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The Fate of Alberta’s Grizzly Bears

by BRIAN L. HOREJSI

If it looks like a pig, walks like a pig, and smells like a pig, chances are it is a pig. I don’t aim to disparage the real four legged critter, which happens to be a pretty cool animal, but I cannot say the same for the political versions.

One of the latter smacked Albertans in the face earlier this month. At issue is the statement by the Alberta government and Mel Knight, Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, that he, and government, will list Albertas grizzly bear populations, presumably within the provincial Wildlife Act, as “threatened”.  That’s the equivalent of Idaho saying they’ll list grizzly bears as threatened under their game act.

The biological reality, systematically ignored by Alberta and a long list of indifferent and uncommitted Ministers much like Knight, is that grizzly bears have been threatened by industrialization and traditionally defined economic growth (consumption) for over half a century. Today several geographic populations, including those in southern Alberta, are even worse off; at less than 50 animals they’re endangered. That happens to be the demographic and conservation reality for any “group” of bears that numbers 500 bears or less. Genetically, the cutoff is closer to 2000 bears!

The environmental crimes that led to this sorry state are entrenched land use practices, attitudes of entitlement, and a cesspool of special interest politics  which have very effectively excluded the wisdom of science and citizen democracy.

Alberta governments – the same one has ruled the province for almost 40 years – repeatedly engineer massive budget cuts to public lands and wildlife management and conservation. Albertas budget has risen over 50%, to over 32 billion dollars, in just a decade, but today the budget for public land and grizzly bear “conservation” – I use the word more in hope than praise – is less than one third of one percent of what the province spends. On a real and per capita basis it is down from two decades ago; in the latter case down well over 50%! In this province, wildlife conservation / management gets one penny for every $300 spent! Only a fool would dare refer to this as a “balanced approach”.

Minister Knight, after a life time working for the oil and gas industry in the private sector and serving them more recently as Energy Minister, essentially heaped ridicule on Albertans by saying they’d have to cough up their own money if they want grizzly bear conservation programs; This, he claimed, would match the $150,000 the province spends annually! This government spends that on a luxury autos for Knight and two of his fellow cabinet ministers!

Its been calculated that, given progressive land and wildlife management, each grizzly bear is worth a half a million dollars to a local economy.  I saw that recently in Yellowstone where hundreds of people sat for hours, day after day, just to watch, talk about and marvel at grizzly bears. This should clear up for Albertans exactly what Knights priorities are!

Early in June Knight and his buddies in cabinet “tweaked” oil and gas royalty payments – the money that citizens believe normally flows from the industry to the taxpayer – downward to the tune of at least $2 billion annually. And in a show of further contempt for Albertans,  just last week cabinet announced that a competitiveness review would hand another $700 million dollars back to the ever whining oil and gas industry; only days later McKnight and the Energy Ministers from the other two western provinces held a schmooze fest with the oil and gas industry and announced they  were going to “do something” about those pesky environmental regulations! Barely a year ago – before the most recent capitulation to the oil and gas industry – I calculated that Albertans were being short changed at least $7 million dollars a day by give-aways to the oil and gas industry. And incredibly, we’re told this government and Knight cant find money for a grizzly bear recovery and conservation program!

Barely three weeks ago, another anti environment stalwart in the Alberta government, Minister of Parks and Recreation Cindy Ady, declared the province will have to privatize the “management” of public land campgrounds – poor taxpayers got no money to do it! Figure this scenario into the grizzly bear conservation mix – a private contractor, with a written contract in hand, is faced with a closure because, lets say, a female grizzly bear with cubs in frequenting the area. You can just see it, right; tax payers compensating the private manager for lost business, or grizzly bears suffering the ultimate insult – death or relocation because anything less would be “taking” from a private operator!

No money for conservation? In the past 30 days Albertas government, along with Federal help, handed at least $114 million  to the livestock industry to keep bloated numbers of livestock on the land, many of them dependent seasonally on public land, where grizzly bears often suffer the brunt of measures to protect livestock. We don’t know the exact numbers – its not simple to extract information from this government – but over 40% of the grizzly bears reported killed in Alberta in the last 10 years are in the self defense, unknown, and problem categories, and many of these are related to livestock conflicts. An even greater percent of “problem” bear relocations are related to intolerance by livestock / farm operators.

Hypocrisy in wildlife conservation is not new – there is a fundamental irreconcilable conflict between protecting the natural world and forcing an ever more destructive growth-at-all-costs economic strategy, and Albertas government is most certainly no exception to the rule. This is the great state of “Made in Alberta solutions”, known widely in business and corporate circles as “the Alberta Advantage”. We are served made in Alberta science and consequently global climate disruption does not exist. Instead, industrial expansion, not just of tar sands oil production, but of conventional oil and gas consumption, is lavishly subsidized by the taxpayer. At nine (9) hectares per person, the consumption footprint of Albertans is matched only by the people of Dubai. The inescapable reality is that fueling this appetite takes security and habitat away from all wild living things, not the least of which are grizzly bears. At one million people each, Albertas major cities, Calgary and Edmonton, each have a footprint like an obese but still very hungry monster eating the biological capacity out of 20 million hectares; These cities occupy less than one half of one percent of Albertas land base but are vacuuming up resources from land that would occupy 30% of the entire province. I don’t think Mel Knight or his cabinet colleagues have the integrity to put that in their pipe, along with his threatened grizzly bear promise-to-designate, and smoke it, but dealing aggressively with exploding human and industrial consumption and expansion is what it will take to keep grizzly bears from going extinct.

The list of economic, regulatory and industrial actions engaged in by Mel Knight and Albertas conservative government expose their insincerity and severely cripple their capacity and commitment to act aggressively on the recent promise to declare threatened status for the grizzly bear. I’m afraid this promise looks an awful lot like just another political pig; there are those who are and will try to put lipstick on it, but this pig has no legs and looks to be a real stinker.

Dr. Brian Horejsi is a widlife scientist. He can be reached at: b2horejsi@shaw.ca.

 

 

 

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