The Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project: Origins, Organization and Direction (1998)

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Herrero, Stephen, David Poll, Mike Gibeau, John Kansas, and Barry Worbets. 1998. The eastern slopes grizzly bear project: Origins, organization and direction. Conference Proceedings of Canadian Council on Ecological Areas (CCEA).


We briefly review the biological and socioeconomic factors that have caused Alberta’s grizzly bear population to decline from approximately 6,000 to the current estimate of 800. We propose that three major societal factors supported the evolution of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP) as one effort to help stem this decline: 1) changes in legislation and policy for both federal and provincial governments, 2) new research findings and 3) evolving principles and understanding in the field of conservation biology. The ESGBP evolved to provide scientific data that would allow better understanding of grizzly bear biology and ecology within the Bow River Watershed and surroundings, and to document how grizzly bears and their habitat are being influenced by people’s developments and activities within this region. Because of the societal factors that led to the Project formation, numerous stakeholders from public, business and environmental NGO sectors are involved in project definition, direction and in fundraising. The annual budget for 1994-1996 has been approximately $350,000 per year. This has supported research on population and habitat parameters that are focused on cumulative effects assessment regarding both current and proposed diverse human developments and activities in the study area – one of the most developed and used landscapes in North America where grizzly bears still survive.

Project Background

Several hundred years ago grizzly bears lived throughout much of what is now the province of Alberta. Today a historically estimated population of approximately 6,000 individuals (Herrero, unpublished data) has decreased to an estimated 600 grizzly bears on provincial land and another 200 within federal national parks (Nagy and Gunson, 1990). Grizzly bears have declined in Alberta because of mortality in excess of recruitment and because people have occupied and developed land which once supported the bears and less industrialized people.

Grizzly bears are recognized in Alberta as one of the principle species that indicates wilderness – large-scale landscapes in a relatively natural state, the raw material out of which our culture was and still is being created. Now, however, the last remaining unprotected wildland areas in Alberta are being modified by industrial and recreational activity. Because Albertans value nature and wildlife in addition to economic development, there is an urgent need to understand the impacts of human-caused mortality and land use on grizzly bears, and to target mortality rates and habitat protection and management that will allow for grizzly bear persistence. This direction is supported by the Grizzly Bear Management Plan of Alberta which states that the provincial population will be increased to 1,000 (Nagy and Gunson, 1990). It is also consistent with National Park management objectives for ecological integrity as set by the National Parks Act and Policy (1988).

On the Eastern Slopes in Alberta grizzly bears occur at relatively low population densities, only one bear for each 60-100 km2. Male grizzlies have lifetime home ranges of approximately 1,000-2,000 km2 (Russell et al., 1979; Carr, 1989). Females do not begin breeding until they are four to seven years old and then they produce significantly less than one cub per year. Because of these biological characteristics grizzly bears recover slowly if at all from population declines, and only if negative mortality factors have been brought under control (Mattson et al., 1996). These and other biological characteristics are part of the reason why human activities can have such a significant impact on grizzly bears.

Alberta has an expanding economy based significantly on the development of natural resources such as agriculture, oil and gas, forestry and nature-based tourism. Individual grizzly bears, owing to their large home ranges, may come into contact with all of these activities. Research based in Yoho and Kootenay National Parks showed that individual grizzly bears may enter four different management jurisdictions in a year (Raine and Riddell, 1991). Whether land is managed as parks, commercial forests or privately, management practices must respond to the grizzlies’ needs if these bears are to survive. There is an urgent need for scientific data on grizzly bears to help land managers better understand the affects of human activities on grizzly bears.

Project Origins

The Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP) formally began in May, 1994. Neither the project, nor its membership, were formally designated by any group or agency. The Project and its members evolved from a number of different origins. An understanding of these helps in defining the nature of the Project.

First, there were changes in legislation and policy at both the Federal and the Provincial levels. In 1988 the Government of Canada amended the National Parks Act. Changes included a recognition that ecological integrity was the primary objective of national park management. In this context, the grizzly bear is recognized as one of the most sensitive ecosystem elements, meaning they are difficult to maintain in landscapes that have a lot of human activities. Where grizzly bears exist, they are an indicator of ecological integrity. Parks Canada thus had new reason to be concerned about the status of grizzly bears, especially in national parks such as Banff which is part of one of the most developed landscapes where grizzly bears still survive. This legislative change was reflected in a re-written Parks Canada policy document that recognized the need for multi-agency approaches to parks management. Again, the grizzly bear with its wide-ranging movements across jurisdictional borders, became a focal species in trying to address multi-agency dimensions of parks management.

