As grizzly bears venture out of their dens in Western and Northern Canada, the world will appear to them much as it did the spring before: snow on the ground, stomachs empty, the promise of winterkilled meat to scavenge and the perils of living cheek-by-jowl with an ever-expanding human footprint of growing rural towns, mines, pipelines and roads.
They will not know that they are once again under a national microscope that will determine the fate of them and their progeny.
The federal government's scientific advisory panel for species at risk, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, is reassessing the status of grizzly bears in Canada. First assessed in 1979, grizzly bears are currently designated by the committee as a "special concern" in Canada. However, no federal minister of environment, neither Liberal nor Conservative, has yet to follow the advice of the committee's scientists and legally list the animal under Canada's Species at Risk Act. As a result, grizzly bears remain in legal purgatory in Western and Northern Canada while their habitat continues to be degraded at a blistering pace, and hundreds are intentionally killed in legal trophy hunts in British Columbia and the northern territories.
There are some parts of the country, largely in the relatively unsettled portions of northern B.C. and the northern territories, where grizzly bear populations are stable and even expanding. But around the edges of Canada's Great Bear Country, in western Alberta and southern B.C., a panoply of human activities continues to fray the fabric of our forests, leaving a ragged patchwork quilt of small, isolated and threatened subpopulations of grizzly bears that are at increasing risk of becoming the latest victims in our 200-year conquest of the forests and grasslands over which they were once lords.
In 2010, just eight years after the provincial government began to crow that "responsible management" had led to an increase in bear numbers, Albertans were shocked to learn that fewer than 800 grizzlies remain in their province, fractured into tiny subpopulations as small as 23 animals. And just last year, it was discovered that grizzly bears in the southern Coast Mountains, just north of Vancouver, were among the most threatened bears in North America. At least one subpopulation may have disappeared altogether.
This continuing trend is troubling news given the lofty commitments of both the B.C. and Alberta governments to maintain the diversity and range of grizzly bears in Western Canada. However, apart from suspending trophy hunting of some threatened bear subpopulations, neither government has taken much action to prevent grizzlies from declining precipitously or disappearing altogether, such as those in Alberta's Swan Hills and B.C.'s Southern Interior. Alberta recently approved a provincial grizzly bear recovery plan, but it is weak and the government has done little to implement it. B.C. has developed a recovery plan for only one of its nine threatened subpopulations, in the north Cascade Mountains east of Vancouver, but it has sat on a shelf since it was finalized in 2004. All the while, industrial activity continues apace and grizzly bear numbers continue to decline.
In this, the same year that the Royal Canadian Mint released a silver bullion coin imprinted with the growling visage of a grizzly bear embedded in iconic (and increasingly mythical) Canadian wilderness, it's worth reflecting on how much we value this majestic animal.
If Canadians value grizzly bears in the wild as much as we do on our currency, then we will have to change the way we do business. Governments will have to redouble their efforts to safeguard grizzly bears and the wilderness on which they depend. This will require an investment of several million dollars annually to monitor populations using the best available science, a corresponding decrease in industrial activity and motorized access in bear habitat, and the establishment of a network of grizzly bear management areas that are off limits to trophy hunting and which protect grizzly bear habitat across their range in Western Canada.
These are interesting and propitious times. B.C. has a new premier in Christy Clark, and Alberta will soon have a new one, too. "Sustainability" is on everyone's lips, even if it hasn't quite made it into the woods and waters where it belongs. Maintaining healthy grizzly populations is a hallmark of our desire for sustainability, and if the western provinces aren't up to the task, the newly elected federal government should consider stepping in and finally legally protecting the great bear under federal law.
Jeff Gailus is an award-winning writer whose book, The Grizzly Manifesto, has been shortlisted for the 2010 Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Faisal Moola is the director of terrestrial conservation and science with the David Suzuki Foundation and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.
This piece was originally published by the Calgary Hearld on April 13, 2011