Grizzly conservationists criticize Alberta

Government accused of sitting on crucial data, changing role of expert who questioned hunt

By | February 23, 2006

Conservationists have accused the Alberta government of withholding crucial data on the health of the province?s grizzly population, and of stripping a grizzly biologist and critic of the annual grizzly hunt of some of his responsibilities. As a result, they fear the province will, for the fifth year running, ignore expert advice and authorize a hunt. The government, for its part, says it?s not withholding data, and is clarifying the several roles the expert has been performing. ?The decision facing [the Alberta government] involves more than just whether or not to hunt grizzlies in the spring,? Jim Pissot, the executive director of Defenders of Wildlife Canada, told The Scientist. ?It speaks to the essentials of responsible wildlife management and to the core of government accountability.? It remains unclear how many grizzlies are in Alberta. Official estimates put the number of grizzly bears at perhaps 700 (excluding national parks) out of an estimated original population of more than 10,000. In February 2002 Alberta?s Endangered Species Conservation Committee, a group of provincially-gathered stakeholders, recommended that the province designate grizzlies as endangered, and suspend the spring hunt until the population recovered. The then-minister rejected that recommendation, and authorized a hunt. The minister also convened a Grizzly Bear Recovery Team and launched a population study. The Recovery Team, which biologist Gordon Stenhouse chaired, also recommended against the hunt in 2003, and again in both 2004 and 2005. Despite this advice, the government has okayed hunts for the past four years. The recovery plan the team came up with was completed in December 2004, but has not been implemented. An updated estimate of grizzly numbers was forwarded to the Minister early in 2005, as were two DNA-based population studies. However, Pissot said the government has still not made that DNA data public, raising concerns. ?We began to see a pattern of withholding information starting last year. Freedom of Information requests on grizzly bear mortality and the DNA studies were denied.? These data are crucial for making decisions about the wisdom of the grizzly hunt, said Robert Barclay, a University of Calgary biologist and spokesman for the Grizzly Bear Recovery Team. ?Until we have those numbers it?s very hard for us to decide if we should re-evaluate the plan,? he told The Scientist. However, Dave Ealey, spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD), one of the provincial agencies that oversees the province?s wildlife, denied that the government is withholding the DNA census work. They will release some of the material once it has been evaluated, he told The Scientist, but ?it will take us a few years to complete the whole province; it?s labor intensive and a very involved process.? Meanwhile, conservationists are also accusing the government of stripping Stenhouse of some of his responsibilities. He is currently on assignment from SRD to the non-profit Foothills Model Forest Grizzly Bear program, and had been widely recognized by the public and both provincial and federal colleagues as ?the go-to person on grizzly bears,? said Pissot. However, Stenhouse sent an Email to colleagues on January 31st saying, according to the Canmore Leader newspaper, that he was ?no longer the provincial grizzly bear biologist?I have been asked to let everyone know that all provincial grizzly bear inquiries are to be directed to Ron Miller with Fish and Wildlife in Edmonton.? This raised concerns among conservationists that the government was deflating Stenhouse?s authority, and his criticisms of the grizzly hunt. He ?no longer speaks with the authority of the province as the grizzly bear expert,? said Pissot. Stenhouse has not responded to requests for comment. SRD?s Ealey denied that the government is trying to muzzle Stenhouse, and said that managing grizzlies is, indeed, done at the senior level of the province?s Fish and Wildlife branch, and is not one of Stenhouse?s responsibilities. ?There was confusion about what people understood Gord?s role was.? Last year, 73 tags were issued to hunters in a lottery-style draw; 10 bears were subsequently killed, with an average of approximately 15 bears taken annually in the hunt since 1997. In terms of the grizzly hunt, Jamie Curran, the executive assistant to the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, David Coutts, told The Scientist the minister ?is trying to meet with all the stakeholders and to make a balanced, informed decision.? Doug Payne Links within this article: ?Province gives grizzly expert cold shoulder,? CBC, February 2, 2006. Defenders of Wildlife (Canada) Endangered Species Conservation Committee Robert Barclay Alberta Sustainable Resource Development Foothills Model Forest; Grizzly Bear Program A. Follett, ?Grizzly expert?s title in question as hunt announcement nears,? Canmore Leader, February 8, 2006. D. Payne, ?Canadian research compromised?? The Scientist, November 24, 2004.

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