Status of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP): May 1999

Herrero, S. and M. Gibeau. 1999. Status of the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP): May 1999. Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB.

Stephen Herrero, ESGBP Research Supervisor and Chair of Steering Committee Environmental Science Program, Faculty of Environmental Design


Michael Gibeau, Principal Researcher Committee on Resources and Environment University of Calgary

ESGBP website:

ABSTRACT: In and around Banff National Park (an area we call the Central Rockies Ecosystem—CRE) grizzly bears exist in one of the most developed landscapes in North America where they still survive. In the CRE there are about 1,000,000 people within a few hours drive of occupied grizzly bear habitat. The CRE is under great pressure for resource extraction, recreation, and resort and housing development. It is a critical link in the Yellowstone to Yukon landscape because here habitat available for large carnivores is relatively pinched. The Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project (ESGBP) began in 1994 in response to an urgent need for scientific understanding of the cumulative effects of development and human activities on grizzly bears in the 40,000 sq. km. CRE. This understanding is the primary goal of the project. Research is designed and executed by graduate students and staff at the University of Calgary, with considerable outside input. The ESGBP is guided by a steering committee made up of representatives from major CRE regional stakeholders. Included are the federal and provincial government, conservation and recreation groups, and commercial interests such as resource extraction industries, and land developers. While the ESGBP does not have jurisdiction or management authority related to grizzly bears or their habitat, because we have representation from major stakeholders, we have had considerable influence in this regard. Research priorities are to determine demographic and habitat parameters and to link these in a habitat and population viability model to identify landscape management conditions that will enhance grizzly bear (and other sensitive carnivore) persistence. We radio-monitor about 25 grizzly bears per year, focussing on adult females. We now have 70 bear years of reproductive data for adult females. Within 2-3 more years we will have 100 years, enough to calculate lambda, a scientific estimate of whether the population is increasing or decreasing. Our preliminary results suggest that for the Alberta portion of the CRE grizzly bears have low fecundity and hence little demographic resilience. Age of first reproduction is 6.8, inter-litter interval 4.0, and average litter size 1.9. The CRE grizzly bear population occurs at low densities (1/50-100 sq. km.). Home ranges are large, males average 1172, females 277. These demographic characteristics demand very conservative management of adult female mortality—no more than 1-2% per year. In analysing 627 human-caused grizzly bear mortalities we have found that 85% of 462 where location was known occurred within 500m of a road or facility, or 200 m of a trail. Access management is a key to mortality management in the CRE. We have also found that our landscape is naturally fragmented for grizzly bears by mountain ranges. This natural fragmentation is augmented by extensive human development in many major valley systems. A major research finding regarding habitat and population fragmentation is that after five years of research no adult females have been found to cross the Trans-Canada highway. Because of our research findings and our diverse stakeholder representation we have been successful in getting conservative mortality targets and better habitat security in significant portions of the CRE. We will continue our efforts in this regard. We believe the ESGBP has made a significant beginning toward scientifically understanding grizzly bear biology, and linking this to decision processes in our society.


Grizzly bears in the Central Rockies Ecosystem (CRE), the area in and nearby Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country, exist within a few hours drive of about 1,000,000 people. This is one of the most developed and used landscapes in North America where grizzly bears still survive. It is a critical link in the Yellowstone to Yukon landscape because here habitat available for large carnivores is relatively pinched.

Careful management based on sound science is required to stem habitat loss and population decline. In the CRE grizzly bears occur at low densities (1/50-100 sq. km). Home ranges are large. In the CRE we have found male home ranges average 1172 sq. km (99% Minimum Convex Polygon method); female home ranges average 277 sq. km. Females have few young in their lifetime, averaging about 0.5 cubs/year during their reproductive span (about 15 years). This combination of biological characteristics means that grizzly bears have little demographic resilience—the ability to maintain populations in the face of habitat loss and increased human-caused mortality.

For these reasons effects on grizzly bear habitat and populations have figured prominently in Alberta regulatory hearings on the cumulative effects of energy and recreational development proposals (Cheviot Coal Mine, West Castle Resort, Three Sisters Resort, and Whaleback Oil and Gas). The ESGBP began in 1994 in response to the need to provide scientifically sound, detailed information on the potential cumulative effects of different proposed developments and activities on grizzly bears in the CRE. The grizzlies’ low resilience makes them a sensitive indicator species of possible development effects on many terrestrial mammals.