In 1992 the Federal government enacted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) which broadened the scope of traditional environmental assessment to consider the cumulative effects of developments at a landscape scale. The following year (1993) the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) was passed, which also included a provision for assessing the cumulative impacts of development proposals. The need to consider cumulative effects in evaluating development proposals has been highlighted in the review of several major project proposals for the Eastern Slopes of Alberta: first, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), now the Energy and Utilities Board (EUB), highlighted the need for cumulative effects assessment (CEA) in its review of AMOCO’s proposal to drill an exploratory well in the Whaleback region (ERCB, 1994) and second, the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) which was established to function similarly to the ERCB but with regard to large, proposed recreational developments, indicated the need for CEA in its review of the Three Sisters Resort Proposal and the Westcastle Resort Proposal (NRCB, 1993a; 1993b). In all these reviews grizzly bears, because of their regional movements and ecological relationships and because of their sensitivity to development, became a focal species for cumulative effects assessment.

The second major element in the origin of the ESGBP was new information regarding the status of grizzly bears in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and elsewhere in Alberta. In 1990 the province of Alberta released its grizzly bear management plan (Nagy and Gunson, 1990). This document clearly showed not only historic declines of grizzly bears in the province, but major over hunting, especially during 1980-1988. This launched the province into a limited entry system for managing hunting. It revealed how subject grizzly bear populations are to excessive mortality, not just from hunting but from all sources. This documented excessive mortality, combined with rapid expansion in resource harvesting activities in the province, was important in raising Alberta Fish and Wildlife’s concern for grizzly bears.

In the national parks, new information also clearly documented the need for interagency management of grizzly bears. Research had shown that grizzly bears in the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks moved freely and extensively across park borders and that mortality outside of park borders was a significant issue (Russell et al., 1979; Raine and Riddell, 1991). Herrero (1995) showed that Canadian National Park grizzly bear populations by themselves were probably all too small for a high probability of long-term persistence, and therefore integrated management with surrounding provincial or territorial lands would be required. Within the boundaries of Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks research by Gibeau (In press) showed that habitat effectiveness was significantly compromised by development. More recent research documents that grizzly bear populations in Banff Park have suffered exceptionally high mortality for a national park (Gibeau et al., 1996).

The third factor that led to formation of the ESGBP was growing awareness of the discipline of conservation biology. This is a discipline with the objective of using scientific information to help maintain biological diversity. Many of the principles of conservation biology focus on the design of systems of environmental reserves along ecological boundaries that most often cross jurisdictional divisions (Noss and Cooperrider, 1994). Within conservation biology large-bodied mammalian carnivores such as the grizzly bear are often used as indicator and umbrella species (see August 1996 issue of the journal Conservation Biology). The point here is that by maintaining the large carnivores we will also maintain a significant degree of regional ecological integrity.

The ESGBP was a product of the foregoing series of societal level influences plus many others that have not been mentioned. Like most projects this one responded to a need perceived by many different individuals and institutions, sometimes for different reasons. By joining in a cooperative endeavor and pooling resources a major project was launched.

Project Organization and Budget

The ESBGP is an informal association of participants organized into a steering committee whose objectives are to: 1) review and suggest strategic direction for research and encourage a research-based understanding of grizzly bear biology and ecology in selected portions of the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, 2) help focus research efforts on the cumulative effects of regional land use and mortality factors on grizzly bears, 3) provide a forum for various stakeholders to discuss land-use planning issues as they relate to grizzly bears, 4) help secure funding and other forms of agency support, 5) coordinate public outreach initiatives and 6) contribute to the conservation of grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the Eastern Slopes.

All steering committee participants contribute either money, time or both toward the objectives. The group meets about four times a year. It has a chair who was elected from a core organizing group. Membership currently consists of a selection of representatives from various groups that have either jurisdiction, resource harvest activities or potential or other interests regarding occupied grizzly bear habitat in the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Three primary societal sectors have overlapping, mutually supportive interests in the ESGBP (Figure 1). The principal participants are Parks Canada, the Province of Alberta (Energy and Utilities Board, Fish and Wildlife Division, Lands and Forest Service, and Kananaskis Country), the University of Calgary, conservation groups, the oil and gas industry, the forest products industry, the land development industry and the cattle industry. There are numerous minor supporters as well, but they do not have direct representation on the Steering Committee.

Figure 1 – The Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project Responds to Common Interests of Three Societal Elements

During meetings research findings and strategic directions are discussed along with budget needs to further the committees objectives. The group serves as a focal point for fundraising activities to support the Project. Significant development proposals and activities are discussed in light of their potential cumulative effects regarding grizzly bears and their habitat.

During the period of 1994-1996 the ESGBP has been successful in raising over $1,100,000 to support the research. Sources for this funding have been: Parks Canada (46%), oil and gas industry (34%), Alberta Government (11%), other research grants (4%), forest industry (3%), conservation groups (1%), and land development industry (Herrero and Herrero, 1996). Contributions to this project are tax deductible because they go to support independent research by the University of Calgary.

