MORE BEARS MAY NOT EQUAL HEALTHIER BEARS
Increased numbers of grizzly bears over the past 10 years just outside of Jasper National Park may not tell the whole tale of grizzly bear health in Alberta, experts with the Foothills Research Institute (fRI) suggest.
Gord Stenhouse is the lead author of a recently-published study which reveals that grizzly bear populations in bear management area three (BMA3), a 10,000 km-sq area east of Jasper National Park and south of Highway 16, have increased at seven per cent annually, an unusually high rate in North America. However, Stenhouse says the data doesn’t reflect animal health as much as it does animal habitat; furthermore, the results may be spiked by the addition of bears to BMA3 from other parts of the province. Since 2004, approximately 30 bears have been relocated to BMA3.
“We’re guessing the [higher] results are from a combination of factors,” Stenhouse said.
BMA3, naturally a boreal forested, foothills landscape, is often referred to as an industrial landscape because of the high amount of oil and gas exploration, mining and recreational activities which take place there.
“It’s a very busy place,” Stenhouse said.
Perhaps paradoxically, those landscape alterations have actually created good bear habitat.
“Bears like a matrix of young and old habitat, they do well on edge habitat,” Stenhouse said.
The openings created by roads and other access points increase ungulate numbers and food supply, which bears like. The downside is, those access points also increase human-caused mortalities among bears, including vehicle impacts, destroyed problem bears and poaching.
“All those industrial activities have been positive relative to the habitat component, but as we conduct resource extraction we are building access, and that increases mortality risk,” Stenhouse said.
Meanwhile, in the rugged, untouched habitat of south Jasper National Park—where it’s tougher for bears to earn a living, but where poaching and other human impacts are greatly reduced—Stenhouse’s data suggest life for grizzlies is good. In 2014 researchers discovered a 31-year-old bear, the same grizzly they first encountered 15 years prior, when Stenhouse first started doing his research.
“The fact that he’s still alive shows that human-caused mortalities are low back there in the park,” he said (the bear’s main habitat is near the Southesk River, in the southeast portion of JNP).
Grizzly DNA taken from hair snares at scent lure sites provided FRI with data to produce its latest report on bear numbers. // Bob Covey
A significant drop in bear mortalities in Alberta took place in 2006 when a moratorium on the grizzly bear hunt was enacted. In 2005, 73 grizzly licences were awarded and 10 legal kills were tallied. The number of illegal poaching incidents was 36 from 2006-2014, and the same number were attributed to accidental deaths (eg. road kill).
Stenhouse said that the fRI study shows that without the grizzly bear hunt, humans and grizzlies can co-exist on the landscape.
“Even with the ongoing forestry, oil and gas and recreational activities, the bear population has expanded,” he said.
All this is to say that more bears might not equal healthier bears. Stenhouse wants to determine the health of grizzlies with his next research project; he plans to test cortisone levels for signs of stress and reproductive hormones to figure out birth growth and body weights. Moreover, he wants to test BMA3 bears against JNP bears.
“To me that will help inform how we move forward. We also need need to understand from a genetic standpoint what impact that moving bears [from other areas] have on other populations,” he said.
Stenhouse declined to speculate whether or not some Albertans would use data showing increased grizzly bear populations as reason to push for a lift on the grizzly hunt.
“I wouldn’t rush to answer those questions,” he said. “This is one population unit that we’ve got good data on but there are many other population units for which we don’t.”