Monday, July 15, 2013

Waterton Biosphere Reserve hosts Cardston Large Carnivore Projects Tour

Jeff Bectell showing partially torn grain bin door
T. Lucas photos and video

Toni Lucas - The 2013 Large Carnivore Projects Tour was hosted by the Waterton Biosphere Reserve (WBR) on June 19 in Cardston County.

The day long tour featured 8 stops that underlined the problems local land owners have with large carnivores and what they are doing about those problems, with the help of the WBR and other agencies, to help deter the animals while co-existing with them.  Demonstrated were 3 different solutions for grain and hopper bins, electric fencing options, and the new Cardston County livestock carcass composting facility.   Subjects that were discussed included living in a wildlife corridor, riparian management, compensation for lost livestock, and the concerns of land owners that are raising their families in a home that is also a job site with additional dangers including carnivores.  This problem is also faced by the residents of the Hamlet of Kimball, one of the stops on the tour, where there is a consolidated feed storage facility.  There was also an update from the Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project.

Biosphere Reserve Coordinator Nora Manners said  roughly 90 people came on the Cardston County tour.  Manners said that some of the people that were taking the tour included local landowners, MD Councillors, media, and representatives from the Agricultural Service Board, Fish and Wildlife, SRD, biologists, and at least one MLA. The tour was hosted by Waterton Biosphere Chair Jeff Bectell who acted as the speaker and Emcee for the day.  "We want to make it biologically sustainable, and safe for humans," said Bectell.  The goal is to improve safety for the humans, minimize losses, and improve compensation while maintaining a diverse and healthy wildlife.  He said his aim is to find a way for the farmers, ranchers and landowners to co-exist safely with wildlife, including the predators. "It's meant to work for people and wildlife.  It may surprise you the places that we've had problems with carnivores."

Dead Stock Bins

The first stop was the Cardston County livestock carcass composting facility, and the dead stock bins situated there.  Looking like a lidded garbage bin, these bins are meant to keep carnivores out to reduce their presence near dead stock.  Dead stock was picked up free of charge to producers until 2003, when bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, changed the rules for dead stock pickup.  Up until then, companies could pick up dead stock for free and use the dead animals and make a profit.  In 2003 the regulations changed because any bovine could potentially have BSE.  As a result, Southern Alberta Processors could no longer make a profit picking it up for free.  They continued to pick up, but started to charge.  Currently this service costs a minimum of $75 at $0.09/lb for cattle, or a minimum of $250 for a horse.  This meant that more producers would leave their dead stock for carnivores rather than pay the fees.

Alberta Fish and Wildlife in Cardston helped financially with the cost of  the bins, following what the  Drywood-Yarrow Conservation Partnership (DYCP) has been doing for dead stock pickup since 2009.   DYCP decided to try dead stock bins based on the model provided by the Blackfoot Challenge Group in Montana.  "The Blackfoot Challenge found that when they did dead stock pick up and electric fences, and some of the other projects, they saw a 93% reduction in carnivore conflicts with people, from 2003 - 2009.

There are currently 12 dead stock bins in use in the Pincher Creek and  Cardston area.  The bins are pulled after calving season, and producers have to call Southern Alberta Processors for the MD's of Pincher Creek, Willow Creek or Ranchlands for dead stock removal when the bins are not in use.  In Cardston County carcasses can be picked up for composting.  One of the issues with having access to a dead stock bin is that The Canadian Food Inspection Agency requires that, as any dead stock may contain BSE, to use the bins a producer must become a licensed transporter of specified risk materials.  Bectell said that getting this licensing takes about five minutes.

Dead Stock Composting

Bevans at Cardston County livestock carcass composting facility.
"There are 348 animals rotting in this building," said Cardston County Assistant Agricultural Fieldman Stephen Bevans as he escorted the tour group into the Cardston County livestock carcass composting facility, a large building filled with piles that were a mixture of straw, finished compost, animals, sawdust,  wood chips and grass clippings.   The room smelled more of the fertilizer than of dead stock.  The piles were steaming, with temperature probes set in them for monitoring.  According to Bevans, part of the plan was to have people who were going to mentor him.  "They haven't been out here to help me.  They said just throw the animals in there, it's like baking a cake." After the laughter died down, Bevans said "We are leading the edge in this.  Alberta Environment says we are going into uncharted territories."  A freshly made pile will sit for 60 days before being turned, then it is on a 30 day rotation.  Bevens says by the time the composting is finished even the bones are composted, resulting in a rich fertilizer.  Carnivores are not attracted to the scent, as it smells more of fertilizer than of rotting meat once the animal is covered.  The heat that is achieved during composting, even in the wintertime, neutralizes BSE concerns.

