Your humble columnist is not a fan of bears and is particularly annoyed when taxpayer money is spent on preserving them and their habitat. In my view, bears serve no practical purpose except as carrion eaters and tourist attractions. They are a menace to livestock and people and no one has lamented their disappearance from the prairies, their original habitat. Therefore it came as a complete surprise to find out that there is a predator preservation group in southeastern Alberta dedicated to what seems like expanding the range of grizzly bears back into the prairies.
To be fair, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association (WBRA) is not just involved in predator conservation. Its overall mandate seems to be the preservation of the natural habitat around Waterton National Park. But one becomes suspicious of an organization that was mainly created by Parks Canada bureaucrats. Also, most of their partners in the organization are other government departments, quasi-government agencies, green lobby groups and universities. And oh yeah, there are some local landowners, farmers and ranchers involved with the group. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is also involved having purchased thousands of acres of adjacent land and tied up thousands more through conservation easements. If you add the perspectives of those vested stakeholders together, you might suspect that there is a hidden agenda. That agenda would probably not include the long term survival of ranching and livestock grazing.
A recent film by the WBRA called ‘Sharing the Range’ shows how the group is involved in encouraging the well-being of predators – mainly bears. They sponsor programs to reduce bear attractants and increase barriers to feed, deadstock and livestock to reduce lethal interaction between bears and land owners. Bear damage is a major economic cost to farmers and ranchers in the area. The activity of the WBRA may be one of the reasons grizzly bears are coming out of their mountain ranges onto the prairies. For the past ten years, landowners in the Pincher Creek and Cardston areas have been reporting a whopping increase in bear encounters. Part of the problem is a moratorium on grizzly hunting on both sides of the border, without that control these predators were bound to increase. It’s been suggested that grizzlies are also moving up from Montana, with grizzlies sighted as far as Fort Benton which is hundreds of miles from the Rocky Mountains. That’s not too far from the Cypress Hills near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border which is an ancestral home to the prairie grizzly. It’s just a matter of time before they show up in such protected areas. All of that will be to the chagrin of Environment Canada, who in a 2008 report on endangered species, stated that the prairie grizzly would never re-establish itself on its original ranges. But they are doing just that by breaking out of the Pincher Creek area. Groups like the WBRA are just facilitating that expansion with their preservation programs. The land conservation groups no doubt help the bear preservation cause by restricting any lethal control measures on land they own or manage.
Clearly there have been livestock losses to grizzly bears in the southeast area. Landowners and ranchers have been placated somewhat by WBRA programs, but that only goes so far. Livestock loss compensation payments help but program problems are coming to a head; the burden of proof of loss is too high and compensation levels are too low. The concern is that if the compensation problems continue ranchers may bail out of the WBRA, seeing it as nothing more than a front to put them out of business in favour of wildlife. That’s seen a proposal to change the compensation parameters – by you guessed it – less proof of loss and higher compensation levels. It’s not yet approved but it better happen soon if the WBRA wants to keep ranchers on board. It brings to light an approach taken by some American wildlife groups who pay premiums over and above livestock compensation levels to bring ranchers on side to accept predator preservation measures. That’s caused landowners and ranchers to embrace those measures knowing that if losses do occur, they well be more than fairly compensated. It’s an incentive program that appears to work. But no matter, with no lethal control, sooner or later you can expect there are going to be more grizzlies closer to your home. I wonder how long city folks will put up with that menacing development once grizzlies start showing up in their backyards.