Can Canada Help the U.S. Recover Its Border Grizzly Bear Populations?

In the spring of 2010, a grizzly sow and her two cubs headed north from Glacier National Park into Alberta. They likely followed the winding length of the Belly River as it meanders its way from Glacier National Park’s Helen Lake, across the US-Canada border, and into the Kainai First Nations Reserve. But well before then they must have headed east, for by June they were seen in the vicinity of Mountain View, a small hamlet of less than 100 people northeast of Waterton Lakes National Park. By all accounts, the sow was a good mother, keeping herself and her cubs out of trouble — they even became celebrities of sorts in the area.

Soon, tragedy struck: a resident noticed the sow limping across a field and reported it to wildlife officials. But the sow had disappeared, and the cubs were seen ambling about on their own, looking for food in and around farms and ranches. Which is to say, getting into trouble.

When the cubs were seen frequenting a shelter normally used by cows, wildlife managers were called to investigate. They found their mother lying in the dirt, badly injured from a gunshot wound. She was quickly dispatched, and the cubs were relocated north of Crowsnest Pass and Highway Three, cutoff from their original home in and around Glacier National Park and the protections afforded them by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

This tragic story speaks to the international nature of grizzly bear management in much of the lower-48 states. While the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem may be an island habitat where the grizzly population is surrounded by a sea of human development (see this map), all the other inhabited recovery areas are connected to grizzly bears in Canada (the Grizzly Nation). So how Canadians treat their grizzly bears has a significant impact on the threatened grizzly bear populations in the Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and North Cascades ecosystems, the very populations the US Fish and Wildlife Service has worked to recover since they were listed in 1975.

Not the Nature Nation You Think It Is

Americans who care about such things should have no illusions about the role Canada is playing in trans-boundary grizzly bear recovery. Although the British Columbia government’s decision to ban the trophy hunting of grizzly bears in December 2017 has made the world a less dangerous place for some grizzly bears, recovery efforts to secure the future of threatened population units in Alberta and British Columbia (BC) have lagged far behind what has been accomplished in the US over the last 25 years.

Whether or not to delist grizzly bear populations in the U.S. is a controversial issue, but there is little doubt that two of them have increased over the decades since they were listed. The Yellowstone grizzly bear population has doubled in size and has been delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). But six lawsuits have been filed that represent more than 13 conservation groups, as well as 12 tribes and traditional Native spiritual groups for various reasons, including climate change and invasive species that are harming key native foods, slow reproductive rates that cannot sustain a grizzly bear hunt or escalating mortality, isolation of Yellowstone grizzlies and violation of Indian spiritual rights as a result of killing what Natives see as their personal relatives.

Meanwhile, the Department of Interior has just announced that it will attempt to remove the NCDE population of grizzly bears from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife, perhaps this fall. The population has increased by about one-third over the last three decades, and the USFWS figures that’s good enough to remove ESA protections. While there is considerable concern that delisting efforts may be premature (LINK), it is clear that the implementation of strong recovery plans over the last two-and-a-half decades — much of it the result of citizen-initiated litigation — has successfully reduced human-caused grizzly bear mortality and improved the security of habitat for these two populations.

The same cannot be said for Canada. Over this same period, no meaningful recovery efforts have been undertaken in either BC or Alberta to improve the lot of a single one of the 17 threatened grizzly bear population units in Canada. Worse, two population units have become functionally extinct during this time. This is likely of particular concern to Americans who care about all four of the remaining grizzly bear populations, especially the three tiny grizzly bear populations that continue to eke out a tenuous existence in recovery zones that span the US-Canada border. These include the Cabinet-Yaak (LINK) and Selkirk (LINK) ecosystems, where small populations of approximately 40 individuals hang on in small recovery areas plagued by fragmented habitat, insufficient secure core habitat, and excessive human-caused mortality; and, further west, the North Cascades Ecosystem (LINK), where only an estimated six grizzlies occupy 10,000 square miles of prime habitat capable of supporting hundreds of these great bears. All of these populations, as well as the NCDE, require Canadians and Americans to work collaboratively to ensure their long-term health.