Because of the large home ranges and linear movements of grizzly bears across jurisdictional boundaries the ESGBP focuses on a large region. The CRE is about 40,000 sq. km., mostly in Alberta and including the Bow River drainage, north to the Saskatchewan River, south to the Oldman River, east as far as grizzlies roam, and west to the Columbia Trench in British Columbia.


The ESBGP is a research, policy formation, and management project guided by 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.

Membership in the ESGBP 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 CRE. Three primary societal sectors have overlapping, mutually supportive interests in the ESGBP (Figure 1). The principal participants are Parks Canada, conservation groups, the Province of Alberta (Energy and Utilities Board, Fish and Wildlife Division, Lands and Forest Service, and Kananaskis Country), the University of Calgary, and various industries: oil and gas, transportation, forestry, land development, and cattle production. There are numerous minor supporters as well. All steering committee participants contribute either money, time or both toward the objectives. The group meets about four times a year. The unique structure of the ESGBP is itself an important conservation experiment.

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 committee’s 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.

Students and staff of the University of Calgary carry out research. Contributions to this project are tax deductible because they support independent research. There are six graduate student research projects embedded in the ESGBP. Stephen Herrero is the supervisor for each of them. Each project is designed in a hypothesis-testing context. See for example the recently completed thesis by Bryon Benn on grizzly bear mortality in the CRE. The broad objectives of ESGBP research are to contribute scientifically sound knowledge of grizzly bear habitat, vital rates (all biological parameters that affect population status and dynamics), grizzly bear response to development and human activities, and grizzly bear and ecosystem conservation (see Planned and Completed Activities for more detail).


As mentioned six graduate student research projects form most of the ESGBP research which is now beginning year 6. Mike Gibeau, Ph.D. candidate, has primary responsibility for our grizzly bear capture, radio-marking and monitoring program. The primary objectives of his research are to document grizzly bear response to development features and people’s activities. He also is collecting data on vital rates (age and sex specific survivorship, births, deaths, recruitment, interval between births, etc.) of approximately 25 adult grizzly bears per year. We have responsibility for analyzing population data. One of our primary objectives is to be able to estimate lambda, the intrinsic growth rate of the population. This will tell us, in a scientifically defensible manner, with confidence limits, whether the regional population is increasing or decreasing. To do this will require at least 100 reproductive years of data on adult female grizzly bears. To date we have data for about 70 reproductive years. Mike is also developing and testing a pseudo-habitat map based on Landsat TM “greenness” spectral bands.

Jenny Theberge, Ph.D. candidate, has collected detailed field data on the characteristics of habitat used by adult female grizzly bears. In addition to the data she has collected, she will be using all ESGBP data on adult females. Her objective is to define at several spatial scales the landscape characteristics that contribute to productive adult female grizzly bear home ranges. She will be identifying what environmental variables characterize areas where grizzly bear females successfully produce cubs.

Bryon Benn has just completed a Master’s thesis analyzing 25 years of grizzly bear mortality data (639 mortalities) in the CRE. His principle findings are very important: 1) mortality appears to have been sustainable on Alberta managed lands in our study area south of the Bow River, but not north, 2) access is a very strong predictor of the probability of grizzly bear mortality, 3) in Banff National Park for the past ten years mortality has been primarily to female grizzly bears—where it is least desirable from a population perspective. These findings need to be additionally analyzed and prepared for scientific publication.

John Kansas, Master’s candidate, has primary responsibility for representing our current understanding of grizzly bear habitat quality, quantity and distribution based on vegetation mapping at a variety of spatial scales. Several thousand full vegetation plots sampling the study area vegetation form the basis for interpreting and classifying various remote sensing data and other map products.

Karen Oldershaw, Master’s candidate, has been working in the Etherington/Cataract, and Smith Dorrien areas of Kananaskis Country, analyzing the relationship between different forest harvest practices and the provision of cover for grizzly bears at different periods post harvest.

Cedar Mueller, Master’s candidate, is focusing her research on the sub-adult cohort of grizzly bears and is working to identify landscape conditions that are correlated with acceptable human-caused mortality.

All graduate students currently have either approved research proposals or they have graduated (Bryon Benn).

