B.C.'s Elk Valley deadliest spot for grizzlies in North America, study finds

Of 14 bears wearing radio tracking collars when they died, at least 12 had been hit by a vehicle or train or been in conflict with humans

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British Columbia’s Elk Valley has the highest mortality rate for young grizzly bears in North America, according to a study recently published in Conservation Science and Practice.

The valley represents less than one per cent of the bear’s range in the province but accounts for 33 per cent of B.C.’s reported road deaths and 42 per cent of the railway deaths.

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Researchers tracked 76 bears between 2016 and 2022, mostly via radio collars. Twenty-two of the bears died during the study period, 14 of which had functioning collars at their time of death that could help researchers identify the cause of deaths.

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Twelve of the 14 bears died after having been hit by a vehicle or train or by conflict with humans. One of the bears died by natural causes and one other’s death was unknown but suspected to be caused by a human.

While the study found that young bears, aged two to six, have an annual mortality rate of 40 per cent, adult bears had a survival rate of more than 95 per cent. This, according to the report, suggests an “intense demographic filter for young animals.”

The lead author on the study, Clayton Lamb, is a wildlife scientist with Biodiversity Pathways and the University of British Columbia. He said that despite the high number of collisions and conflicts with humans, the grizzly bear population in the area replenishes itself because they tend to enter the valley from the surrounding areas that have less development and human activity.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the high mortality rate for these bears shouldn’t be of concern, Lamb says.

“When you dig into it, and kind of understand the population dynamics, you realize that it’s not really working in this area for these bears, you know. it’s propped up by this larger landscape, and maybe that relationship and that population dynamic is fairly fragile,” said Lamb.

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Grizzly bears have been designated a “species of special concern” under the federal Species at Risk Act. In order to better protect bears in B.C., Lamb suggests building more wildlife crossings across highways, a mitigation measure that, when combined with fencing, can reduce wildlife mortality by more than 96 per cent, according to the study.

In an emailed statement, B.C.’s transportation ministry said that a project called Reconnecting the Rockies, which would see some of these mitigation measures implemented, is currently underway. The project would improve wildlife safety and habitat connectivity along Highway 3 from the Alberta border to near Hosmer, a village just north of the resort town of Fernie, B.C.

It would include the installation of wildlife exclusion fencing, ungulate guard installation (where fencing intersects a road), jump-outs (so wildlife on the highway side of the fence can escape), and reconstruction of underpasses (for example, completing construction under an existing bridge so wildlife can pass under). The project has six stages, all about two to four kilometres in length, though the ministry did not have any information on when the project might be complete.

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Wayne McCroy, a biologist who has studied bears and other wildlife in B.C. for more than 40 years, suggested that even more could be done to further protect the species, including decommissioning roads that take hunters into grizzly bear habitats and reducing factors — such as fruit trees — that may lure bears into more populated areas.

McCroy also speaks on behalf of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, an organization that published an open letter earlier this month, asking Bruce Ralston, the forestry minister, to implement a species management plan that would better protect grizzlies in the province. The letter was in response to B.C. publishing a draft Provincial Grizzly Bear Stewardship Framework that McCroy says would disperse the responsibility of management to local authorities.

“Most of those committees (and local authorities) are going to be run by the hunting groups who want to open the hunt,” said McCroy. “This comes from a lot of local local knowledge and having been involved in land use planning in the province for 40 or 50 years.”

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Originally posted 2023-10-18 17:48:25.