Sunday, July 24, 2016

Grizzly population increasing in southwestern Alberta, maintenance to be new focus

Grizzly sow in Kananaskis - Traveller100, Wikimedia Commons

Christian Davis - University of Alberta’s Dr. Andrea Morehouse presented the results of the Southwest Alberta Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project to a sizable crowd at the Twin Butte Community Hall on June 28, during the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association AGM. Morehouse and her team identified 164 individual grizzly bears from 2013 through 2014 in the area designated Bear Management Area (BMA) 6, essentially the eastern slopes of the Livingstone Range to Highway 3 to the north, British Columbia to the west, and Montana to the south. The results of the project are intended to inform the Government of Alberta's ongoing grizzly bear recovery planning with accurate population estimates.

According to an abstract of the the study published by the Wiley Online Library "Local perceptions of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) numbers in southwestern Alberta, Canada are incongruent with their threatened status. We used non-invasive genetic sampling to estimate grizzly bear density and abundance in southwestern Alberta. We established 899 bear rub objects (e.g., tree, power pole, fence post) for hair sample collection across the study area by surveying trail networks, using geographic information system layers, and working with >70 landowners to identify priority sampling areas." At the public presentation in Twin Butte Morehouse said "So, in total we estimated a density of 20.4 bears per one thousand square kilometers in the recovery zone, and a similar density estimate of about 17.1 bears per one thousand square kilometers in the support zone."

172 bears in total use the area, part of an approximate 1000 bears that move through the borders of Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana.  "As you have heard me say several times now, southwest Alberta is a small part of a much larger international and jurisdictional population of grizzly bears," said Morehouse.

Click here to read the full abstract, which included a grizzly count for one year.   "We identified species, individual identity, and sex based on nuclear DNA extracted from hair follicles. From 2013 through 2014, we identified 164 individual grizzly bears."

Morehouse also gathered data on how bears are acquiring conflict behavior, based on three types of learned behavior: genetic, asocial and social.  "We wanted to basically test a couple of different hypotheses to say 'Do we have evidence for genetic inheritance, or do we have evidence for social learning?'."

"If a bear was associated with either an incident or a human conflict, we called that bear a problem bear."

Male bears are not involved in the rearing of offspring and the male genetic line didn't affect offspring behaviors.  "There is no significant results here. You are not more likely to be a problem offspring if your father was a problem bear. So we do not have evidence for genetic inheritance."

Since the female bears are responsible for social learning "If your mother was a problem mother there is more problem offspring than non-problem offspring. Similarly, if you have a non problem mother you have more non problem offspring than there are problem offspring. So there is some evidence for social learning."

Morehouse said preventative measures such as electric fencing, bear proofing granaries and garbage containers, and deadstock removal are good preventative measures so that dangerous behaviors aren't learned in the first place.

Morehouse used bear rubs to collect genetic information, discovered 67 resident grizzlies, compared to 51 in 2007, a 4% annual increase. To conduct the research she enlisted the help of landowners, area conservation groups, and government agencies. Finding a way for bears and people to coexist is something she called "essential" in an article published online by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

Related, a draft of an Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, as "Draft Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan No. 38", proposed by Alberta Environment and Parks, which can be read at this link at the time this was published.  It is, as one might imagine, a large document with many ramifications.

The executive summary of the above document says grizzlies remain at risk in the province, with human actions an "emerging and increasing threat to grizzly bears in some parts of the province."

"Grizzly bears were listed as threatened because of relatively small population size and the concern that human-caused mortality and deteriorating habitat conditions had resulted in, or were likely to result in, in a significant population decline."

In addition, also from the executive summary of the draft plan, "the Support Zones of BMA 5 and 6 have had very high rates of human-grizzly bear conflict, primarily associated with livestock and feed storage; the mortality rate objective has been adjusted to achieve population maintenance instead of population growth."  BMA 6 is the area covered by the Morehouse study.

A series of workshops seeking public input about the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was held in 2013/14, including one in Twin Butte.