But Canadians have not been holding up their end of the bargain.

It’s not that Canadians don’t care about their grizzlies. Several environmental groups work to protect them and their habitat, and poll after poll indicates that Canadians overwhelming value the presence of grizzly bears, want to see them protected, and believe they shouldn’t be hunted. And an independent scientific organization, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), has been keeping a watchful eye on them over the decades, with a mix of cautious optimism and increasing concern.

Six years ago, COSEWIC assessed the status of Canada’s grizzly bear population for the fourth time in 33 years. The committee, an independent advisory panel to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada that assesses the status of wildlife species at risk of extinction, determined that the “western population” (i.e. all extant grizzly bears in Canada) constituted a single population, which was designated as “Special Concern”. Like grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, grizzly bear range in Canada has contracted significantly since the mid-1800s, largely a result of wanton killing and rampant habitat degradation as a consequence of agriculture, timber harvesting, and mining and oil and gas development. COSEWIC estimates that approximately 26,600 grizzly bear now occupy about 50 percent of the species’ former range. However, estimates of population size and trends, particularly in the far north, are based mostly on “expert opinion or extrapolations of estimates from small study areas to larger geographic areas,” and are therefore considered “uncertain.” More than half of Canada’s grizzlies reside in BC, where the population is estimated to be 15,000, though there is no scientifically rigorous research available to confirm this number. Fewer than 1,000 remain in the western part of Alberta, and an additional 12,000 or so grizzlies exist in the Canadian North.

Although COSEWIC has concluded that Canada’s overall grizzly bear population is relatively large and stable, numerous subpopulations in southwestern Canada are at increasing risk of decline and disappearance. In its 2002 assessment of Canada’s grizzly bear population, COSEWIC included a warning of sorts about the future of grizzly bears in southern Canada. “Bears living in portions of the southern fringe of Canadian distribution are far from secure from the consequences of burgeoning human populations and activities…. Preventing the slow northward migration of this line depends on active steps to conserve these insular and peninsular populations.” Ten years later, COSEWIC’s 2012 re-assessment of the status of grizzly bears in Canada reiterated this concern. “A number of populations in the southern extent of its range in Alberta and southern B.C. are known to be declining,” and “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.”

Of particular concern to both countries’ grizzlies are the nearly extinct populations in northwest Montana’s Cabinet Yaak, north Idaho’s Selkirks, which are linked to the tiny Purcell population in BC, and the North Cascades, where just a handful of bears eke out an existence on both sides of the border. (More on these below.) If more is not done to recover these there populations, they are likely to wink out.

Little has been done to heed these warnings. Unlike the United States, Canada’s federal government plays very little role in the management or recovery of threatened and endangered wildlife, including grizzly bear populations (except in national parks, which constitute a small percentage of grizzly bear habitat). Instead, Canadian provinces are wholly responsible for managing wildlife populations and the habitat on which they depend. Although the federal Species at Risk Act includes provisions that allow the federal government to protect habitat for threatened and endangered species, they are rarely used, even under the most dire circumstances.

In practice this has occurred only once, to protect endangered sage grouse from the continuing impact of grazing. This leaves the health of Canada’s grizzly bear population entirely to the whims of the provinces and territories, who have done little to protect grizzly bears and the habitat on which they depend.

From: Resource Roads and Grizzly Bears in British Columbia and Alberta (July 2018)

Alberta’s lackluster recovery efforts

It took Alberta decades to recognize it had a grizzly bear problem, but after years of delay and debate, the Alberta government finally suspended the grizzly bear hunt, in 2006, and developed a recovery plan, in 2008. Two years later, the provincial population was listed as a “threatened” species. The population estimate at the time was approximately 700 grizzly bears, occupying about 91,000 square kilometers in western Alberta. Major east-west transportation corridors had carved the Alberta population into seven “population units”, only one of which has more than 100 individuals.  Populations of less than 100 individuals are at a high risk of decline and, eventually, disappearance.