A major research initiative of Stephen Herrero is to use all of our data on population vital rates and habitat to construct an integrated Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA). Here we especially want to link fecundity and mortality risk with landscape conditions. Toward this end, in January 1999, we held a major workshop bringing together leaders in this field. Our existing data were scrutinized and analyzed by independent experts. With their help we are defining the models that will best allow us to link habitat and population conditions with socioeconomic data, to analyze the sustainability of our grizzly bear population, and to identify and hopefully help to manage significant threats. A major, but preliminary, assessment of PHVA will be one of our objectives for year 6 of our research.

Another significant planned activity is to continue and strengthen ESGBP linkages with conservation and recreation groups, governments, business and industry, and the public. We will maintain the steering committee with its stakeholder representation. To understand, and if necessary, manage the effects of proposed or approved development, we will continue to provide data, analysis and comment for various planning processes such as the recreational plan for Kananaskis Country. We will monitor impacts and the success or failure of mitigation and advise on improvement. We will also support outreach initiatives such as major improvement to our website (, speaking engagements, open houses, etc.


  • Based on a telemetry data set of 7380 locations, and a “capture/recapture hair-snagging study,” grizzly bears in the CRE occur at low population densities (1/; they have large home ranges (males average 1172 sq. km., females 277- –based on 99% minimum convex polygon method). Note these findings are preliminary.
  • Estimates of reproductive parameters based on 5 years of data show low productivity, probably based on the biological limitations of the remaining habitat: age of first reproduction 6.8, inter-litter interval 4.0, average litter size 1.9.
  • Grizzly bear mortality in the CRE 1971-1996 was 639 known deaths. 627 of these were human-caused. Grizzly bears spend significant time each year in lower elevation valley systems. These are where trails and roads are usually located. 85% of 462 human-caused grizzly bear deaths with known locations occurred within 500m of a road or development, or within 200 m of a trail.
  • The foregoing points suggest the population has little demographic resilience. Therefore human-caused mortality in the adult female cohort must be kept at about 1-2% of the population, or possibly fecundity could be increased.
  • Access management, conservative-hunting takes (where hunting is permitted), and garbage management continue to be keys to mortality management and grizzly bear conservation.
  • Most of the CRE is mountainous. Grizzly bear habitat is patchy and exists primarily in valley bottoms and mountain slopes up to 2500m. These characteristics have produced a naturally fragmented landscape. Human activities are also concentrated in valley bottoms. This adds further to grizzly bear habitat and population fragmentation.
  • One concrete measure of habitat fragmentation is habitat security. We applied a minimum daily foraging area estimate of 9.0 sq. km. to define the minimum area needed to meet an adult female’s daily needs. Female bears residing within Banff National Park averaged only 60% security within their home ranges. This was well below targets of 68% developed for Bear Management Units in western Montana.
  • Another indication of habitat and population fragmentation is that after 5 years of intensive study of about 15 adult female grizzly bears each year, none have been documented to have crossed any 4 lane portion of the Trans-Canada Highway. Males occasionally cross. We are investigating genetic implications. We continue to monitor grizzly bears to see if various under and overpasses are working for this species.
  • By placing the research under the guidance of an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder group representing most stakeholder sectors in the CRE, we have created a relatively open forum linking grizzly bear needs with the needs and wants of human society.
  • 1519 detailed vegetation plots have been completed as a basis for developing and truthing grizzly bear habitat maps. Several thousand more are available from Parks Canada. We are using Landsat TM to give a common map base across jurisdictional boundaries. A pseudo-habitat map based on “greenness” is near completion. Our next step is to develop a 15-20 class habitat map based on our vegetation information and TM imagery. These habitat maps will be invaluable in understanding the relationships between habitat use, as indicated by radio-telemetry, and habitat quality, security, effectiveness, and other landscape parameters.


Because the ESGBP represents a unique partnership between diverse stakeholders, including those having management jurisdiction for grizzly bears, we have had significant success in seeing the implications of our most important preliminary research findings translated into policy and management actions. This process will continue if we are supported.

