Maybe Someone Should Spend More Time Consulting the Grizzly

A Christian Science Monitor article entitled “Human pressures taking toll on Canadian Grizzlies” states that populations are declining because their habitat is being chopped down, paved over or otherwise disrupted by human activities. It notes that these bears are under pressure from hunting, oil drilling, logging and resort development; threatened throughout southern the Canadian Rockies and even within the bounds of Banff National Park.

These pronouncements, which are obviously very definite in nature, may not be appropriate in light of the many questions that the piece raises and the differences of opinion amongst those knowledgeable about the grizzly. Unfortunately, as is the case in may environmental writings, it is left up to the reader to decide who is right and if statements are valid.

A Banff Park biologist who conducts studies of grizzly populations says the situation is dire and predicts that the fate of those in the Park will be sealed in five to ten years. He implies that the involved 2,560 square miles does not satisfactorily serve as a core refuge, which apparently are areas where the bears will not constantly run into people. It is not mentioned what the necessary physiographic characteristics are and just how large they must be, and how many of such entities would be needed in Banff.

It would be interesting to know just what percent of the Park is really used by humans. Undoubtedly, valid figures are available to answer this question. Typically, in most wilderness-type parks activity is confined to the main roads, cultural attractions, readily accessible water bodies, and food and lodging establishments. All of these, of course, are situated along improved roads. Basically, there is one such road that snakes through the length of Banff. Consequently, as long as the grizzlies avoid this road, as they would be suspected to since they apparently do not tolerate humans, the chances of them running into people are probably pretty slim. And the human use is bound to be very seasonal. Thus any running into people would not be constant.

But are grizzlies really not tolerant of humans? This is not the impression created from the films showing these brown bears competing with fishermen for salmon or the accounts of cattlemen whose stock have been harassed by marauding grizzlies. They certainly do not have the appearance of fragile glass figurines that can be easily broken. It would appear that there may be some gaps in knowledge that must be filled before decisions on the vulnerability, or security, of this species can be made and truly sensible management programs formulated.

It is stated that these bears require lots of room to roam, with males requiring up to 385 square miles to find the food they need. These are undoubtedly massive animals, but requiring that much area to produce enough forage to meet its dietary requirements seems rather preposterous, unless the range in question is decidedly marginal. This may be the case, since with other large mammals it has been found that the lower the quality and quantity of acceptable foods, the larger the home range can be expected to be. Just how suitable is Banff and surround, from a forage standpoint, for grizzly bears?

Figures are provided on known bear mortalities in Banff and neighboring Kootenay Park. From 1986 to 1993, 41 grizzlies were known to have been killed by cars, trains, hunters, and trappers; with almost half attributable to cars. The hunter and trapper contribution is not explained. Are not these activities prohibited in the Park? The average known loss during this period then was about five. Questions necessarily arise as to why a creature that is thought to shy so from people is susceptible to even this number of mortalities, all of which are human-induced.

Are these creatures a little more adaptable to the ways of man than suspected, or reported? If so, could this in part be the result of welfare programs that afford what might be considered over-protection and a certain degree of artificiality? This has certainly been shown to be the case with other game species under similar circumstances, including taming and other behavioral changes that result from prohibitions on firearm hunting. The availability of elk and mule deer carcasses on their winter ranges, some of which happen to be near the main highways, resulting from mismanagement and consequential overbrowsing and malnutrition may also influence grizzly behavior.

Biologists point to the low reproductive rates of the grizzly as a reason for concern, despite the observed low rates of mortality. Reportedly, females may bear two cubs every two years. This sounds about right for the reproductive potential of the black bear, which at least in the Northeast is obviously sufficient to maintain its number, even with the multitude of human pressures and the very significant annual hunting season harvest. There may be a lot more to the plight, or maybe more rightly the security, of the grizzly than meets the eye.

It is estimated by a Park biologist that only about 50 grizzly bears remain in Banff. It is not indicated how this population estimate was derived, but it is a given that it is extremely difficult to come up with a solid number. Records show that 4 million people visited the Park last year. This and the bear estimate enable a ration to be calculated on the area needed to harbor one bear compared to that for a tourist. Simple division shows it to be 80,000 to one. It is very apparent that it is much easier to accommodate a tourist than a bear, even in consideration of the fact that the Park only has to put up with each tourist for a short period of time. But then the bears sleep in dens for prolonged periods during the winter months and do not require any service.

Any so-called modern age wildlife biologist will say, matters must be viewed from a landscape perspective. Despite their pronouncements, this can be found to be nothing new. Any reliable map of Canada and the United States will make it very clear that Banff National Park is part of a rugged, wildland complex of tracts of land, owned, or administered, by national, provincial, or state governments, that extends about 550 miles from Mount Sir Alexander in British Columbia to near Helena, Montana. Wow, this is almost as far as from Settle Hill here in New York to Toledo, Ohio. That is quite a chunk of ground and, if grizzly bears demand an even larger territory, that may be asking a little too much. It would seem that an effective wildlife manager could figure how to keep them contented with what presently exists.

The lands in question lie in a physiographic setting known as the Rocky Mountains, a country which has an innate ability to keep itself wild. Immediately adjacent to the north of the Banff Park border is Jasper National Park, which is about twice the area of Banff. To the north of Jasper is Willmore Wilderness Park, a roadless area slightly smaller than Banff. Then there is the relatively small Robson Provincial Park to the west of Jasper. To the west of Banff in British Columbia are the Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, which together are about half the size of Banff.

Even more striking is the amount of real estate involved in the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve which extends from the east side of Jasper National, along the east boundary of Banff, and on to Waterton National Park, which butts on the Montana border. The expanse does not stop here. Then there is Glacier National Park, followed by the Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, and additional National Forest Lands. And the public is being told that this awesome complex does not possess the catchword cores, buffers, and travel corridors necessary to support viable grizzly populations. Scientists are quoted as saying that the grizzly is threatened throughout the southern Canadian Rockies. The same echoes come forth from Montana.

All, however, do not agree with the dire predictions of some grizzly experts. A past superintendent of Banff National Park claims that the media is still printing lies about the resources in the park. His contention is that there has been no disruption of grizzly bear habitat in Banff Park. Even if he is totally objective, his opinions will probably be discredited by environmentalists, since he is now an environmental consultant to businesses in the Park. But, maybe this qualifies him as an environmentalist.

For the sake of the grizzly, cannot people get their heads together, behave in an honest and objective manner, and determine the appropriate way to manage this magnificent species? The article mentions that people may be loving the park animal populations to death. Could it be that included are some of those who are assigned the responsibility for their welfare?

Undoubtedly, the grizzly bear has a lot to say in this matter. Rather than designing magic formulas and speculating on what may be going on in this species’ world, emphasis should be placed on consultation with the subject under all existing circumstances to determine precisely what it needs and how to encourage behavior that is compatible with the needs of another species of the animal kingdom; that being man. The listener must have a lot of patience. There is obviously an awful lot yet to learn.

Nate Dickinson
Altamont, New York
December 16, 1994

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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