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In plains sight: A different kind of bear story

A couple months back I was talking with Mike Gibeau — a former carnivore specialist who worked with Parks Canada for some 33 years and is now a conservation coordinator with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) — about the extensive GPS

A couple months back I was talking with Mike Gibeau — a former carnivore specialist who worked with Parks Canada for some 33 years and is now a conservation coordinator with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) — about the extensive GPS collaring work he had carried out in Banff in the 1980s and '90s. All of a sudden he seemed to tire of talking about the not-quite-real-world studies of national parks.

"Look, maybe you'd be interested in this," he told me, "there's a wonderful people-bear story going on in southwest Alberta right now — conservation on the ground where you can actually see the results."

Naturally I'd pressed him to fill me in. "In the last decade grizzly bears have moved way out onto the Prairies and the story hasn't really been told, it's mostly local knowledge. This exact same thing happened in Montana a decade earlier, and now it's happening in Alberta. It makes sense for bears because of the food in the area, and little human use means it's pretty quiet out there."

It's not just Montana and Alberta either, it turns out Wyoming is seeing a similar phenomenon, and amazing things are also being done by ranchers down that way. Seems that Ursus arctus horribilis, originally a Great Plains animal forced into the mountains by human colonization, are re-taking advantage of habitats the species is to occupy. Many southern Alberta ranches now have bears wandering them, which means a few obvious problems, but, according to Gibeau, "the ranchers have taken it upon themselves to take the bull by the horns and try to work with bears."

One such overture was seen in September, 2014, when the NCC announced creation of the largest conservation easement in Canadian history. The Waldron Ranch Project saw more than 12,140 hectares of private property added to 2,023 hectares of recently deeded land and adjacent government forestry and lease land, for a total easement of some 26,304 hectares — an agreement involving the largest intact native fescue grassland remaining on the eastern slopes of the Alberta Rocky Mountains. The 72 ranchers of the Waldron Grazing Cooperative were the driving force, with help from other major donors including provincial and federal governments and the Calgary Foundation.

As far as mitigating potential human-bear conflict, Gibeau points to the work being done by ranchers with the Waterton Biosphere Reserve's (WBR) Carnivore Working Group (CWG). Composed of livestock producers, farmers and Alberta Environment reps, the group's work is coordinated by Jeff Bectell, local rancher and current Chair of the WBR. It's an ambitious project that includes implementation of on-the-ground attractant-management projects, development of community-shared goals for reducing human-carnivore conflict, and establishment of a long-term vision, including cost-effective program policy and legislative recommendations. 

Two decades ago it was a novelty to see a grizzly wander across an Alberta pasture. Now ranchers east of Waterton Lakes National Park and north to the Crowsnest Pass see grizzlies upwards of 30 times a year, and trail cameras regularly capture more than one bear frequenting farmyards. "The reality is we've got bears," Bectell said after forming the CWG in 2011. "Society wants to have bears. (Beef) producers don't want to shoot them all — so we have a problem. Let's get together to find solutions."

In that vein, projects up and running include deadstock removal, grain-bin retrofits, electric fencing, people protection, and intercept feeding. Andrea Morehouse, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and WBR board member, is also coordinator for Alberta Environment's Southwest Alberta Grizzly Bear Monitoring Program, a unique project in cooperation with ranchers that collects hair samples on their land from over 900 natural rub objects for DNA analysis to give biologists a better idea of bear densities, distribution and travel patterns across a large grizzly range that also takes in neighbouring parts of British Columbia and Montana — where similar rancher working groups are operative.

Taken together, it all adds up to a great story — a widespread and cooperative conservation initiative in a little-known corner of the country involving people on the land and a species that has traditionally been the most difficult for these humans to get along with.

A recently released film — Sharing the Range by award-winning filmmaker Leanne Allison (of Bear 71 fame — her haunting interactive documentary made with the National Film Board) — highlights what a good-news wildlife/people conservation story this actually is, and all the players who carry the story — Mike Gibeau, Jeff Bectell, Andrea Morehouse, and others — appear in it. As the film's website summarizes, "... Sharing the Range... (offers) a glimpse into the lives of farm and ranch families and their struggle to share the land with large carnivores. The farmers and ranchers of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve appreciate the unique landscape in which they live, knowing that their land is prime habitat for wildlife. However, making a living in this environment is not without challenges and wildlife can pose significant concerns for rural families in terms of safety and economics; along with the stress that comes from both worries."

When you read about efforts like this taking place where grizzly bears are still at least somewhat abundant, it really hammers home how incredibly lame B.C.'s wildlife policies and lack of species-at-risk legislation is — not to mention the current odious situation concerning our South Coast grizzly population, where Independent Power Projects and a range of other ill-conceived industrial projects are pushing out the few remaining individuals who manage to avoid being poached by Pemberton or Lillooet rednecks. It would be nice if we had a different kind of bear story going on here as well.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.