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Grizzly bears back in crosshairs as Alberta lifts hunting ban in select cases

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Alberta’s government is allowing targeted hunts on “problem” grizzly bears after a nearly 20-year ban on hunting the threatened species.

The province’s forestry and parks ministry may issue what it is calling a grizzly bear management authorization for the purpose of hunting if a wildlife officer determines a grizzly is involved in a human-bear conflict or an “area of concern.”

The animal must also not be accompanied by a cub.

Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wildness Association, said she has many questions about the change which went without public consultation, and so far, without any official provincial announcement.

“It took a really long time for the grizzly hunt to be suspended in the first place,” she said. “It took a lot of biologists and a lot of members of the public reaching out to government decision-makers at the time saying we need to protect this animal as a threatened species.

“For us and for folks in the conservation world, seeing any manner of grizzly hunts coming back is a big concern.”

The regulation changes were made by ministerial order under Section 53 of the provincial Wildlife Act on June 17.

“Since 2005, there have been eight people killed by grizzly bears and 62 grizzly bear maulings which is why Alberta’s government is taking action to protect Albertans by creating a new wildlife management responder network,” said Forestry and Parks press secretary Pam Davidson in a statement that did not directly address changes to the Wildlife Act or grizzly bear hunting regulations.

The changes come after the province outlawed hunting grizzly bears in 2006 and the animal was listed as a threatened species by Alberta’s government in 2010. The most recent province-wide census of grizzlies showed a population of between 856 and 973 in 2021.

In 2002, when the species was first recommended to be listed as threatened, it was estimated there were approximately 850 bears living in provincial lands, plus another 175 to 185 in national parks, according to the province’s 2020 grizzly bear recovery plan.

“Grizzlies have a really slow reproductive rate and there’s already a lot of human-caused mortality. Adding potentially more to that could be a huge issue,” said Earl.

“I also understand there is a caveat in the [Wildlife Act] changes that says that it’s only going to be bears that are involved in a conflict or are in an area of concern that can be hunted.”

Changes to the act include defining a human-bear conflict as an incident where a grizzly bear is habituated or food-conditioned and “poses an imminent public safety risk” or if a grizzly has “killed livestock, damaged private property or made contact with a human resulting in injury or death.”

Livestock includes horses, sheep, cattle, swine, goats, poultry, bees, alpacas, llamas, ratites, elk, deer and bison raised in captivity.

Davidson said in addition to bear-human conflicts, there have been 897 counts of livestock losses since 2016, which has “greatly impacted Alberta farmers.”

The statement did not specify whether all 897 counts were due to grizzly bears.

While some would argue such grizzlies might be euthanized due to exhibiting problematic behaviour anyway, Earl said she believes allowing a hunt creates a “slippery slope.”

“I know there are some people who are attracted to the idea of trophy hunting grizzly bears and just because of their really slow reproductive rate, if there is that pressure from people to want to hunt grizzlies, we might end up killing more grizzlies than might be euthanized in the first place.

“One reason that grizzly bears are sometimes euthanized is because they become food-habituated and so they pose a threat to the public. But I think that this change might, in some cases, incentivize certain people to not be bear safe and to maybe allow a bear to come into whatever an area of concern is, or allow them to be habituated, and then they might see that as an opportunity for hunting.”

Alberta’s species recovery plan notes the hunting ban initially reduced human-caused grizzly deaths, but mortalities later increased back to what was seen while hunting was allowed.

From 2010 to 2015, the main causes of death were poaching, vehicle and train collisions, self-defence kills and mistaken identity with black bears by hunters, according to the species recovery plan. This period also saw fewer management-related deaths but an increase in grizzly bear relocations – a practice sometimes used to try to mitigate human-bear conflicts.

A 2018 Alberta study showed that only one-third of grizzly bear translocations were successful, however.

Under the revised Wildlife Act, Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen will create a pool of eligible individuals who may receive authorization to hunt a grizzly involved in a human-bear conflict or an area of concern.

To be eligible, a person must be an adult resident of Alberta and hold or obtain a recreational hunting licence in accordance with Section 29 of the act. Individuals must apply to the minister to be included in the pool and the minister can then issue permission to hunt a grizzly bear if a wildlife officer has given appropriate authorization.

If selected to kill an animal, one must be on-site within 24 hours of notification to obtain the authorization, which must also include the geographic area where hunting is permitted, the time at which it is allowed, and method and equipment allowed or prohibited.

Earl expressed concern about the 24-hour window.

“If a bear is posing a safety threat, I think that needs to be dealt with in the appropriate manner right away by wildlife officers,” she said.

She also questioned how quickly the province might contact an eligible individual to hunt a grizzly bear instead of hazing or using other aversive conditioning techniques where appropriate.

The most recent grizzly bear recovery plan notes the best examples of successful use of aversive conditioning are in provincial protected areas. Hunting is strictly prohibited in these areas, as well as national parks.

“Aversive conditioning has been used for many years in the Bow Valley-Kananaskis area and should be evaluated for effectiveness. Aversive conditioning is not currently being used by Alberta Fish and Wildlife enforcement branch,” the plan states.

It recommended the strategy be evaluated for effectiveness in other regions of the province, noting there has been an increase in human-grizzly bear conflicts since the 2008 version of the plan, especially in agricultural areas and private property adjacent to public land.

The plan also recommended hiring human-wildlife conflict specialists within regions with high human-grizzly bear conflict.

“Management of conflict incidents has required significant resources from Alberta Justice and solicitor general wildlife officers and AEP (Alberta Environment and Parks) wildlife staff,” it states.

“Human-wildlife conflict specialists would support the local public in developing long-term solutions to promote public safety, secure grizzly bear attractants, and take proactive actions to prevent future conflict.”

Davidson said given grizzly bear range and activity, “dealing with a problem grizzly is a time-consuming and resource-intensive affair.”

“The involvement of public wildlife management responders is an opportunity to directly participate and share in actions undertaken regularly by enforcement staff and raise public awareness of grizzly bear management,” she said. “As bear dynamics and densities change in a developed landscape it will take a shared responsibility between the public, rural municipalities, and Alberta’s government to manage grizzly populations provincially.”

Forestry and parks’ statement mainly focused on what it is calling a new wildlife management responder network, especially concerning impacted agriculture and also as it applies to other wildlife, like elk. Again, without directly addressing changed hunting regulations of grizzly bears.

“Agricultural losses due to elk foraging on crops are increasing across the province, and this problem requires additional tools to manage growing elk herds in Alberta,” said Davidson. “The new wildlife management responder network will be authorized to work with wildlife enforcement officers to respond to wildlife posing a risk to life, livestock, or property.”

Earl pointed out the province has not hired another human-wildlife conflict specialist to help deal with such problems since its only specialist retired in 2022.

“There isn’t that role anymore and that’s intended to prevent conflict and take a proactive approach, rather than dealing with these problems reactively,” she said.

“If we want to really manage human-wildlife conflict and coexist properly with wildlife on the landscape, we should be hiring these positions to prevent conflicts and really take a science-based approach to this.

“Killing a bear needs to be a last resort and we need to make sure that we try to protect this species that we share the wilderness with. We have a responsibility to them to give them the space they need to live.”

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