Population Unit Six (aka BMA 6) is the one that is contiguous with the NCDE population in northwest Montana, as well as with grizzly bears in southeast British Columbia. Bounded by Highway Three to the north, which is virtually impermeable to grizzly bear movement, it is the smallest of the units in Alberta and boasts approximately 67 bears, though human-caused mortality and translocation rates are high.

By American standards, the protections afforded Alberta’s threatened grizzly bears are laughable. Alberta has no stand-alone endangered species act, so species at risk are listed under the Wildlife Act, which only precludes killing individual animals or destroying den sites. Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery plan, which has not been renewed since it expired in 2013, commits to “maintain, at a minimum, current provincial distribution and occupancy levels.” This means that the recovery goal is to maintain the provincial population at the same level it was when it was listed. Like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, the main strategy for achieving recovery was to minimize human-caused grizzly bear mortalities, partly through limiting road densities and providing sufficient secure grizzly bear habitat.

However, no meaningful efforts have been made to actually reduce road densities on the ground. Indeed, the last summary of “management activities and recovery implementation”, published in 2013, five years after the recovery plan was adopted, stated that “the department is continuing to review strategies for managing motorized access.” Decades of intensive forestry and oil and gas activity means grizzly bears in Alberta must contend with some of the highest road densities anywhere grizzly bears still persist. Predictably, mortality rates are still high. Over the last 10 years, 244 grizzlies died in Alberta, 207 of them at the hands of humans, roughly 25 percent of the population. Indeed, it’s something of a miracle there are any grizzly bears left in Alberta outside of national parks and wilderness areas.

In southwest Alberta, human-caused mortalities are particularly high. According to the draft version of the new recovery plan, 32 grizzly bear died in and/or were moved out of southwest Alberta (BMA 6) between 2008 and 2013, which makes the known mortality rate eight percent and the total mortality rate as high as 12 percent. Alberta’s BMA 6 has the highest total and female mortality rate in the province. Most mortalities are associated with human-bear conflicts; poaching is also a problem.

New (2016) research indicates that the grizzly bear population in BMA 6 may be increasing at a rate of three percent annually, but the confidence interval overlaps with the previous population estimate, making it difficult to say for sure. It is difficult to understand how a population with such high mortality and translocation rates can be increasing. The most likely explanation is the population in southwest Alberta is being bolstered by immigrating bears from the NCDE population in Montana, which could mean BMA 6 is an attractive mortality sink where some of Montana’s grizzlies go to die.

British Columbia’s Failing Grades

The situation isn’t any better in southern British Columbia. The population of approximately 15,000 grizzly bears is “blue-listed” in BC, which is to say it is “designated” as vulnerable, while nine of 56 population units have been “classified” as threatened for decades. However, BC, like Alberta, doesn’t have endangered species legislation, so these designations and classifications afford grizzly bear populations, threatened or not, no meaningful protections — with predictable results.

Like Alberta’s recovery strategy, the primary goal of British Columbia’s Grizzly Bear Strategy (GBS) is to “maintain the diversity and abundance of grizzly bear populations and ecosystems throughout British Columbia.” And, like the Alberta recovery plan, very little of the GBS has been implemented since it was developed and adopted 23 years ago. Although it was maintained as the overarching policy guiding grizzly bear management in the province when the BC Liberals became the majority government in 2001, and although the Liberals publicly reaffirmed the government’s commitment to implementing the GBS with the help of a grizzly bear management plan and other actions, it has largely been ignored.

A recent report from the David Suzuki Foundation concludes that “the government’s goal of ‘maintaining the abundance and diversity of grizzly bears’ is failing.” Although BC still boasts approximately 15,000 grizzly bears, scientific research indicates that abundance and diversity (including genetic diversity) appears to have declined since 1995. Better population estimates indicate that several populations units may have shrunk, and there is direct evidence that some population units in southern BC have declined. While grizzly bear recovery efforts have been successful in some parts of the United States, not a single recovery plan has been implemented for any of BC’s nine threatened population units, two of which (Garibaldi-Pitt and North Cascades) have been found to be functionally extinct.

