Managing Alberta’s untamed wilderness

Alberta needs broad societal commitment to protect and manage its wilderness

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RED DEER, Alta. Nov 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – “Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!” Dorothy exclaimed in the Wizard of Oz.

The modern equivalent in Alberta?

How about: cougars, wolves and grizzly bears – and almost 1,800 wildfires in one season.

These are challenging times when it comes to managing Alberta’s wild land and its inhabitants.

As economic growth puts increasing pressure on wildlife and its habitat, we should also be maturing as a province of stewards. But it’s a tricky task.

Grizzly bear numbers are on the rise, as are cougar sightings. And the controversy over how to manage the wolf population – or if it needs to be managed at all – continues to simmer.

A recent study conducted by the province and two forestry industry partners found that the grizzly population in the foothills area stretching from Banff to Jasper national parks has doubled in a decade. The survey, conducted by fRI Research from 2004 to 2014, found an estimated 74 bears, from 36 previously. Researchers also believe that Jasper National Park itself houses 113 grizzly bears.

According to scientists, bear populations typically grow by 2 to 3 per cent annually (a sow only breeds every three or four years). The new numbers suggest growth in the range of 7 per cent a year, although some of that is due to relocation.

All of this would seem like good news for grizzly bears, which are classified as threatened under the provincial Wildlife Act. But in fact, there were as many as 6,000 grizzlies in Alberta in the 1800s.

The relationship between grizzlies and humans is uneasy at best. At its worst? Bear 88, a 23-year-old grizzly sow that was put down this fall because it was breaking into trailers and mauling vehicles in search of human food.

Human-caused mortality is the most critical factor in grizzly management. And a bear that has learned to rely on human-related food falls into this mortality category – particularly when conservation officers are forced to euthanize it.

Bears, of course, are not the only species in jeopardy in Alberta.

As many as 1,000 wolves have been killed in Alberta – under the direction of the provincial government – over the last 10 years. The culling has taken place, according to government, to protect an endangered caribou herd in the Little Smoky area. The program involves poisoning, neck snares and shooting wolves from helicopters. One species is hacked down to protect another.

We haven’t reached that level of alarm over cougars, but human encounters with the big cats are on the rise, even in urban settings. They are increasingly drawn to human neighbourhoods for easy food, including pets.

Some surveys place the number of cougars in Alberta at more than 2,000 – triple the estimated number in the province a decade ago. And some anecdotal evidence from experienced outdoorsmen suggests the number could be much higher.

Interwoven in all of this shifting wildlife picture is the threat to traditional habitat, both through development and – most cataclysmic for wildlife – through wildfire.

Alberta has just emerged from a wildfire season that was as devastating to forest as it was costly to the province.

In all, more than 492,000 hectares of forest was burned in 2015. That’s twice the 25-year average, according to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. The province employed more than 4,000 firefighters and spent more than $510 million fighting wildfires in 2015. Never mind the economic potential those lost trees represented.

According to Environment Canada, 55 per cent of all wildfires are human caused. Why the carelessness and lack of awareness of the dangers?

It’s as puzzling and disturbing as the case of five Sylvan Lake men who killed four trophy big horn rams in 2013 in a protected area near Cadomin, then left the intact carcasses to rot.

Lonely Planet says “Alberta does lakes and mountains like Rome does churches and cathedrals.” Tourism is an $8-billion annual industry in Alberta, according to the provincial government. In other words, it is hugely important.

But our disjointed handling of our natural gifts suggest we don’t always recognize how important. We need broad societal commitment to protect and manage those lakes and mountains, the forests that surround them, and the animals that live there.

The circumstances require all the balance of a circus bear that juggles while riding a unicycle on a high-wire – preferably not an endangered grizzly bear from Alberta.

Oh my, indeed.

John Stewart retired as the managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate after 36 years in the daily newspaper industry in Alberta. John is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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