Grizzly deaths in 2013 bad news for bears
Thursday, Feb 20, 2014 06:00 am
Whether it is part of a larger trend or just one bad year, the number of grizzly bears killed as a result of human activity in Alberta reached a significantly high level last year.
During 2013 there were 31 recorded grizzly bear mortalities and 26 of those were directly related to humans. It is a concerning number for conservationists and the province’s large carnivore specialist, Nathan Webb.
Webb said the number is the highest seen provincially since the hunting season was suspended in 2006 and he hopes it is not a trend.
“It was a bad year and there are a number of factors that could have influenced that,” he said, adding bears were out and active into the late fall. “We had quite a bit of activity in late October and early November. Usually at that time of year most grizzlies are on their way to their dens, so that was something a bit unusual and several of the mortalities were in that late October time period.”
Of the 26 known human caused mortalities, 11 were illegal kills or poached animals. Webb said it might be a result of more members of the public reporting illegal kills and Fish and Wildlife officers detecting more.
“Those are really the possible factors that could have played a role for that higher number of illegal killings we saw last year and that really was the category that was out of line,” he said.
In 2012, there were two recorded illegal kills, five in 2011 and six in 2009 and 2010.
The province’s grizzly bear recovery plan uses human-caused mortalities to track progress with respect to mortality rates and sets a limit of four per cent of the total population. The 26 dead bears last year represented 4.1 per cent of the total population.
“At a rate of mortality that we saw this year of 31 bears, we have to be concerned that we are heading in the wrong direction with the population as a whole,” said Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative program director Wendy Francis. “The concern is we have a population in Alberta that we know is legally threatened and our goal is to recover that population from the current estimate of around 700 bears to at least 1,000 bears.”
Francis said Alberta’s grizzly bear population cannot withstand the level of mortality seen last year.
But what matters most, added Webb, is the number of female bears killed and the geographic distribution of mortalities.
“What we are trying to do is maximize the survival of adult female grizzly bears,” he said. “Those are the most important components of the population.”
Webb said in 2013 the distribution of mortalities was widespread and no particular area of the province had high numbers. As for the gender of the bears killed – he said it was a 50/50 split between males and females.
“We will do further analysis of those numbers in the coming weeks to assess the impact,” Webb said. “The other thing that we try to keep in mind is it was just one year and what we use to evaluate how things are going is a six-year average. That approximates the reproductive cycle of a grizzly bear and it is really over that longer time period that we are trying to stay below those rates in the recovery plan.
“Last year was certainly a high year, but 2012 was one of the lowest years we have seen since the recovery program started. So longer term, looking at that six-year average, we are still looking pretty good in most of the province.”
The recovery plan was put into place in 2008 and is due for an update this year. A dedicated full-time carnivore expert – Webb’s position – was one thing that came out of the plan along with funding for bear conflict management.
But conservation groups are also critical of what the plan has not done – actions to improve habitat for the species.
“The province has done little to improve habitat conditions for bears, particularly road densities and access to habitat by motorized vehicles,” Francis said. “There really has not been any comprehensive effort to reduce the fragmentation of grizzly bear habitat by roads or the extent it is accessed by motorized vehicles.”
Linear disturbance on the land is directly related to grizzly bear mortality rates. The province’s recovery plan emphasizes “human use of access (specifically motorized vehicle routes) is one of the primary threats to grizzly bear persistence.” It recommends the total length of roads, railroads, trials, pipelines and cutlines not exceed 0.6 km for every square kilometer of grizzly bear habitat. Since 2008, the amount of access has only increased.
Katie Morrison, conservation director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Southern Alberta chapter, said linear features are clearly the greatest risk to grizzly bear recovery and it should be addressed immediately as part of the South Saskatchewan Regional Land Use Plan.
“We are seeing those numbers (of mortalities) above target levels five years after the original recovery plan and that is a really big concern,” Morrison said. “We know what this linear fragmentation is doing not just to grizzly bears, but other species as well, like cutthroat trout.”
The draft SSRP sets out 2017 as the year the province will provide an access management plan, or in other words, address the issue of linear disturbance in grizzly bear habitat.
“There is no reason to wait for implementing that linear density management framework,” Morrison said.
Meanwhile, Webb is working on updating the management plan. He said the main strategies would likely remain in place.
“There are a few things we may add to improve and enhance the plan, but in terms of main strategies moving forward, they are likely going to be quite similar,” he said.
He added there is evidence there may be growth in the population of bears in the southwest part of the province near Pincher Creek and this year there will be more population surveys conducted.
“What we really need are population inventories and population counts to see how bears are doing and it looks like some of those are going to go forward,” Webb said. “The recovery plan called for repeat population surveys every five years and that unfortunately hasn’t happened and the main reason is those initial surveys were so intensive, manpower intensive and expensive, they really weren’t sustainable to continue every five years in the way they were done.”
As a result, the province has been working with partners like the Foothills Research Institute and Gordon Stenhouse and the University of Alberta to find more cost-effective and efficient ways to conduct population surveys.