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Alberta's former environment minister says growing bear population is a challenge

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Alberta’s former environment minister says there has been an increase in human interactions with bears in the area of Banff National Park where a couple and their dog were attacked and killed on Friday. 

"This is an area that is on the back-end of Banff National Park and Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, which is a very, very remote place. It is where grizzly bears call home, and we are seeing the grizzly bear population recover in those areas," said Jason Nixon, the MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre. 

Nixon says bear populations have recovered significantly on the eastern slopes compared to other places in the province, which poses a risk to people venturing out into the area. 

"Things have changed from 20 years ago when you would have went for a walk in that same area," he said. 

"Education and those type of components are important, but at the same time, they sound like very experienced people in the backcountry, so I don’t want in any way to imply that they did something wrong. This is a very tragic circumstance for those two individuals and their families." 

Parks Canada received a GPS alert around 8 p.m. on Friday, indicating a bear attack in the Red Deer River Valley, west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch. 

Parks Canada’s Wildlife Human Attack Response Team hiked in overnight as poor weather prevented a helicopter rescue. 

They found the couple and their dog dead and encountered an aggressive grizzly bear nearby. They killed the bear on the spot to protect the public.

Jay Honeyman, a human wildlife conflict biologist, says attacks like this are not common.

"Given the number of people that are out, you know, active, living, working, recreating in what we call bear country or grizzly bear country, and the number of encounters that occur on a daily basis, it’s a rare occasion," he said.

Honeyman says surprise encounters with bears are even more likely this time of year as they are hungry and bulking up for winter hibernation.

"Finding a dead animal is a big deal and if you walk in on something like that, there’s a real good chance, the bear perceives you as a threat to taking that away from them, and that’s when they start exhibiting defensive, aggressive behaviour towards your presence," he said.

"And that’s when you need to just slowly back off out of there and let the bear know that you’re not a threat to that carcass or gut pile."

Grizzly bears are considered a threatened species in Alberta, but environmentalists have raised concerns that could change outside the national parks. 

In April 2021, Nixon said the province would consider re-opening a limited lottery-based hunting season if grizzly bears lose their "threatened" status. 

At the time, Nixon said hunting is the primary management tool used for most species on the landscape, and that it’s a conversation that needs to be had. 

Albertans last hunted grizzly bears in 2005 when out of more than 70 licenses issues, 10 bears were shot and killed. 

The hunt was officially suspended the following year, although at the time, provincial biologists found the hunt was not driving down overall numbers. 

"We have to recognize the population is growing and we’re going to see more interactions between humans and bears, and you know, what those conversations look like, I don’t fully know."

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