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The Brown Bear in Canada

Published 10/15/10
By Barry Kent MacKay, senior program associate

The brown bear is almost always called the “grizzly” bear in both Canada and the United States, although one race, found on Kodiak and nearby islands in Alaska, often is popularly known as the “Kodiak bear.”

No one knows the full extent of the range of the grizzly bear prior to Europeans settling in North America, but there is some evidence that it may have reached from the west, where it is now confined, all the way to the east coast. It is generally thought that the greatest population density was in California. The grizzly was made the official state animal of California in 1953, but ironically the last one ever recorded in the wild in California was killed in 1922.

The species is still to be found in western Canada, from the west coast east in the south as far as mountainous Alberta, and in the north through the tundra north to the Arctic Ocean and east to Nunavut. They used to be found on the prairies, but have long been extirpated from that region.

While about 14 subspecies of brown bear are recognized worldwide (five in Alaska), only one subspecies is usually recognized for Canada, and it goes by the somewhat ominous name Ursus arctos horribilis. Some scientists recognize a second race, U. a. sitikeensis, native to the west coast. But figuring out subspecies is a tricky business, and the brown bear shows huge variation. Back in 1918 one U.S. scientist, pouring over specimens with his diverse measurements and comparisons of slight color variations, decided there were 87 subspecies of brown bear in North America alone. As Canadian mammalogist A.W.F. Banfield wrote, “Because of the extinction of grizzly bears over much of their range, it may never be possible to assign reasonable subspecific names to different populations.” The problem is further exacerbated by the act of reintroducing grizzly bears to areas from which they were eliminated, although, of course, the bears don’t care and the frustration of taxonomists is generally of no concern to wildlife managers.

Encroachment, habitat loss are linked

What is of concern to almost everyone who cares about the grizzly bear in Canada is encroachment and habitat loss. The two go hand in hand. Encroachment can be as simple as the opening of a trail into otherwise isolated habitat, which can lead to increased encounters between humans and bears, with the inevitable desire of the former to reduce the number of the latter.

Some problems are less obvious. One big problem, for example, is the spillage from railroad cars carrying cargoes of grain through mountainous bear habitat. Both grizzlies and American black bears will snuffle along the rail lines, gleaning morsels of grain, and may be struck and killed or crippled by trains. Obviously, a technical fix that would see grain more securely stored would help to resolve the problem.

Similarly, bears and other wildlife are increasingly at risk from traffic on roads that penetrate their habitat. In some instances, underpasses or overpasses may provide safe corridors for these animals.

Ranchers put political pressure on governments to reduce bear populations in order to protect livestock, especially from grizzly bears.

As mentioned above with regard to the spirit bear, deforestation is a huge problem in the western mountains and leads to the reduction of the ability of the headwaters to support hatchling salmon who, as adults returning to spawn (and, in some species, then die), are something of a mainstay in the diets of grizzly bears. As well, the debris (bark, branches, etc.), called “slash,” that is left behind from most types of logging may increase the likelihood of fires, and expose mineral soils to the benefit of invasive non-native plant species that can overwhelm native species, including berry producers important to bear survival. On the other hand, clearing slash out removes much of the nutriment that was stored in the forest ecosystem and would be returned to the soil under natural conditions, again altering the ability of the habitat to support bears. Global climate change has led to infestations of pine-killing mountain pine beetles that can’t survive colder winters but are now living through the warmer winters that are occurring in the western mountains. This mass loss of forest cover also will have its varying and unpredictable impacts on wildlife.

American black bears are numerous enough and adaptable enough that animal protectionists cannot effectively argue that logging puts their numbers at risk (with some exceptions, including the Kermode bear), and in fact logging can enhance availability of berries important to the bears’ diet. But it is different with the brown bear. As is true of other bears, the age and rate at which female grizzlies produce young is directly related to food availability. But the range of litter sizes is small, on average 1.3 to 2.5 cubs, with the largest known litter to be five. In North America, cubs are normally produced on average about once every three years, and young often stay with their mothers for one to three years. In the lower 48 contiguous U.S. states, it took only a century for Europeans to eliminate grizzlies from 98 percent of their former range, demonstrating how vulnerable they are to encroachment.

Hunting devastates grizzly population

The other force that eliminated the species from so much of its habitat is hunting.