Losses and compensation

 "In all of our projects, it has to work for the producer," said Bectell.  "One thing will work on one guys place, for his operation, while something else might work for another person," during a tour of a sheep ranch on the Belly River.  The owner says that his family has owned the land for over 100 years.  He had grizzly encounters in July and October of 2012 and according to the owner (who wished to be anonymous for the purpose of this story) these were the first occurrences of bears on this particular piece of land.

"It's hard to tell how many sheep you've got, really.  When I try to count 'em, I just fall asleep, you know," he said.  Although everyone laughed, it is not a humorous story that he had to tell.  All his animals are radio tagged, so he does have an accurate count of his stock.  In October he found that over 50 of his sheep were missing.  "We were shocked,"  he said. "Apparently, lamb is pretty tasty."

The ranch has over 300 head of breeding ewes.  In July over 10 sheep were killed by a grizzly that was seen by the owner.  Fish and Wildlife compensated the owner for 7 lambs within 2 months.  In October at 3:00 am the owner woke up because the dogs were barking close to the house.  Looking to see what the problem was the owner could see the bear that his dogs where trying to chase off the property.  He said the dogs did not deter the bear, who took occasional swipes at them while continuing to kill stock and feed.  12 more animals were lost in this incident.  Altogether there were two reported sightings of the bear and camera evidence that the bear had been crossing the river, and the Wildlife officers could confirm many of the kills as bear kills.

The compensation system requires that the carcass have evidence that a carnivore killed the animal.  This time his compensation came close to eight months after the bear attacked his stock.  Ultimately as result of these two incidents 16 animals were compensated for and 50 were missing. Fish and Wildlife caught the bear and and relocated it to Nordegg.

There was even more loss.  The owner found that when he went to sale there was substantial loss of money at sale due to stressed weights.  "They just never recovered," he said of those sheep.  "That's something that's not even in the equation."  Some of the things that are not eligible for compensation at this time include animals that die during an attack that do not show teeth or bite marks as they were likely stressed to death, or those crushed in a stampede, or those who's body never recovered from the stress of a carnivore attack. Other losses include wounded animals that never reach full market weight, fencing costs due to damage, loss of grain from bins, ruined silage or loss from fields by grazing animals.

"Many of the land owners and ranchers are finding that the system is too restrictive, the burden of proof seems to be too high,"  said Bectell.

Kim McAdam, who deals with Provincial problem wildlife for Alberta Environment Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), explained the steps for compensation.  Fish and Wildlife officers investigate a claim, and if it is likely a carnivore kill the paperwork goes to a regional problem wildlife specialist who makes sure that the claim filled out properly.  The claim can then go to McAdam, who calculates the payment.  The payment is based on a Canfax and average meat market value.  A letter is then sent to the producer saying the claim has been denied or evaluated to be worth X amount of money.  A similar letter goes to the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA).

According to McAdam the Alberta Conservation Association became involved approximately 10 years ago, and they have taken over the payment part of the program.  Apparently in the last few years the ACA has put a cap on their program.  This has created a problem in that claims from one year have to wait until the following year to be paid if the cap has been reached.   "Unless something changes we're going to be in the same boat again next year."  Negotiations are ongoing with the Federal Government and the Alberta Financial Services Corporation, who are involved with most of the wildlife compensation programs, to improve the situation for the producers.

Electric fencing

To help with preventing this from happening again on the sheep farm the Waterton Biosphere Reserve worked with the owner to put in electric fencing.  "Margo Supplies out of High River have a lot of experience fencing bears out of camps in the Northwest Territories and all over the world," said Bectell.  The bottom wire is a ground wire, and the fence then alternates hot and ground wires all the way up to the top.  The fence at the one property cost approximately 13 to 14 thousand dollars.  With a contribution from the Carnivore Working Group the Waterton Biosphere Group and the Oldman Watershed Council has paid for approximately half of the cost of the fencing.

These fences can run on solar power, or 110 volt electrical power.  The  wire used can either be high tensile or stranded wire.  They have been found to deter predators and do require a minimal level of upkeep after being installed.  In the case of this producer the fence will also separate the sheep from the waterway, helping the health of the riparian area there.  This is why the Oldman Watershed Council Watershed Legacy Program helped fund the length of fencing that runs along the water.

Compensation and wildlife corridors

"I went out one night, and there was a calf walking around in circles, with a big chunk missing out of his spine,"  said Soderglen Ranch Manager Roger Gerard as he told about various predator attacks on the ranch, including bears, cougars and wolves.  The St. Mary's River is a nearby major wildlife corridor and the USA boundary is visible from there.  The ranch takes its garbage away from the house, removes dead stock, and is putting in electric fencing.  The animals that he loses are purebreds, and there is no additional compensation for that.

"These bears don't know the boundaries.  There's no such thing as an Alberta or a Montana bear, they're coming back and forth all the time," added Bectell.

When do you shoot a grizzly bear?

