When it comes to Alberta’s grizzly population, conservation success will ultimately be measured by a warm gun.
But exactly when that first hunting rifle will be fired has long been a hot debate in this province – and it’s about to get much hotter, thanks to a move by Montana that may allow grizzly hunting there for the first time in 40 years.
“We would say any sort of similar decision here would not be tenable.”
On Tuesday, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, responsible for coordinating recovery of the bears in the Lower 48 states, will meet to review the status of roughly 1,000 grizzlies in northwestern Montana, including the Glacier National Park.
Committee spokesman Gregg Losinski has said it’s believed the bears – part of the same population of grizzlies which roams B.C. and Alberta – are thriving and should be removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species.
“The bears are doing very well and it’s believed the population has met all the criteria to begin formulating a path to delisting,” Losinski told Reuters news agency.
If Montana does delist the grizzly, it will open the way for the first hunt of the large brown bear in the lower 48 states since 1975, when the species was declared threatened.
That’s the same status Alberta’s grizzlies have lived under since 2006, when a struggling bear population led to a moratorium on hunting – a ban that controversially continues to this day.
Controversial, because there is strong evidence in Southern Alberta that this is a bear doing very well for itself since the hunt ended, leading to regular livestock kills and sightings deep on the prairie, where grizzlies haven’t been seen in a generation or more.
“I would submit that we’re seeing bears on the prairies because there’s no room in the mountains and young bears can’t establish a range,” said Bob Jamieson, a wildlife ecologist, former outfitter and rancher who lives near Cranbrook, B.C..
“They used to live on the prairie but it was an entirely different landscape – now the only food source is grain bins and cattle.
“It is no longer the great plains, it’s the great canola/bread/barley basket of the nation and it’s not a good place for bears.”
Using government data and DNA samples, Jamieson has calculated the current population of grizzly bears sharing a range that covers B.C, Alberta, Montana and Idaho, and he believes there are 4,500 bears, minimum.
“It’s time we decided how many bears we want, and set a target for the entire population,” he said.
“Is 4,500 enough? Is it too many?”
Of course, conservation groups say Alberta’s population of grizzlies remains too fragile to allow hunting, and just a few weeks ago, the AWA released statistics showing mortality rates through accidents and poaching are reducing brown bear numbers at a dangerous rate.
But that’s a tough sell for ranchers around Pincher Creek and Cardston, where grizzlies have become a constant threat to livestock.