BOW VALLEY – More than a year after Alberta’s only human-wildlife conflict biologist retired, the same dedicated position has not been filled as initially intended.
Banff-Kananaskis MLA Sarah Elmeligi is calling on the province to hire dedicated human-wildlife conflict specialists as outlined in Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery plan to help reduce conflicts with people and wildlife.
“The UCP government has made pretty significant cuts to Alberta Parks, to Environment and Parks and Protected Areas and they've divided the ministries and created this kind of chaos of roles and responsibilities in the public service,” she said.
“What that translates to for us in Banff-Kananaskis is that we don't have a human-bear coexistence specialist on staff anymore… we don't have the staff on the ground to be working with communities on how to better coexist with wildlife.”
Jay Honeyman, the former human-wildlife conflict biologist with what was then known as Alberta Environment and Parks, retired in spring 2022 after serving in the position for about 10 years – the first person ever in that dedicated provincial position.
At the time of his retirement, Honeyman was still the only human-wildlife conflict specialist in Alberta. While he lived in Canmore, he covered a vast region from the Bow Valley north to Rocky Mountain House and south to the Canada-US border, but was assisted by community groups like Bow Valley WildSmart.
However, Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery strategy, which was updated in 2020, recommends regional human-wildlife conflict specialists be positioned in areas of high need and with high human-grizzly bear conflict.
The idea was to support Alberta BearSmart projects, work closely with stakeholders affected by grizzly bear conflict, support volunteer groups working within communities, and work with Fish and Wildlife enforcement staff.
Under the plan’s recommendations, human-wildlife conflict specialists would also support the public in developing long-term solutions to promote public safety, secure grizzly bear attractants, and take proactive actions to prevent future conflict.
“Bears that come into conflict are at increased risk of being killed or trapped and relocated,” states the plan.
Last year, seven bears – six black and one grizzly – were relocated out of Canmore for snacking on fruit trees and other attractants. Three of the black bears – a mama bear and two of her cubs – were eventually killed for public safety reasons because they got into a commercial downtown dumpster.
While Canmore has made great strides over the years to reduce conflicts with introduction of bear-proof bins, a seasonal ban on bird-feeders and removal of buffaloberries, Honeyman was there working alongside the municipality and Bow Valley WildSmart.
Honeyman said he was also instrumental in advocating for and working with the municipality on a bylaw to deal with wildlife attractants, such as fruit trees, to keep bears out of neighbourhoods.
“That was also a result of the work that position I had was doing,” he said.
“To take that proactive piece out of the mix, all you’re doing is running around putting out fires and never dealing with the issue in a long-term sustainable way.”
At the time the position was created a little over a decade ago, Honeyman said the traditional method of dealing with human-wildlife conflicts was reactive in nature.
“Reactive, meaning that we would go in when there is a problem and either we would catch the bear and move it, or euthanize it,” he said.
“The missing piece was that we weren't really dealing with the problem that brought the bear into the area in the first place.”
Honeyman recalls heading to the same ranch year after year where hungry bears were getting into grain bins, but the actual grain bin that was attracting the bears was never dealt with.
“We just kept moving bears,” he said.
However, when the human-wildlife conflict position was introduced, Honeyman said the rancher was sold infrastructure in which to store his grain bin.
“He locked the door and we've never been back to that guy's place since,” he said.
Honeyman said that is a perfect example of how his position was intended to deal with issues proactively, instead of in reaction to an event.
“In other words, we would try to deal with the issue that was bringing the bear in the first place, and 99 per cent of the time it was food-related – be it a fruit tree, grain, chickens, beehives, livestock, shepherdia in Canmore,” he said.
“Whatever it was, we would deal with the attractant and the majority of time when you secure or remove the attractant, the bear problem went away.”
Elmeligi, who is the NDP’s Opposition critic for tourism, sports and recreation, said Honeyman did important work that is now not being done.
“You need somebody who's out there in the communities identifying the specific issues of the communities and finding solutions,” she said.
“There is nobody who is tasked with that really important role. I miss it every single spring and every single fall when we have these situations where the risk of human-bear conflict is heightened.”
The province didn't directly answer questions on whether Honeyman’s dedicated positions would be replaced, or if other human-wildlife conflict specialists would be hired elsewhere in the province as recommended in the grizzly bear recovery strategy.
Provincial officials said experts in Forestry and Park, and Environment and Protected Areas work to reduce the number of human-wildlife conflicts, better understand wildlife behaviours and promote safe outdoor recreation.
They say these experts include wildlife biologists, technicians, disease specialists, carnivore and big game specialists, species-at-risk biologists, conservation officers, fish and wildlife officers, human-wildlife coexistence team members and policy analysts to ensure informed decisions and appropriate actions.
“Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery efforts are working – grizzly bear populations are stable or increasing in several bear management units in the province,” said
Bridget Burgess-Ferrari, communications advisor for Forestry and Parks in an email.
“Our extended team of experts, working together with Albertans, are the reason our grizzly recovery efforts have been so successful.”
Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in Alberta in 2010.