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article imageAlberta feeling pressure to protect dwindling grizzly population

By Stephanie Dearing     Mar 10, 2010 in Environment
Alberta imposed a moratorium on grizzly bear hunting in 2006 while it conducted a count of the species. A DNA count was released last week, showing an alarming decrease in the grizzly population.
Edmonton, Alberta - In 2002, it was suggested that Alberta designate its grizzlies as endangered, prompting the province to undertake population studies. Two years ago, a preliminary head count turned up 230 grizzly bears, alarming conservationists. The final tally of bears commissioned by Alberta's Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development has been completed, and the definitive total population of grizzly bears is 681 bears. Researcher Marco Festa-Bianchet blamed the declining population of bears on human encroachment on grizzly habitat, especially roads.
Alberta's bottom line for declaring the species "endangered" is a population of 500 bears, but international standards have more leeway, allowing a species to be declared endangered when the population reaches 1,000 animals.
Alberta suspended the annual grizzly hunt in 2006 because estimates of the number of grizzly bears were "not reliable." The hunt was suspended until 2009. Last September, Alberta extended the moratorium after an independent study found 581 grizzly bears in Alberta.
Conservationists in Alberta advocate giving grizzlies an area with minimal roads and vehicles as one way to help save the species. Conservation Specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, Nigel Douglas said "Reducing human caused mortality and particularly regulating motorized access to core habitat is absolutely essential to recovering this population. The report makes that clear, page after page."
Jim Pissot, the executive director of Wild Canada Conservation Alliance, said Alberta's grizzly population is isolated from the rest of the grizzlies in Canada. "They occupy a thin ribbon, they are not well connected to other populations of bears and there is a huge amount of human activity following the seismic lines, the timber and oil and gas roads — and fueled by the number of off-road vehicles in large populations such as Calgary." Global Forest Watch drew attention to the fragmentation of grizzly habitat in 2006.
Alberta had classified the status of its grizzlies as "may be at risk." The government was planning to review the report, Status of the Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) in Alberta: Update 2010, then decide on the status of the grizzly. Ranchers as well as other stakeholder groups are allowed to participate in the decision-making process.
Alberta has a number of options to choose from when designating the grizzly bear to a category. The options include: Not at Risk , Data Deficient , Species of Special Concern, Threatened, or Endangered . However, the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, Mel Knight, said the study supported continued hunting because there were too many grizzly bears in some areas of the province. Knight said the study was “... pointing to ... a situation where, at some point in time, we may very well need to look at a harvest." Knight clarified his comment by adding “We have a suspension in hunting and that suspension will remain for this particular point in time. But we need to understand that in certain wildlife management units, where recovery program criteria are met, some harvest may continue.”
There has not been much public comment from hunters and ranchers, who have vigorously advocated allowing the grizzly hunt to continue.
Alberta has extended the moratorium on hunting grizzlies until 2011. Spokesman for Alberta's Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development, Dave Ealey said "It's impractical to try and establish all the different guidelines in the recovery plan to consider a hunt for this year."
Update March 12
The Endangered Species Conservation Committee in Alberta is meeting today to consider the status of Alberta's grizzlies. The Fish & Game Association is lobbying for a limited hunt of the bears.
More about Alberta, Grizzly bear, Dna count, Action grizzly bear, Alberta ministry sustainable development
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