Grizzly bears are a lot like people. They eat both plants and animals, just like us. They need a place to live and room to move. They mate and have families, just as humans do. They once lived in the places we now occupy, including the prairies where they fed on bison, and south into Mexico. Grizzlies are so similar to us that, as naturalist and author Doug Peacock notes, they are the one animal on this continent that really challenges our top slot on the food pyramid, our dominion, and our control.
Like many large-bodied and wide-ranging animals, grizzlies are facing declining populations and shrinking habitat across much of their range because of our insatiable need for space and resources. In addition to the effects of climate change on high-value grizzly foods like pine nuts, humans destroy and fragment grizzly habitat with industrial, recreational, and urban development.
Sometimes we kill grizzlies directly by trophy hunting, poaching, hitting them with cars, or destroying “problem bears” that eat our garbage. According to the B.C. government, 317 grizzlies were killed in British Columbia last year, mostly in the legal trophy hunt.
We can make up for being the worst neighbour ever. Because we know which human activities are incompatible with the needs of grizzlies, we need to designate areas where those activities are controlled or are not permitted. Creating Grizzly Bear Management Areas is one way to accomplish conservation that lasts.
Grizzly Bear Management Areas are essentially “bear parks,” areas big enough to provide for the long-term needs of healthy grizzly populations. With the support of First Nations and other communities, a system of GBMAs would cover parts of B.C. that are of high value to grizzlies. These areas would be free of industrial development, with limited road access. They would be connected through undeveloped corridors to allow movement between populations, sort of like grizzly bear freeways. Such movement is essential to genetic health. Sport hunting of grizzlies would not be allowed.
Although opinions vary about the ideal size and location of GBMAs, research indicates that up to 68 per cent of grizzly bear habitat should be managed for the needs of bears.
Management areas are not a new idea. The B.C. government committed to the concept in its 1995 report A Future for the Grizzly: British Columbia Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy. The report states that the primary goal is to “maintain in perpetuity the diversity and abundance of Grizzly Bears and the ecosystems on which they depend throughout British Columbia.” However, despite a great deal of public input and scientific analysis, this strategy has yet to be adequately implemented.
The good news is that a precedent has been set for protecting grizzlies and their habitat throughout B.C. In the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s coast, GBMAs with hunting bans have been established in the Ahnuhati-Ahta Kwalate, Kimsquit-Upper Dean-Tweedsmuir, and Nass-Skeena. The Nass-Skeena GBMA complements the Khutzeymateen/K'tzim-a-Deen grizzly sanctuary, established in 1994. Further good news is that the Alberta government has reconfirmed its commitment to suspend the grizzly bear hunt until the threatened population there has recovered, as required in the provincial recovery plan adopted in 2008.
In B.C., many scientists believe we need more GBMAs. And we still don’t have the comprehensive network that the government promised more than 15 years ago, which was supposed to create GBMAs in all of the province’s 57 grizzly bear population units. Because most grizzly bears are killed away from the coast, GBMAs must be designated inland as well.
How do we know that GBMAs work? In northwest Montana, large amounts of habitat are protected from motorized access and other human intrusions, and grizzly hunting is prohibited under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Grizzly populations in these areas have increased dramatically for more than two decades.
This shows that the combination of habitat protection and hunting restrictions might keep grizzlies from declining further in other parts of their range. We have the motivation and tools to protect grizzly bears, but it will take a renewed commitment to conservation by the B.C. government to ensure the long-term survival and health of our wild and cherished neighbours. Let’s work together to make sure this happens soon.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation science technician Michelle Connolly. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.