For many area landowners there was a general sense of vindication, after years of saying that a 1997 study underestimated the number of grizzlies in the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, ranch lands that abut the eastern slopes of the Livingstone Range.  To the south, Waterton and Glacier, the cojoined international parks. Wildlife abounds, with large strips of protected areas. 

Grizzlies were designated a threatened species in Alberta in 2010 under Alberta’s Wildlife Act after the Alberta 2008-2013 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was released in 2009, it being approved in 2007.

Reports of bear encounters are common from ranching families north, south, east, and west of Pincher Creek, with informal reports of that nature accelerating since the advent of social media. Landowners can't, as in the old days, just shoot a problem bear. Livestock is at risk, so particularly are the more vulnerable, children making their way to the bus in the morning, for example. Special containers and a system of disposal has been devised to remove dead livestock from the terrain more effectively, to remove the carnivore attractant. Grain bins have been redesigned, generation after generation in fact, and the bears keep finding a way in.

A study released in 2015 of the grizzly bear population in Alberta's foothills found the population had doubled from an estimated 36 bears to 74 in a ten year period, some of that attributed to the hunting moratorium and relocation programs.  

It seems a similar thing has happened in southwestern Alberta in Bear Management Area (BMA) No. 6.

At the Twin Butte meeting Morehouse was all about the science, declining to answer questions of a political nature.  Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association chairman Jeff Bectell, who was moderator for the evening, fielded some of those questions, to a point.  According to their website, "The Waterton Biosphere Reserve has played a supportive role in the grizzly bear study as BMA 6 falls within the bounds of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve area. Additionally, there has been a high incidence of carnivore conflicts in this area and the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association has been administering programs to help producers reduce the risk of conflict. This includes assistance with electric fencing, deadstock pickup, along with bear-resistant grain storage and garbage bins."

Bectell said upcoming provincial decisions would have to decide "Is this a threatened species which needs a high level of protection, or is this a strong self sustaining population which can sustain some moralities, some management?"

A frustrated man in the audience asked "How many bears do you want for this area?" Bectell explained "Andrea is the researcher, she has no goal for that."   That wasn't a satisfactory reply to the citizen.  "Every time I go out, there's a grizzly bear looking over my shoulder... You should have a number... I want an answer."

Bectell explained the recovery plan has to be revisited every five years.  "The goal of a recovery plan is to recover species so they can be strong and healthy and not have to be on the list anymore."  

Bectell offered the Twin Butte audience highlights of the proposed recovery plan, prefacing his comments with "I'm not going to speak for the province." Some highlights:
  • "There is a lot of different voices concerning grizzly bears in this province. A lot. And they don't all agree with most of the people in this room." 
  • "If you don't try and cut your conflict levels, people are less inclined to listen."
  • "This is in the document 'We do not need to target an increase in population levels in BMA6."
  • "We do not want to exceed certain human caused grizzly bear mortality rates."
  • "This new recovery plan is suggesting, that because of our high densities that this area could sustain higher grizzly bear mortality rates. Up to 6%. Now, if we are seeing a natural increase of 4%, and we start to see human caused mortality of 6%, that may stabilize the populations."
  • "I think there are some very positive things here from a landowners perspective, and I think from a grizzly bears perspective, too."
  • "We think the compensation (to landowners and livestock owners) program could be improved a lot."
  •  "The province acknowledges there is a lot of bears here, a lot of people, and a lot of livestock, in a pretty small area."
The Wildlife Society abstract (© 2016) of Morehead's study concludes "In contrast with the SECR estimates, the CMR estimates represent the number of bears that southwestern Alberta residents could have encountered (i.e., the population of bears that had potential to have been involved in conflict). Shifts in grizzly bear distribution resulted in large changes in our SECR density estimates between years, whereas our estimate of the number of bears using the area remained constant. We recommend increased inter-jurisdictional monitoring and management of this international grizzly bear population."

(Apologies from the reporter, the photos I took at the Twin Butte event were stolen with the camera they were in.)

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