Project Area, Research Projects and Application

The core area for grizzly bear research is Alberta’s Bow River watershed (Figure 2). The Bow River Watershed defines the geographic region (11,400 km2) where grizzly bears have been trapped and fitted with radio-collars as part of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (Gibeau and Herrero, 1995; 1996). Approximately 25 grizzly bears per year have active radio-collars. These bears are monitored from air and ground wherever they go and as our budget permits, which has spanned an area of approximately 22,000 km2. Aerial monitoring gives infrequent, but relatively unbiased data regarding location. This facilitates understanding of home range, movements and habitat use. Ground-based research allows intensive monitoring of grizzly bear activities related to development features such as towns, highways, campgrounds and trails. Mortality is monitored using both aerial and ground-based telemetry, and by accessing and creating broader mortality data bases related to hunting and other human-induced mortality sources. The radio-telemetry monitoring area includes lands under several different jurisdictions (Figure 2). In the British Columbia portion of these lands, where some of our radio-collared grizzly bears are found, there is a Western Slopes Bear Research Project (Woods, pers. comm.) which provides complementary data and will allow a broader ecosystem versus provincial boundary-based understanding of grizzly bears in what has been called the Central Rockies Ecosystem (Komex International, 1995).

Figure 2 – Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project Area

In parallel with the research effort focusing on individual grizzly bears and their population there is a major effort focusing on grizzly bear habitat and its relationship to human developments and activities. In these projects Landsat-TM imagery is being used to develop a system of vegetation cover mapping that will operate across jurisdictional boundaries. Extensive field sampling of vegetation is being done to form the basis for regional habitat inventory, evaluation and mapping. This map-based inventory is being entered into a geographic information system (GIS) environment and will form the basis for cumulative effects assessments within the study area or in response to specific development proposals. There are three specific focuses within the habitat work: 1) to determine the sensitivity of the grizzly bear cumulative effects model to differences in habitat mapping methodology and scale, 2) to create guidelines to integrate our expanding knowledge of grizzly bear habitat relationships with forest management practices and 3) to specify the habitat needs of the adult female cohort of grizzly bears. Telemetry data are used to understand habitat relationships of radio-collared grizzly bears. The results of the research will be reported elsewhere.

Literature Cited

Carr, H.D. 1989. Distribution, numbers and mortality of grizzly bears in and around Kananaskis Country, Alberta. Fish and Wildl. Div. Wildl. Manage. Branch Wildl. Res. Series 3. 49pp.

ERCB. 1994. Decision report D 94-8, Application for an exploratory well, Amoco Canada Petroleum Company Ltd., Whaleback Ridge Area. Energy Resources Conservation Board, Edmonton.

Gibeau, M.L. In press. Grizzly bear habitat effectiveness model for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, Canada. Int. Conf. Bear Res. And Manage. 10: 000-000.

Gibeau, M. and S. Herrero. 1995. Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project: 1994 Progress Report. University of Calgary, Alberta. 26 pp.

Gibeau, M. and S. Herrero. 1996. Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project: 1995 Progress Report. University of Calgary, Alberta. 46pp.

Gibeau, M., S. Herrero, J. Kansas and B. Benn. 1996. Grizzly bear population and habitat status in Banff National Park: A report to the Banff Bow Valey Task Force. University of Calgary, Alberta. 62 pp.

Herrero, S. 1995. The Canadian National Parks and grizzly bear ecosystems: The need for interagency management. Int. Conf. Bear. Res. and Manage. 9:7-21.

Herrero, S. and J. Herrero. 1996. Cheviot Mine: A proposed carnivore compensation program. BIOS Environmental Research Ltd., Calgary, Alberta. 38 pp.

Komex International. 1995. Atlas of the Central Rockies Ecosystem. Komex Intl., Calgary, Alberta.

Mattson, D.J., S. Herrero, R.G. Wright and C.M. Pease. 1996. Science and management of Rocky Mountain grizzly bears. Consv. Biol. 10(4): 1013-1025.

Nagy, J.A. and J.R. Gunson. 1990. Management plan for grizzly bears in Alberta. Alberta Fish and Wildlife, Edmonton. 164 pp. plus appendices.

Noss, R. and Cooperrider. 1994. Saving natures legacy: Projecting and restoring biodiversity. Defenders of Wildlife and Island Press, Washington, D.C.

NRCB. 1993a. Decision report. Application to construct a recreational and tourist resort Project in the Town of Canmore, Alberta. Application 9103 – Three Sisters Golf Resorts Inc. Natural Resources Conservation Board. Edmonton, Alberta.

NRCB. 1993b. Decision report, Application #9201, Vacation Alberta corporation application to construct recreation and tourism facilities in the West Castle Valley, Near Pincher Creek, Alberta. Natural Resources Conservation Board, Edmonton, Alberta.

Raine, M. and R. Riddell. 1991. Grizzly bear research in Yoho and Kootenay National Parks. Canadian Parks Service Report, Calgary, Alberta.

Russell, R.H., J.W. Nolan, N.G. Woody, and G.H. Anderson. 1979. A study of the grizzly bear in Jasper National Park. Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta. 102 pp. plus 10 appendices.

Personal Communications

Woods, John. Research ecologist. Glacier/Revelstoke National Parks, Revelstoke, British Columbia.

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