In the case of the sheep farmer, the owner had the bear trapped at one point.  'When do you shoot a grizzly?' was asked by more than one person.  "No human life is worth a bear.  None," said Cardston District Fish & Wildlife Officer Lyle Lester.  He explained that if a grizzly bear is shot there is an investigation.   He said Fish and Wildlife takes human life very seriously and have to determine if a human was threatened.  He said that there have been a number of self defense shootings over recent years.  "They've all been justified," said Lester.  The issue becomes much more complicated if it is a person defending livestock.  In a case like that it usually goes to court, with a judge deciding whether it was a reasonable action.

Grain Bins

Custom and standard sized grain bin doors, cement pads, hopper bottom bin designs, C-can shipping containers, and electric fences have all been used as alternatives to keep bears out of grain bins.  The standard bin doors can be torn off by a determined bear, and once they learn how, they recognize the bins as a food source.  Some bears will pound on the bins until the joint weakens and the grain comes out.  Trail cameras do not act as a deterrent, but do help with knowing what animals are in the area, and they provide evidence for claims.

Darryl Williams, Kay Wynder and Alan Kormos have taken different options for the bear problems on their lands.  Williams kept his old bin but installed a new door that had to be custom built because  it was oversized.  Wynder installed new bear proof standard sized doors.  Both have cement pads under the bins so that animals cannot dig under them.  Kromos opted to put in new bins that feed out of the bottom.  "Once the doors were out, they were sleeping in the bins, right on top of the bins.  They were quite comfortable" said Kormos, who has four young daughters.  Kay Wynder said that he has not seen any bears on his property recently, but his son and wife both have seen bears, and their grain bin door that was ripped part way off lent truth to their sightings.

How it affects the people

According to Jeff Bectell the Hamlet of Kimball has a growing bear population.  "It's just been the last 15 or 20 years when we started to have bears around, and it's kind of scaled up, every single year," he said.  12 bears were removed from the area last year.

Burke Nish works at the consolidated feed storage at the Hamlet of Kimball. A Youtube video named "Alberta grizzly herd" shows a night view of approximately a dozen grizzly bears wandering around the bins of the property he works on in 2011.

He admitted that he gets jumpy.  "Your constantly watching your back."   He talked about one night it was late, the flashing lights on the grain trailer made for odd shadows and the tall grass was moving in the wind.  "Suddenly there was a black shadow came across my grain trailer.  I was up in the grain bin.  It was a miller moth flying around in the light."  He has found dog food, tuna cans and other bait left on the property by people hoping to get to see the grizzlies from the comparative safety of their vehicles.

Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project

Andrea Morehouse by the Kimball Canal rub object.

Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project Manager Andrea Morehouse is in the third year of a study that monitors grizzly bear populations densities and distribution in southwestern Alberta ranging from Highway 3, and into  BC and Montana.  The easternmost study point is Kimball.

Morehouse uses rub objects to collect hair samples. Rub objects are a tree, post, or other structure that bears like to rub on.  They tend to have a side that is favored by the bears.  That side becomes smoother and discolored from use and may have bite or claw marks or a trail that leads by it.  The act of rubbing is thought to primarily be a form of communication.   Close to Kimball one of these rub objects is the headworks for old Kimball Canal.  Alberta Parks, Parks Canada,University of Alberta, Alberta Environment, Sustainable Resources Development all work together on the project, which began in 2011.

The study started on public land and then was extended to private and leased land.  "In 2012 I think there was over 60 different land owners and grazing co-ops that participated in the project, which is fantastic," said Morehouse, who says that there are six people working in the Pincher Creek office on the project and staff in Waterton.  There is currently 831 sampling stations in the study area.

The study identified areas that were likely rub areas and attached barbed wire to help capture samples which are collected every 3 weeks from late May through September.

Using non-invasive genetic methods,  the hair gathered is analysed by the Wildlife Genetics International Lab in Nelson, BC. "Over time, with that genetic information, we'll be able to update the population estimate for this area."  The lab can identify the species, gender and individual identity of a bear if it is a grizzly bear.  Information collected from black bears is not taken to the individual level of analysis.

A Provincial wide grizzly bear population estimate held from 2004-2007 estimated that there were 700 grizzlies in the province of Alberta.  At that time they identified 27 unique grizzly bears in the area, and with modeling they estimated there were 51 bears in the region.

"We know that the males rub more than females, and right now it's about 60% males and 40% females," said Morehouse.  She was tentatively excited because she will receive final numbers from Genetics Lab for the 2012 study collection in July and had received a preliminary report just before this tour.  "What we can say right now is that we have identified over 100 grizzly bears, individual bears, last year through our sampling."

Finding the balance where wildlife and humans mix will always be a bit of a struggle, but the Waterton Biosphere Reserve is working toward solutions for the ranchers, farmers and the wildlife in the area.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous17/7/13

    Why wasn't a regulated hunt ever discussed?


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