Canadian province of Alberta lists its grizzly bears as threatened
Grizzly bears have been listed as threatened in the Canadian province of Alberta, and a ban on hunting has been extended by officials who say the animals are suffering from habitat loss and low reproductive success.
Although bears elsewhere in the Northern Rockies have been rebounding from near-extermination last century, fewer than 700 roam Alberta outside of Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Residential construction, logging and energy development have pushed deeper and deeper into the grizzly's wilderness refuges, breaking up the province's bear population into increasingly isolated small groups.
Thursday's announcement by Alberta's minister for sustainable resource development follows years of warnings that more protections were needed.
Conservationists welcomed the move, but said the government must follow through with regulations to ensure better protections for the bears. Even then it could take decades for the population to rebound.
"Everybody used to think that in the great wilds of Canada, there were lots of bears," said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is kind of a recognition that everybody can affect their bear population."
Hunting -- first suspended by Alberta in 2006 -- will remain outlawed until new population goals are met. Over the last several decades, more than 90% of bear deaths were attributable to humans, according to a 2010 report by Alberta's Fish and Wildlife Division.
Historically, the number of grizzlies in the province is estimated to have been in the thousands.
The Alberta government had twice rejected earlier recommendations from its Endangered Species Conservation Committee to list grizzlies as threatened.
There are about 16,000 grizzlies in neighboring British Columbia and 1,500 in the U.S., excluding Alaska. Several populations straddle the U.S.-Canada border, including about 1,000 bears in parts of northern Montana and southern Alberta that surround Glacier National Park.
"We share this province with grizzly bears and are committed to ensuring grizzly bears remain part of Alberta's landscape," said Mel Knight, the province's sustainable resource minister.
A spokesman for Knight's office said a population target had not yet been adopted. International conservation groups have said at least 1,000 bears are needed for the population to remain vibrant.
In the United States, grizzly bears are protected throughout the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the threatened listing for about 600 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. But that decision was overturned in U.S. District Court last September.
Peter Zimmerman of Calgary, who served on Alberta's grizzly recovery team before it was disbanded two years ago, said listing Alberta's bears as threatened does not in itself guarantee their survival.
He said the provincial government needs to be more aggressive in restricting vehicle access in back-country areas where bears live.
Reducing wilderness traffic in the U.S. by closing down many roads was regarded as a major factor in the rebound of bear populations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
In Alberta, the government has chosen instead to allow many roads to remain while attempting to limit access.
"It works when you have a security guard there, but once the guard is gone, they're cutting locks off gates or pulling them down or whatever," Zimmerman said. "The only thing we can see that's worked is to minimize the number of roads."
-- Matthew Brown, Associated Press
Photo: A large adult grizzly faces the camera in Denali National Park. Credit: Joel Sartore / National Geographic/Getty Images