Significantly in response to our major report on the population and habitat status of grizzly bears done for the Banff-Bow Valley Study Task Force, the following specific objectives were put into the 1997 Banff National Park Management Plan:

  • “Restoring habitat, mitigating the impact of human activities and facilities, and reducing human-caused mortality will contribute to the on-going viability of sensitive species such as grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine and cougar (Parks Canada 1997: p.10).”
  • “To maintain and restore secure habitat in the park and on surrounding lands for carnivores that are not habituated to humans (Parks Canada 1997: p.21).”
  • “To reduce the number of grizzly bears killed as a result of human activity to less than 1% of the population annually (Parks Canada 1997: p.21).” (My comment…this means that on average less than one grizzly bear will be killed/removed from the entire park population each year.)
  • “Adopt a human use management program that will restore secure habitat for carnivores and ensure the maintenance of viable populations of wary species such as grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine and cougar (Parks Canada 1997: p. 22).”
  • “(Habitat effectiveness) targets have been established for each CMU (Carnivore Management Unit) based on the potential for improved habitat effectiveness and visitor experience considerations…(Parks Canada 1997: p.42).”
  • “Human use management will be based on the desired effectiveness of each Carnivore Management Unit (CMU)…Recommendations for human use management will be based on research (Parks Canada 1997: p.43).”
  • “The precautionary principle will apply when the potential consequences are uncertain (Parks Canada 1997: p.43).”
  • “A special focus on securing effective habitat for grizzly bears, wolves and lynx -key indicator species- will serve to benefit about 98% of the other terrestrial wildlife and the park as well (Parks Canada 1997: p. 82).”

The foregoing policy direction is clear and reasonably quantitative. It has already significantly improved management of grizzly bear mortality and habitat.

We prepared a similar major report on the population and habitat status of grizzly bears in Kananaskis Country and submitted this as part of the recreational planning process for Kananaskis Country. Our findings related to habitat fragmentation provided strong support for the decision to not allow more large scale development (except possibly during the next year).

To help mitigate the effects of two major resource extraction projects in the CRE we shared our data with developers and the public. This resulted in the Husky/Rigel Moose Mountain oil and gas development, and the Spray Lakes Sawmills McLean Creek project, being more grizzly bear friendly than they would have been without our data.

Our multi-jurisdictional, multi-stakeholder project organization has served as a model influencing ongoing organization of grizzly bear research and management in various portions of the Y2Y area such as the Yellowhead region of Alberta, the Muskwa-Kechika region of north eastern BC, and the Kluane National Park region of the Yukon.


The ESGBP has made a significant contribution toward maintaining grizzly bears throughout the CRE. This is one of the most developed, and heavily used landscapes in North America where grizzly bears still survive. As a result of our research findings, and our cooperative relationship with stakeholders, grizzly bear mortality has been reduced and some important habitat is becoming more secure. The landscape conditions that will support grizzly bears will also support most other sensitive species of carnivores.

We have identified a major habitat/population fragmentation for adult female grizzly bears caused by them not crossing the 4-laned Trans-Canada Highway. The maternal genome is unique. The population consequences are not clear at this time. We will continue to study this and to monitor the effects of various mitigation measures.

Our multi-stakeholder, multi-jurisdictional Steering Committee has created significant opportunity to have the implications of our research results incorporated into policy and management actions. We have made our research findings readily available to the public through our website, papers, reports, public events, and television documentaries.


We of the ESGBP have worked hard to get the project to where we are. We are poised to take full advantage of the research base, knowledge, and partner relationships we have built during the first five years. This is Alberta’s only long term study of grizzly bears. Certain questions require multiple years to get scientifically sound answers, and to prepare data for scientific scrutiny. It will take us 7 or 8 years before we have 100 reproductive years of data on adult females. With this amount of data we can use the statistical technique of bootstrapping to calculate the intrinsic growth rate (lambda) of the population as previously described. This will answer the important question of whether the population has been increasing or decreasing, and at what rate, during our study. The intrinsic growth rate is more important to know for management because it is more statistically robust than are point population estimates for grizzly bears. We will also provide detailed data on other population parameters to assist wildlife managers in settling total man-caused mortality targets.

As important as the data we collect are the relationships we have built. These are with federal and provincial government, business and industry, and recreation and conservation groups. We regard the Steering Committee for the ESGBP to be a model forum for the exchange of information and ideas regarding grizzly bear ecology and management in an industrializing and recreationally used landscape. We stand poised to enter into adaptive management scenarios for various human uses, and to be able to predict and hopefully manage cumulative effects.

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