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Alta. to ponder changing status for grizzly bears

Alberta ranchers are expected to have input on an upcoming decision that may change the status of the grizzly bear species in the province.

A report released Tuesday by the province on the status of grizzly population and habitat will now go to the province’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) to help make a recommendation on the designation of grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears were recommended for a “threatened” designation in 2002 and the grizzly hunt was suspended in 2006.

The population is now estimated at 691 in Alberta, ranging in density from five to 18 per thousand square km, according to the report.

Of those 691, the report by independent large-mammal expert Marco Festa-Bianchet estimates 359 are “likely mature individuals capable of reproducing.”

The ESCC is a “multi-stakeholder” committee that includes ranchers as well as researchers, conservation groups, industry and government representatives. Its scientific sub-committee will now provide a “status evaluation” to the ESCC for consideration.

The ESCC will then recommend a designation to the provincial minister of sustainable resource development — currently Grande Prairie MLA Mel Knight.

Grizzly bears, the province said in a release Tuesday, can be designated as either “not at risk,” “data deficient,” “species of special concern,” “threatened” or “endangered.”

“The status report provides an analysis on current and scientifically accurate data in Alberta,” Knight said in the release. “This benchmark information will guide future decisions to ensure grizzly bears remain part of Alberta’s landscape.”

The province since 2006 has operated a “BearSmart” program that developed programs and materials for farmers, ranchers and other residents in bear country as well as for hunters and recreational land users.

The province also has a “grizzly bear intercept” program in the southwest, meant to “reduce livestock losses and encounters with bears.”

“Human-caused mortality”

“Population trends are largely unknown, but likely vary substantially over different parts of the province,” Festa-Bianchet’s report said.

In protected or “inaccessible” parts of the Grande Cache unit, the report said, bear numbers are “likely stable,” as are those in the western Bow River drainage area.

However, Festa-Bianchet wrote, “a large area of grizzly bear habitat, particularly south of Highway 16, currently appears to be a population sink, but could support a self-sustaining population if human-caused mortality was reduced.”

In part, the report said, that means cutting down on motorized access to bear habitat and mitigating “human activities that lead to conflict with bears.”

Highway 16 forms part of the interprovincial Yellowhead Highway, and runs westward from Lloydminster to Jasper via Edmonton.

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