in grizzly bear deaths (e.g., vehicular accidents, increased access for poachers, accidental shooting of grizzlies by black bear hunters, self-defence kills). So, each BMA was divided into Core and Secondary Zones to better manage roads and vehicular access. Apparently there would be more restrictions on motorized travel in core habitat areas than in secondary ones.

As well, since the publication of the 2008 plan, there were increases in the number of conflicts between people and grizzlies on private land adjacent to public land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. So it became necessary to better define the BMA boundaries and divide the BMAs further into Recovery, Support and Habitat Linkage Zones, which crisscross the Core and Secondary Zones.

Confused? Well, I certainly am. These complexities of subzones are going to require a manager, enforcement officer or recreator to have a map and GPS to determine just where he or she is and what rules apply.

Another change from the 2008 plan is the downgrading of motorized access restrictions from Open Route Density Thresholds (which included trails as well as roads) to Open Road Density Thresholds (which would only include roads). In other words, there would be no restrictions placed on Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) that leave the road. A motorized vehicle disturbs wildlife of all kinds, whether on a road or off, and indeed increases the chances of bear mortality. Off-road densities need to be established in the core and support zones. It seems those concerns have been put on the shelf. Why? If we are really trying to increase grizzly numbers, these densities need to be addressed.

The draft plan focuses a lot on reducing human-caused mortality and that is indeed important. The Bear Smart program would be enhanced and more specialists in human-wildlife conflict management would be hired to educate both bears and humans. This should reduce the conflicts and bear mortality, but that is just one aspect of grizzly bear management.

If we want these bears to increase their numbers, habitat protection and enhancement should be more front-and-centre in the new plan. However, that might mean the curtailment of some petroleum and forestry projects.

Woodland Caribou
On the heels of the announcement of the draft grizzly bear plan, on June 8 the government released a mediator’s report with regard to protecting woodland caribou, along with a draft range plan for two herds near Fox Creek and Grande Cache. Why a mediator’s report? It appears the government wanted to bust up a “policy logjam,” the previous government caused, with regard to meeting an October 2017 federal government deadline to file a recovery plan for the threatened species. Using a mediator to bring all the concerned stakeholders together and develop a mutually acceptable plan was a solution to break that jam. The government has accepted the mediator’s recommendations and states it intends to move forward with them.

The highlights of mediator Eric Denhoff’s recommendations include:

  • Protecting 1.8 million hectares of caribou range in northwest and north-central Alberta (Bistcho, Yates, Caribou Mountains and Chinchaga herd ranges).
  • Restoring 10,000 kilometres of “legacy” seismic lines in the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou ranges.
  • Establishing a 100 km2 “caribou-rearing facility” in the Little Smoky range.
pump jack

Petroleum development and service roads are some of disturbances that affect the viability of grizzlies and woodland caribou.

Protecting the range in northwest and north-central Alberta is really a no brainer. It’s the “low hanging fruit” that previous governments should have “picked” a long time ago. If they had protected caribou range in the foothills outside of Banff, the Banff herd would not have been extirpated. Similarly, if they had protected the caribou ranges in northeast Alberta, oil sands development would have been a lot different and perhaps more acceptable to the world at large. What’s curious in this report is that there is no mention of how the northeast caribou ranges should be managed. Have they been written off?

The most controversial portion of the plan is the establishment of a 100 km2, fenced caribou rearing facility in the Little Smoky caribou range. The Little Smoky and the adjacent A La Peche caribou herds are perhaps the most precarious herds in the province (outside the oil sands). Over exploitation by petroleum and forestry have destroyed much habitat, exposing the herds to increased predation. The province has responded by waging a war against the wolves in this area and lowering the numbers of moose, elk and deer to curb predation on caribou. As I have stated before in this column, I would favor a temporary wolf cull if 1) habitat protection and restoration occurred at the same time and 2) no poison was used. It appears the government has finally got the message at least concerning habitat restoration. The wolf cull will continue but efforts will begin to restore habitat.

But is it too late? The reason I ask is that you know a population is in trouble when you go to extremes to maintain it. The expensive wolf cull and now this expensive experiment in fenced-rearing are indeed extremes in managing wildlife, indicating to me that it may be too late to save this herd. (For a similar viewpoint, check out Lorne Fitch’s essay “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou.) I hope not. I hope we can bring the Little Smoky herd back. But I have hunted in that area and know there is a long way to go.

Alberta is truly at a crossroads with these two plans. Both plans illustrate how difficult it is to balance a healthy economy with a healthy environment, as demands increase on both. The two plans stress the need for consultation between stakeholders and governments. The real difficulty comes in making the trade-offs that ensure long-term benefits for all. If we want to see grizzly bears or indeed hunt them, we might have to give up motorized access to certain areas. If we want to see caribou on the landscape, we will have to better manage and indeed curtail our resource extraction.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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One Response to Recovering Grizzlies and Caribou

  1. Pingback: Nickel and Diming Outdoor Rights | Don Meredith Outdoors

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