In October, 2017, the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia released its own damning critique of the state of grizzly bear management in BC. “Grizzly bear populations in some areas of BC are increasing,” said Auditor General Carol Bellringer, “but this is likely happening independently from an adequate management framework.” Bellringer and her team found that the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) haven’t fulfilled many of their commitments, including developing a grizzly bear management plan, securing key grizzly bear habitats, and implementing a recovery plan in the North Cascades and an adequate inventory and monitoring strategy for grizzly bears all over the province.

Threatened Grizzlies Along the US/Canada border

For Americans, however, it is the threatened populations along the US-BC border that are of the greatest concern. While the NCDE is very likely a source area for the grizzly bear population in southern Alberta, the BC population units adjacent to the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and North Cascade recovery areas are at least as degraded and at risk as their highly threatened American counterparts — and in some cases much worse.

Cabinet Yaak Grizzlies

The Cabinet-Yaak recovery area actually includes two distinct grizzly bear populations: approximately 24 bears isolated in the Cabinet Mountains, and approximately 48 bears in the Yaak (spelled “Yahk” in Canada) population that inhabits about 6,500 square kilometers straddling the US-Canada border. Approximately 20-25 bears live on the Canadian side and between 15 and 25 survive in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley. Although this small grizzly bear population seems to have stabilized after years of decline, it is isolated from the Cabinet population to the south, and only sees the occasional male immigrant from the larger Purcell population to the north. Two females immigrated into the Yaak/Yahk population over the last 25 years, but both were killed before they could reproduce. Reproductive rates in the Yaak/Yahk subpopulation (and the Cabinet subpopulation just to the south) are low relative to other populations in North America, which suggests that the Yahk population may not be able to sustain mortality rates near the high end of what otherwise is the acceptable range for grizzly bears in the region. Poaching and mistaken identity by black bear hunters are the leading causes of mortality, which indicates that people in the border regions may be more lethal than in other areas that support grizzlies. Both the Cabinet and Yaak/Yahk populations are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

In the US portion of the recovery area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners have significantly reduced the backcountry road network over the last ten years or so. Decreasing road densities have resulted in approximately 55 per cent secure core habitat, which is still much lower than either the NCDE or the GYE. In contrast, the Canadian Yahk’s current level of secure core habitat is just 16 per cent. According to Michael Proctor, “Success will likely depend on similar access management strategies being implemented in the Canadian part of this ecosystem.”

Selkirk’s Grizzlies

West of the Cabinet-Yaak, the South Selkirk Mountains population is one of the most genetically isolated grizzly bear population units in North America. (LINK) Located southeast of Nelson, BC, and northwest of Sandpoint, ID, this 6,800 square kilometer recovery area contains approximately 53 mature breeding individuals, and the population may be increasing slightly. What is concerning is that 66 percent (14 of 21) of all known grizzly bear mortalities between 2004 and 2016 in the South Selkirk population occurred in BC, including eight of the last 10. This is no accident as the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak boast the weakest roads standards of any population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states. With a very conservative human population, poachers find easy access on public land roads to kill bears, which is one of the highest causes of grizzly bear deaths.  The significant amount of mortality on the Canadian side of the border should surprise no one, given the fact the BC government has not developed a recovery plan, and has done little to enforce meaningful road density thresholds, habitat standards, or mortality limits. The fact the USFWS struggles to achieve its demographic recovery targets is in part because the BC government has done little to reduce road densities and grizzly bear mortality on its side of the border. Although it is eligible for endangered status, this population is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

According to Michael Proctor, the long-term persistence of the Yaak-Yahk and Selkirk populations depends on connecting them to larger populations in BC.  Recovery “likely depends on connectivity to the adjacent larger Central Purcell Mountains immediately to the north and northeast. To allow fragmentation of the larger Purcell Central/Selkirk-Central subpopulation could inhibit the long-term sustainability of bears across the region.” Proctor and others are working on increasing connectivity between the Central Purcell population unit and the Selkirk and Yaak/Yahk population units.

