British Columbia may be home to as many as half of Canada's remaining grizzly bears — and the last best hope to maintain healthy populations south of the 60th parallel.
Scientists believe that grizzly bears are an essential part of healthy, fully functioning ecosystems in western North America. Known as a "keystone" species, grizzlies are "ecosystem engineers" that help to regulate prey species and disperse the seeds of many plant species, such as blueberry and buffaloberry. They also help to maintain plant and forest health, both by aerating the soil as they dig for roots, pine nuts and ground squirrels, and by moving thousands of kilograms of spawning salmon carcasses into the forest, where trees and other plants absorb their high levels of nitrogen.
"Grizzly bears are indicators of sustainable development," says Dr. Stephen Herrero, who headed Alberta's Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project, one of the largest grizzly bear research projects in North America. "Where viable populations of grizzly bears persist, the landscape is being managed sustainably."
Unfortunately, grizzly bears face the same threats in B.C. as they face everywhere they live: habitat loss, damage, and fragmentation; the cascading effects of salmon collapse and climate change; and human-caused mortalities as a result of sport hunting, poaching, collisions with trains and vehicles, and the inevitable challenges grizzlies endure because of careless human behaviour. Grizzlies have already been eliminated or are currently threatened in 18 per cent of the province, including the Lower Mainland and most of the Interior.
Scientists predict that the current rate of grizzly bear habitat degradation — from expanding human settlements, road-building, recreation, forestry, and other industrial developments — could result in grizzly bears being threatened or critically endangered in close to half of their current range in B.C. by 2065. By that time many local populations will be beyond hope of recovery and will likely be eliminated altogether.
Human-caused mortality is also a significant problem in B.C. Between 1977 and 2009, almost 11,000 grizzly bears were killed by humans, 87 per cent of which were legally killed by hunters.
The solution to reversing this continuing pattern of alienation and regional extinction is two-fold: reduce human-caused mortality and protect the habitat that grizzly bears need to survive.