Bear necessities: Groups urge immediate action in Alberta to save grizzlies

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If Alberta keeps building roads into remote regions where its few remaining grizzly bears live, the bruins will be on a path to oblivion, conservationists warn in a report released Friday.
"It's pretty much as simple as that. If we can do a better job of managing access in grizzly bear habitat, then we can manage grizzly bears in Alberta," said Nigel Douglas, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, in an interview.
The report, titled "A Grizzly Challenge" and drafted with input from such groups as the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Sierra Club of Canada and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, pegs the number of grizzlies in the province at 760.
But it says that figure could easily triple in years to come if provincial officials merely implement recommendations already presented to them by experts.
Douglas said there are myriad rules the government could use to minimize human incursion into grizzly bear habitat. For example, new industrial access roads could be built only if other roads were decommissioned. Or new access roads would have to be blocked off or gated. Or, in extreme cases, some highly sensitive areas could simply be labelled no-go zones for further development.
"There's a range of tools we can use."
Douglas added there is no reason Alberta can't follow the example of the United States. In Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, focused efforts and strong legislation have boosted the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem from 200 to 600 over the last generation.
"They brought out a recovery plan that focused on reducing motorized access," he said. "A lot of roads were closed into grizzly bear habitat. The hunt was suspended, and basically over 30 some years it has worked.
In Alberta, the report urges the province to designate and maintain wilderness areas for the bears to roam, and also to reduce road densities in the rest of the habitats to about half a kilometre of length per square kilometre.
Some action has been taken. The province suspended sanctioned grizzly bear hunting in 2006.
A spokesman from the province's Sustainable Resource Development Department was not immediately available for comment Friday.
The department's minister, Mel Knight, has yet to respond to the latest recommendation from the province's own Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee on how to help bears.
The committee - composed of industry, academic and conservation representatives - recently renewed a recommendation first made seven years ago to protect the grizzlies by designating them a threatened species.
Knight has said he wants to consult with caucus colleagues.
His officials say the threatened species tag leads to other challenges. It could give the federal government more clout to intervene under the Species at Risk Act, it could affect development of oil and gas and pulp and paper projects in grizzly bear regions, and it could restrict those who use the areas for off-road sports, including ATV riders.
The Fish and Game Association has said the issue is dangerously political for Premier Ed Stelmach's governing Progressive Conservatives. Any move to restrict public access, it says, risks upsetting the party's core rural constituency - a constituency that recent polls suggest is weighing a jump to the rival upstart Wildrose Alliance Party.
The future of the bears has been an issue for more than two decades in Alberta. The government estimated in 1988 that there were fewer than 800 bears on provincial lands and in the national parks at Banff, Jasper, and Waterton.
Alongside the endangered species committee, the province created a separate panel four years ago to devise ways to revitalize the grizzly population. The Grizzly Bear Recovery Team, since disbanded, also urged the province to reduce road access and limit vehicle access in sensitive grizzly bear areas.
The problem of bears in a human environment was spotlighted Thursday when Parks Canada confirmed that a female grizzly was hit and killed by a train near the Banff townsite.
A check of the tracks did not reveal any spilled grain, something that can attract the bears and put them in harm's way.
Parks Canada has been working to reduce the number of bear deaths on the tracks. Train crews, for example, are now required to blow their whistles when approaching to warn off animals.
Studies show that about half the Alberta bears live in the foothills and mountains in the Grande Cache region east of Edmonton. Most of the rest are scattered in pockets of 100 or fewer up and down the Rocky Mountain chain on the boundary with British Columbia.

Organizations: Alberta Wilderness Association, Sierra Club of Canada, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Sustainable Resource Development Department Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee Parks Canada Fish and Game Association Progressive Conservatives Wildrose Alliance Party

Geographic location: Alberta, United States, Montana Wyoming Idaho Banff Edmonton Rocky Mountain British Columbia

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