North Cascades Grizzlies

Although Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke  recommitted to recovering grizzly bears in the North Cascade Ecosystem (LINK), the Republican-controlled Congress recently defunded these efforts. This grizzly bear population unit also spans the US-Canada border. Unlike the relatively small recovery areas in the US associated with the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk populations, the North Cascades Ecosystem in northwest Washington State is large enough, at 24,773 square kilometers, to support a self-sustaining population of hundreds of grizzly bears. And the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Population Unit across the border in BC provides an additional 9,800 square kilometers of grizzly bear habitat capable of supporting an additional 300 grizzly bears. This means the transboundary North Cascades Ecosystem could support 700 grizzly bears or more.

At the moment, though, there are few if any grizzly bears in the North Cascades on either side of the border. A few sightings, including one in BC in mid-October 2015, and some DNA evidence indicates there may be as many as six grizzlies in the entire area, but the lack of breeding females suggests the population is functionally extinct, and would require grizzly bears to be relocated to the NCE from elsewhere to begin the recovery process. This population is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

What is unique about the North Cascades is that unlike the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk populations, both BC and US agencies have developed grizzly bear recovery plans for this region. The USFWS included the North Cascades Ecosystem in its 1975 recovery plan, and recently released a Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement for the North Cascades Ecosystem. Pending a review of public input, a “preferred alternative” will be chosen to guide the way forward to “restore a self-sustaining population of 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears into the NCE.”

The BC government finalized a recovery plan for the North Cascade grizzly population on June 1, 2004, with the goal of recovering the population on the Canadian side to 150 animals. Like the US recovery plan, the BC plan concluded that augmentation would be necessary to reach this goal. Minimizing and, where possible, avoiding the net loss of core area and the net increase the proportion of high open-road density were key aspects of achieving recovery.

Unfortunately, like the Alberta recovery plan, the BC North Cascades recovery plan was never implemented, and the consequences have been severe. A recent cumulative effects assessment of the Merritt Timber Supply Area (TSA), one of three planning areas overlapping the North Cascades recovery area, found that additional road development over the last 10 years has increased “open access” and “negatively affected [grizzly bear] habitat and populations.” Ultimately, ongoing development in the Merritt TSA over the intervening years has rendered “the current landscape condition … unable to support a viable grizzly bear population.” The analysis also concluded that future conditions are not expected to improve, and that “additional road networks may be expanded or improved to provide access to mid-term timber supply.” It is possible, if not likely, that conditions have worsened in the other timber planning areas as well, which means any recovery efforts in BC will require intensive habitat restoration.

Although grizzly bear recovery in the Lower 48 states has been controversial, there is no doubt that it has been relatively successful in some ecosystems. At this time, the Canadian portions of the transboundary NCDE, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and North Cascades recovery areas tend to be much less effective at maintaining the conditions—low road densities, reduced motor vehicle access, and adequate secure habitat—that reduce human-caused mortality and facilitate grizzly bear recovery. In some cases, notably Alberta’s BMA 6, north of the NCDE, and the BC portion of the Selkirk recovery area, Canadian habitat is likely a mortality sink that is curtailing US recovery efforts. This may also be the case if and when grizzly bears are recovered in the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington State.

There may be reason to believe that things will get better for threatened grizzly bear population on the Canadian side of the border, at least in British Columbia. Soon after the auditor general condemned the province’s grizzly bear management over the past two decades, the NDP-Green Party government announced it would develop a provincial grizzly bear management plan with clear objectives, roles, responsibilities and accountabilities, as well as “a formal process to prioritize specific populations for enhancement activities will be developed.” The NDP-Green Party government also has begun a public process to develop a species-at-risk legislation for the province of B.C. Of course, BC governments have made these promises before, and the NDP-Green Party coalition will need to win another election or two to implement their more progressive policies. Only time will tell whether they can persevere on behalf of B.C.’s grizzly bears.

Jeff Gailus is an environmental journalist from Calgary, Alberta, who now lives in Missoula. He is an adjunct professor in the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Environmental Science and Resource Management Graduate Program.