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'It's not fair': Wildlife reserve calling for changes to Alberta black bear cub policy

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An Alberta wildlife reserve is renewing calls for the government to revisit protocols for rehabilitating black bears.

Earlier this month, a mother black bear was struck and killed on Highway 1A outside of Cochrane, orphaning two cubs.

Alberta Fish and Wildlife located the cubs and, according to The Ministry of Public Safety and Energy Services, “determined that orphaned black bear rehabilitation was not necessary as the cubs were old enough to forage on their own.”

The Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI), which has been rehabilitating and releasing orphaned cubs since 1985, said these situations highlight the need to revisit the policy.

CEI director, Catriona Matheson, said the policy is outdated and limits when cubs can be admitted to approved rehabilitation facilities, including their own.

“We would like to see it changed. Female bears will lactate for up to 17 months so that means their cubs are with them for at least two winters and it’s not fair to have an animal that is relying on its mother for most of its sustenance to all of a sudden be forced to forage on it’s own,” she said.

The Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) policy was finalized in 2018 and states that black bear cubs must be less than a year old for rehabilitation and can only be taken into facilities between January and July 1 every year.

The goal is to release any black bear cubs back into the wild in mid to late October to ensure they can enter dens between late September and early November.

After July 1, rehabilitation is up to AEP staff who will consider a number of criteria including body condition, percentage of body fat, sickness or injury and environmental factors.

“The purpose of wildlife rehabilitation is to help animals that cannot survive on their own without human intervention,” said Luis Carlos Flores Aguilar with the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Services.

“In the case of orphaned black bear cubs, this is balanced with the need to ensure the bears do not become habituated to humans, increasing the possibility for future negative interactions with Albertans.”

The policy prioritizes leaving cubs in the wild but includes other options such as the rehabilitation and releasing of cubs back into the wild, placing them in a zoo and at last resort, euthanizing the cubs.

Matheson said the policy needs to be revisited given the changing landscape for black bears in Alberta, including the effects of wildfires and climate change, which can lead to more human interactions.

“We know their environments have been destroyed, their food sources have been destroyed,” she said.

“When they are with their mother she is at least showing them that humans are not ideal roommates, but the cubs are desperate, they’re hungry, they don’t know any better and there is the possibility they’ll find garbage someone left out and go to that.”

The province said that since its development in 2018, the Alberta Orphan Black Bear Cub Rehabilitation Protocol has “proven effective.”

“No changes are currently planned, but we continue to monitor the success of orphan black bear cub rehabilitation in Alberta and will update in the future if evidence shows improvements are necessary,” Ryan Fournier, press secretary to the Minister of Environment and Protected Areas of Alberta, said in a statement.

The CEI has a $140,000 four and half acre pen that has been used to successfully rehab and release more than 20 bears.

They’ve been advocating for changes to the policy for years, but say changing leadership in the Alberta government has prevented the discussions from moving forward.

However, other wildlife experts have differing views on the policy.

Everett Hanna, a professor in Environmental Sciences at Lethbridge College, believes the government’s policy is appropriate in prioritizing human safety and the welfare of bears.

“Since the implementation, the government has had opportunity to monitor through radio collar the outcome of the implementation by releasing bears in the window in the fall as prescribed and monitoring their behaviour through denning and emergence in the spring,” he said.

“As I understand it, there has been a 100 per cent survival rate.”

Hanna said there are differing views on the ethics of when to intervene with wildlife, but believes the protocol strikes the right balance.

“I would really encourage anyone really interested in this to look up the Alberta Orphan Black Bear Cup Rehabilitation Protocol,” he said.

“Everyone who works in this field that I know, myself included, got here because we love wildlife. So it’d be very surprising to me if this policy, this protocol, wasn’t designed in a way that was trying to help wildlife in light of human society at the same time in every way possible.”

According to the Government of Alberta website, black bears are not at risk of extinction with approximately 600,000 in North America, with 40,000 calling Alberta home.

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