Study finds many bear populations are on the brink of extinction
VANCOUVER - Grizzly bears could disappear from many parts of Canada unless action is taken to list them under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and initiate immediate recovery efforts, including protecting their dwindling habitat in some regions.
That's the conclusion of a David Suzuki Foundation study that analyzed provincial and federal government data on the status of grizzly populations across Western Canada. The report, Securing a National Treasure, revealed that 16 subgroups are on the brink of extinction in regions where they once flourished. This includes nine groups in south-central British Columbia and Alberta's entire grizzly population, which remains vulnerable despite a recent hunting ban.
"Grizzly bears are at risk of disappearing completely from many parts of Western Canada, including all of southern B.C. and the South Coast Mountains, as well as a few subpopulations in west-central Alberta, unless immediate action is taken to list and protect them under the federal Species at Risk Act," said Faisal Moola, a scientist with the David Suzuki Foundation. "We must protect this iconic symbol of Canadian wilderness, which plays such a critical role in the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem," he added.
The Foundation's report comes on the heels of an assessment by Canada's expert science panel on species at risk, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which found that although healthy populations of grizzlies remain in much of Canada's remote northern wilderness, southern populations in Alberta and B.C. are in trouble as a result of shrinking habitat and excessive human-caused mortality. For this reason, scientists have formally declared the animal a species of "special concern" that should be added to the official List of Wildlife Species at Risk (Schedule 1) under the Species at Risk Act.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent received COSEWIC's formal recommendation last fall and must now decide whether to legally list grizzly bears under the Species at Risk Act, reject listing, or refer the matter back to COSEWIC for further study.
"For the second time in 10 years, the federal government's advisory panel on wildlife has strongly recommended legally listing and protecting grizzly bears," Moola said. "Five different environment ministers, Liberal and Conservative, have failed to act on the scientists' advice. We hope Canada's current environment minister will listen to the experts and take action to save this iconic species."
Canada's grizzly bears are among the most vulnerable large mammals on the continent for a number of reasons, including low reproductive rates; increasing pressures from resource extraction, such as oil and gas development; climate change and death from sport hunting, control kills and poaching.
"First Nations have shared the land with bears for thousands of years," said Douglas Neasloss, a renowned bear guide and leader with the Kitasoo/Xaixais Band Council in B.C.'s Great Bear Rainforest. "We not only revere the animal in our culture but also depend on it as part of the sustainable tourism industry we are trying to create so that people from around the world can come to see bears in the wild," he added. "We must implement legislative measures to protect and recover grizzly bears before it's too late."
The Species at Risk Act is the key legislative tool for protecting declining species, such as blue whales, caribou and rare plants like butternut trees in Canada. If grizzly bears are successfully added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk (Schedule 1) under the Species at Risk Act as a species of "special concern", the government will have to initiate formal measures to protect and recover the species, including creation of a management plan and other conservation measures.
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For further information, please contact:
Faisal Moola, Director General, Ontario and Northern Canada, David Suzuki Foundation:
Douglas Neasloss, Resource Stewardship Director, Kitasoo/Xaixais Integrated Resource Authority, and Lead Guide, Spirit Bear Lodge: 604-354-5989
Ian Hanington, Communications Manager, David Suzuki Foundation, 604-732-4228, X 1238
Backgrounder: Securing a National Treasure — DSF report on Canada's grizzly bears
- B.C. and Alberta are the only two provinces in Canada without a stand-alone Endangered Species Act, leaving the bears without protective legislation.
- In 2002, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent group of wildlife experts and scientists that reports to Ottawa, concluded that the grizzly was a species of "special concern" and warned that populations were in peril in southern Canada.
- In its 2012 assessment, COSEWIC came to a similar conclusion, noting that a number of populations in the southern range in Alberta and southern B.C. are declining. The assessment states, "their poor condition in some parts of the range, combined with their naturally low reproductive rates and increasing pressures of resource extraction and cumulative impacts in currently intact parts of the range, heighten concern for this species if such pressures are not successfully reversed."
- In Canada there are 16 subpopulations — nine in B.C. — on the cusp of extinction due to residential, agricultural, recreational and industrial activity. Such development slices grizzly territory into little islands that are insufficient to support the bears' need for large tracts of land while leaving them highly vulnerable to poachers and vehicle collisions.
- In total, B.C. has about 15,000 grizzlies. The healthiest populations are in the north central and northern regions of the province.
- In Alberta, about 760 grizzlies are left. This tiny group is becoming increasingly fragmented into islands of populations due to human encroachment. This contraction of territory isolates bears and prevents them from finding mates while exposing them to poaching, human-bear conflict, declining food sources and vehicle accidents.
- Scientists believe that the Alberta grizzly is in decline.
- Road construction puts grizzlies at extreme risk of being killed as poachers utilize back roads for their illegal killing sprees. Studies show that most grizzlies are killed within 500 metres of a roadway.
- Scientists estimate that hundreds of grizzly kills every year go unrecorded, victims of illegal shooting, human-bear conflict and vehicle accidents.
- Roadways are avenues of death for grizzlies. Studies show that 89 per cent of human-caused grizzly mortalities occur within 500 metres of a road on provincial lands.
- One hundred per cent of human-caused mortalities in national parks occur within 200 metres of a trail.
- Death from hunters most often occur close to roadways.
- Grizzly bear survival rates decrease in proportion to increasing access to their territory by motorized vehicles.
- More grizzly bear females are killed along roads than grizzly bear males. This is a significant problem for population stability.
- The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world's largest global environmental organization, has established that wildlife populations smaller than 250 mature breeding adults should be listed and managed as endangered.
- In B.C., where subpopulations are formally indentified as Grizzly Bear Population Units, or GBPUs, the following groups were classified back in 1995 as "threatened." However, nothing has been done to return them to "viable" status except for the suspension of hunting. Unsustainable levels of human activity have pushed Canada's southern grizzly bear subpopulations to the brink of extinction.
- In the South Selkirk GBPU, a group of 58 bears eke out a living, corralled by highways and development.
- The South Purcell GBPU has only 92 remaining bears.
- In the Yahk GBPU, only 20 bears remain.
- The Stein-Nahatlach GBPU is home to 24 bears.
- The Garibaldi-Pitt grizzly population, which earlier this year hosted two bears, is now extinct.
- The Blackwater-West Chilcotin is home to 53 grizzlies.
- The Kettle-Granby GBPU has 86 bears.
- The North Cascades GBPU has a mere six grizzlies.
- The South Chilcotin Range GBPU includes several smaller, isolated groups that are the most genetically isolated grizzly bear families in North America. Altogether, there are an estimated 203 adult grizzlies prowling this rugged terrain.
- Another six GBPUs have such low populations that hunting isn't allowed. However, studies show that grizzly deaths still occur due to poaching and human-bear conflict.
- Ineffective application of different levels of legislation in Canada has left species under threat with no protection. Neither Alberta nor B.C. has endangered species legislation. The federal government has shown reluctance to use the Species at Risk Act's safety net provision to protect species on provincial lands when provincial governments have refused to do so, leaving grizzlies in legislative limbo.
- The United States Endangered Species Act has given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the power to initiate successful population recovery and habitat management strategies. Thousands of kilometres of roads were closed and fines levied against backcountry users. Hunters, ranchers, landowners and First Nations cooperated to stop grizzly bear killings. The results were spectacular. From a low of 200 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, grizzlies now number 600 and are increasing by five per cent a year. The Northern Continental Divide in northwestern Montana has grown from 300 individuals to more than 750 bears today with an annual growth rate of three per cent.