Alberta’s declining grizzly bears, how low can we aim for species protection?

Alberta’s declining grizzly bears, how low can we aim for species protection?

It took eight years and a lot of public pressure from the time the Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee (AESCC) recommended the grizzly bear be listed as threatened in 2002 to the species’ designation as threatened under the Wildlife Act earlier this year.

The future of Alberta grizzlies depends on the management goals we set for them, and whether they are ecologically defensible.  A recent report by environmental groups suggests that with adequate recovery actions, Alberta can sustain a population recovered to between 1700 and 2100 animals.  The current maximum population that is possible under existing recovery plans is estimated at 1100, which will ensure that grizzlies remain at best threatened in Alberta in perpetuity.  Designation of the grizzly as threatened sadly does not change this situation under existing non-binding provisions of the Alberta Wildlife Act, nor does designation as threatened make that recovery plan enforceable.

At this juncture, Albertans face a stark choice: limit human uses and interactions in grizzly habitat quickly, or face eventual extirpation of grizzlies from Alberta.  Even the implementation of the current Alberta grizzly “recovery” plan would likely decrease the amount of existing secure habitat to by allowing further industrial activity and roads in grizzly habitat, further harming this already threatened population.

Studies confirm that the most crucial element in grizzly bear recovery is providing adequate habitat with low road density.  Alberta grizzlies are being fragmented into small population units due to high traffic volumes on busy roads.  There are estimated to be less than 700 bears remaining, based on a February 2010 status report.

Land use plans must include provisions that require them to be consistent with properly developed species recovery plans, particularly with respect to road densities and identification of critical habitat.  Such provisions must be binding on regulatory authorities who may approve industrial development, road development, and resource tenure applications.  There is currently no legal authority available to ensure that regulatory decisions in other provincial departments are consistent with species recovery.  The lack of sophisticated integration between resource and environmental policy is unsustainable and unacceptable.  While land use plans under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act may afford some remedy for this, ultimately they must incorporate appropriate critical habitat designations and recovery planning for species at risk to be able to avoid further harming Alberta’s grizzlies.

The grizzly bear “science advisory committee” in Alberta is currently not tasked with identifying critical habitat, or ways to protect that habitat, and no complete assessment of critical habitat has been done.  The Wildlife Act does not obligate anyone to do so.  This makes addressing grizzly recovery and critical habitat identification in land use plans even more crucial now than ever before.   Land use planning processes must identify these conflicts and the choices and realities that they entail for the public to be able to voice their approval or disapproval as the case may be.

Albertans now face a challenging situation.  Do we want healthy habitat ecology that is interconnected, sustainable, and includes truly wild grizzlies?  Or are we satisfied to preserve a few bears in scattered and confined, even zoolike park facilities as we have with plains bison?  If we want more than the second option, roads in many locations will simply have to be decommissioned and some resource tenures will have to be abandoned.  Access may have to be limited on some highways as well.  These are all actions that were recommended in the 2008 recovery plan.

Whatever the choice, it must be transparent and those making it must be accountable for it.  There is currently a complete disconnect between the stated goal of “recovery” and the response by government.  Current plans, even if implemented appear to aim to keep the species in a perpetually threatened and in a declining habitat, without a truly viable wild population in its former range.  We should ask ourselves if it is possible to aim lower than this without openly endorsing extinction?

If the government’s true goal is to fail to recover the bears in favour of resource development, then it ought to say so.  This decision should also be the result of a transparent discussion about the recommendations of the grizzly bear science advisory committee regarding how grizzly bear population goals should be established ecologically.  The public should be involved in the discussion about how many grizzlies we want in Alberta, and how many are necessary to preserve functioning ecosystems in Alberta.

For more information visit http://www.savethegrizzly.ca/

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