Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bear and Wolf sessions asked 'How many bears are enough?'

Jeff Bectell, Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association
Toni Lucas

Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association (WBRA) hosted an information session about bears, cougars and wolves in Chain Lakes, Pincher Creek and Cardston recently. Over 50 producers attended the one that happened in the Ranchland Mall on Wednesday, November 12. The speakers included  WBRA Carnivore Working Group (CWG) Coordinator Jeff Bectell,   Southwest Alberta Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project biologist Andrea Morehouse, Fish and Wildlife Regional Problem Wildlife Specialist Terry Mack, and Alberta Environment Carnivore Specialist Paul Frame.

Although many topics were presented the main thing that people seemed to want to know was how many bears are enough bears, and has that magic number been reached in the area yet.
"You guys probably have as many bears as are socially acceptable." - Paul Frame, Alberta Environment

Jeff Bectell, Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association

Jeff Bectell was the coordinator for the evening. He explained that a large part of what the WBRA does is to try and strike a balance between people and nature, finding solutions for ranchers, farmers and wildlife. They work on preventive solutions that make it more workable for both large carnivores and people to share the land. The frustration from the landowners was palpable. Many expressed that they are trying to be good stewards of the land and the wildlife, but the interaction with carnivores, particularly grizzly bears, is reaching an untenable point.

WBRA and the CWG has been working for years to help reduce attractants for carnivores to farms and ranches in southwestern Alberta. The range for the CWG includes MD of Willow Creek, MD of Pincher Creek, MD of Ranchland, and the Cardston County. A few of the initiatives, as reported here in the past, include dead stock removal bins, electric fences, and better grain bins, bin management, and education. They hold bear spray sessions, and hold tours that educate interested members of the public, as well as other producers.

A farm or ranch is not a typical workplace. It is one with many hazards that have to be understood and worked with to keep everyone safe. It is also a place where you raise your family. These producers have children that can encounter coyotes, wolves, cougars or bears on their land. That reality preys heavy on the minds of some of these parents.

Currently the grizzly bear has been listed as a threatened species and it is illegal to shoot one unless you are physically threatened. For those living day to day with grizzly bears traveling through their land, this can be a dire situation. They can appreciate that the population of the bears has to be brought up to a stable level, but in the meantime they have to live with serious consequences and patience is wearing thin. 'How many bears is enough?' Bectell said "Maybe there is an upper limit." Bectell touched on a wolf monitoring study that is being conducted in southern Alberta that is being conducted by the Montana's Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and the University of Montana.

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Fish and Wildlife problem wildlife specialist Terry Mack 

Terry Mack, Fish and Wildlife
Fish and Wildlife Regional Problem Wildlife Specialist Terry Mack addressed some of the compensation management that the Alberta Government does, and the changes that Mack said that "There have been significant black bear occurances in Pincher Creek. Once again, it always had a lot of black bear issues." He went through charts that showed black bear, grizzly bear, wolf and cougar incidents that covered years and explained the charts. In 2009 Cardston reported 59 sightings of bears. "They had about the same amount of occurrences, but more than double were sightings. We have gone through a shift from someone seeing bears to the bears causing some kind of a conflict." "I encourage people, especially when you are seeing bears in areas that you traditionally do not see them, to give us a phone call. It's all information, and we need that."

Mack discussed the wildlife predator compensation program, and the relocation program for bears that has been happening. He reminded the producers that Paul Johnson is the new Fish and Wildlife Officer for Pincher Creek and area.

Andrea Morehouse, Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project
Andrea Morehouse has been conducting the Southwest Alberta Grizzly Monitoring Project since 2011. She has been monitoring grizzly bear populations, densities and distributions both locally and at ecosystem level in the area south of Highway 3, from the BC border to the USA border, and to the east of Cardston. For the study Morehouse has set up rub stations: areas that bears either already rub on or are likely to rub on, and put up strings of barbed wire to capture some of the hair. She then collected the hair, which included samples from a variety of species, and extracted the bear hair.  Grizzly bear hair was then specifically tested.  The hair DNA was analyzed to estimate how many individual bears are in the area. Morehouse has a database that includes genetic information of 177 individual bears in the area that is know as Bear Monitoring Areas 6. "We know that we are not getting all of them," she said, and explained that males use rub areas more than females do.

Andrea Morehouse
"The key point that I want to get out, is that we are estimating density directly, as opposed to deriving it by adding some buffer afterwards. The next thing I want to touch on is we are working on is a parentage analysis. What this means is that for each one of our individual grizzly bears that we have identified, we are extending their genotype."

Morehouse is planning to use this new information to try and reach the next level of understanding: not merely the numbers of the local populations, but whether individual family lines are more likely to have conflict behaviour. As black bear use the same rub sites, the black bear samples that have been stored since the beginning of the project will now be able to be used in a study on black bears out of the University of Alberta. "We will have long overdue information on black bear populations in this area. The last information we have is over 20 years old at this point."

After Morehouse finished her presentation Bectell said, "That is a lot. We now know there's a whole lot of bears there. A lot of people knew that, and said that, and now the science supports that. The management options are greater when the population is secure and stable."

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Alberta Environment Carnivore Specialist Paul Frame

Paul Frame, AB Environment
Alberta Environment Carnivore Specialist Paul Frame talked about the Grizzly bear recovery plan. "In 2002 the endangered species committee proposed that Alberta list grizzly bears as threatened," explained Frame. Since that point, they have created a bear management framework with different bear management areas. He said there has been a great deal of effort expended on the recovery plan. "The management focuses on minimizing human-caused fatality to bears in order to allow for a stable and increasing population that is largely regulated by natural causes."

"You guys probably have as many bears as are socially acceptable," Frame said.

Members of the audience made it clear that it is a change in the behaviour of bears that is disturbing them. One person said that it is not the number of bears that is disturbing them, it is the lack of fear and caution around humans, and human habitats. "I don't think these will be easy conversations with a lot of the public, but I think they are conversations that need to happen," said Frame answering a question about the possible reinstatement of allowable grizzly bear hunting.

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