In most of its range across Asia, Europe and the United States south of Canada, there are simply not enough brown bears left to support a sustainable hunt, although illegal poaching is a concern. But there are still people who, for whatever reasons, want to kill these magnificent animals, and many wish to do so in order to acquire trophies. Canada’s brown bear population attracts trophy hunters from around the world, but particularly from the United States and Europe. Thus ensues a delicate balance between the both the government’s and outfitters’ insatiable need for income from trophy hunters, and the need to protect what is, if nothing else, the source for that income, the grizzly bear itself.

The grizzly bear was so badly managed in British Columbia that by the beginning of the 21st century a moratorium was instituted by the outgoing New Democratic Party. It was supposed to last three years, but the incoming Liberal Party cancelled the moratorium after six months, and appointed a new scientific panel, oddly made up of Americans. The Liberals claimed the New Democrats had cancelled the hunt “for political reasons,” even though such cancellation was strongly advised by the Canadian biologists most closely familiar with the plight of the grizzly in British Columbia.

In March 2009, the Vancouver Sun reported that 317 grizzlies had been killed by hunters in 2008, down from the 403 killed in 2007 &mdash: that being the highest number of grizzlies killed by hunters since statistics started to be collected. It also reported the killing of 3,476 American black bears.

The bear is important to First Nations culture, and at the time Percy Starr, a chief of the Kitasoo-Xaixais, said, “We’ve spent years to ensure our lands are protected, only to learn that trophy hunters can continue to come on our lands and kill bears for sport.”

Trophy hunting overwhelmingly opposed

In 2009, an Ipsos Reid poll in British Columbia showed that 78 percent of residents opposed the trophy hunting of bears. But most of the hunters — the vast majority — are from the United States or Europe. And it is also estimated that the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia, a staunch proponent of the trophy hunt, puts about $350 million into the coffers of the provincial government each year. In return, the provincial government’s stance is that the hunt is sustainable and that contrary to what the province’s own scientists and wildlife managers had reported, the province’s population of grizzlies is either stable or increasing.

Another concern about British Columbia grizzlies has arisen, and that is the killing of so-called “nuisance” bears. The British Columbia Wildlife Act does seek to prevent people from providing attractants to bears, with fines and penalties for those who fail to comply, but it also has removed funding that would make enforcement possible.

The epicenter for concern is the Bella Coota Valley, on the west coast. Here there have been numerous instances of grizzlies being seen as a threat to human safety. Attractants are usually in the nature of poorly stored food and garbage. Conservation officers are forced to follow a series of steps, including the monitoring of property where an offense was first noted, before they can even think about laying charges. The remoteness of the area makes this requirement essentially impossible, so bears do enter close to human habitation, and are subsequently shot in legal self-defense. It is always the bears who pay the price for human activity.

Meanwhile, Alberta, which adjoins British Columbia and shares populations of grizzlies with its neighbor to the west, has, as of the moment, continued a ban on grizzly hunting and admitted that latest research indicates that the species is even rarer than previously thought.

North of the tree line, the brown bear is sometimes called the “barren ground” grizzly. It is estimated that the Yukon has something in the neighbourhood of 6,000 to 7,000 grizzly bears, and most certainly promotes viewing opportunities. Hunting of females and cubs is not allowed, nor is the use of bait. The bag limit is one bear for every three license years. Thus, a person who shot a bear in the 2008-09 season would not be allowed a permit for another kill until the 2011-12 season. The center of grizzly bear population for the Northwest Territories is the Mackenzie Mountains, where hunting is restricted only to residents, and even then non-natives are only allowed to kill one grizzly in their lifetime. The Inuvialuit Settlement Region has an annual quota of 20 bears distributed among the local hunters and trappers associations. There is some non-resident hunting allowed, but it is illegal to kill females with cubs or bears in dens, although some hunters, mostly aboriginal and Métis and a few longtime non-aboriginal hunters, can get general hunting licenses that allow hunting at any time.

Development increases bear encounters

Throughout northern Canada — the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut — human population growth is increasing, with roads, pipelines, deep-dock facilities and the use of helicopters and small floatplanes all opening up previously quiet and thinly or non-inhabited bear habitat. There is a subsequent increase in bear encounters, leading to more animals being killed. Grizzlies are territorial and slow to reproduce, and it is hard to accurately estimate their numbers. It is unclear if climate change, which is more rapidly occurring in the far north than in temperate climes, will increase or decrease habitat options for northern grizzlies.

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