Environment

It Is a Shit Time to Be a Bear in Canada

Humans are delicious but terrible.
August 26, 2016, 2:51pm

Photo via Pixabay

Remember the time when bears were respected and harnessed as tools of revenge to maul dozens of youth because they dared to insult the baldness of a biblical prophet?

Those days are, very sadly, no longer. In fact, it's a real bad time to be a bear in Canada: If a whooping bodybuilder isn't hurling a GoPro-equipped javelin at you, another nine of your black bear buddies are being shot in the span of a week for munching on some delicious garbage and fruit.

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The slaying of those black bears is, of course, very horrible and shocking and quite rude.

But it's actually the plight of the grizzly bear in Western Canada that is most concerning for conservationists. For while there are around 150,000 black bears galloping around British Columbia and Alberta, only 15,000 or so grizzlies remain in the area.

(To put it in context: While the execution of Harambe the beautiful and sacrosanct Western lowland gorilla was unfathomably sad, it was statistically meaningless compared to the near-extinction of mountain gorillas—a distinct and far less populous species—in Central Africa.)

The problem returns, of course, to settlers. We are very, very bad at living with bears. Case in point: grizzlies used to live and thrive on the prairies, but were effectively extirpated—made locally extinct—with the arrival of Europeans. Yeehaw.

"Any biologist will tell you the key to grizzly bear recovery is managing human access in grizzly bear habitat," Jeff Gailus, author of The Grizzly Manifesto: In Defence of the Great Bear, told VICE.

That means greatly limiting interactions including poaching, the use of motorized vehicles, presence of industrial workcamps and spilling of grain near railroads (which attracts bears and can often lead to grisly deaths).

Alberta has the highest amount of human disturbance in Canada, which has led to a drop in population from about 6,000 in the late 19th century to around 700 today (around 1,000 are needed for a genetically diverse population). Hunting grizzlies has been illegal in the province since 2006; the species was declared "threatened" in 2010.

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However, recent population numbers are vague estimations at best.

Katie Morrison, conservation director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in Southern Alberta (CPAWS SAB), says the province doesn't measure population trends in grizzlies. That can lead to statistical differences between the occasional studies that do take place (which are further distorted by untracked migration and relocation).

"We don't know whether they're increasing or decreasing or staying the same as far as numbers," Morrison told me. "We do know that the major threats to grizzly bears, which is human access into grizzly bear habitat, has not improved. It's definitely a big concern for us."

British Columbia houses a great majority of the remaining grizzlies, mostly in its north and centre; Joanna Skrajny, conservation specialist at the Alberta Wilderness Association, says the province "really values its large forests and natural areas."

But that certainly doesn't mean it's worthy of admiration. Gailus says there are

nine subpopulations in the province

that have effectively been designated as threatened yet nothing has been done to recover them. Trophy hunting of grizzlies

is still sanctioned

. Some Indigenous communities in northern BC fiercely oppose the practice and

recently banned it

within their territories.

Yet there's very little political will in either province to implement the kind of meaningful reform that has resulted in population recoveries in the United States' Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone region.

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BC appears to be holding steady; it seems likely that any changes won't come until after the 2018 provincial election.

Meanwhile, Alberta's in the process of redrafting its recovery strategy.

While conservationists say there are some improvements from the last, largely unimplemented strategy such as an increased focus on "bear smart" education and highway crossings, there are disturbing regressions including the allowing of more linear disturbances like roads and trails through bear habitat, higher rates of human-caused mortality in certain areas and the complete removal of an area as a recovery zone.

In 2010, then opposition environment critic Rachel Notley (and now the province's premier) stated: "until we take real action to limit contact with these animals, they will continue to be killed unnecessarily."

"It's difficult to know what's going to happen with these grizzly bears," Skrajny said.

"They will definitely be put at risk if the current strategy moves forward. Grizzly bears are the template for wildlife. They're the most iconic species: they're the species that people connect with. We need to manage grizzly bears properly, and that will help manage all the other wildlife populations properly as well."

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.