Jim Pissot rests his hands solidly on a lectern as the giant screen behind him illuminates his raison d’etre: “Path to Extinction or Path to Recovery? The Mismanagement of Alberta’s Endangered Grizzly Bear.”
With his spectacles and blue blazer, Pissot looks every bit the university professor he could have been had he not become a professional advocate for the world’s endangered species. Now employed by Defenders of Wildlife, one of the largest wildlife protection organizations in North America, he is one of seven guest speakers at this sold-out Canadian Institute of Forestry workshop on grizzly bear research and management in Alberta. In the audience: some 200 foresters, biologists, bureaucrats, oil and gas workers, hunters, environmentalists and off-road vehicle enthusiasts – most of them lukewarm or outright hostile to what he has to say. So he begins with a Far Side cartoon: two giant bears standing tall at the mouth of a cave, beating back an onslaught of club-wielding Neanderthals. “Criminy,” the caption reads, “every summer there are more and more of these things.”
The cartoon is appropriate. In 2002, a year in which 35 grizzlies were poached or killed locally by licensed hunters or in collisions with vehicles, the government-appointed Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee (AESCC) – representing industry, academia and government – recommended listing the species as threatened. The cause of the bear’s declining numbers: serious compromise of its habitat due to recreational activity, clear-cuts, oil wells and the roads left behind when those industries moved on. With only an estimated 1,000 grizzlies left in the province, it was time, said the AESCC, to get serious about recovering a species clearly in serious trouble. The $2.5-million population study that followed only highlighted the urgency of that position: only 500 grizzlies were found in their remaining wilderness habitat on the western fringe of the province.
Yet seven years after the AESCC’s recommendation and the government census that prompted it, steps to protect the grizzly through threatened species status and meaningful changes to management of its habitat have yet to be taken. If anything, the future of this sometimes pugnacious omnivore, which travels enormous distances while foraging for food, is even more in doubt. Forestry is building even more roads and clear-cutting trees in grizzly habitat in an effort to beat the pine beetle back into B.C. Oil and gas activity – and the new roads and seismic lines that sustain it – has continued apace. And despite a moratorium on grizzly hunting, mortality rates from poaching and other human endeavours remain high. “If we continue on this track,” Pissot warns in his slow, confident drawl, “the grizzly will disappear. Yet what we have today is a perpetuation of the illusion that these bears are doing okay.”
According to Pissot and most others in the environmental community, however, the Great Bear is just the latest in a series of failures to protect Alberta’s most vulnerable wildlife, a process intended to go something like this: The provincial government funds the monitoring of Alberta’s wild plant and animal species and assigns each one a status. Those designated “at risk” or “may be at risk” receive a more detailed assessment and, if something seems awry, the AESCC reviews its status and makes a recommendation to the minister of sustainable resource development. The minister then decides whether or not to list the species as “threatened” or “endangered” under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. If the latter occurs, the species receives automatic protection from killing and trafficking and the minister may, at his/her discretion, rule that a recovery plan be developed and implemented. (The federal government has a similar process under its Species At Risk Act (SARA) – Canada’s version of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, SARA generally applies only to plant and animal species found in water or on federally managed lands, including regional parks and military bases, and though it is possible for SARA to apply to species found on provincial or private lands, it has never been done.)
The process has led to some success stories. The swift fox population has jumped from zero to 647 since the animal’s 1983 reintroduction in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan; the number of whooping cranes that summer in Wood Buffalo National Park has climbed from 21 in 1941 to 237. But such examples are the exception. Often, inadequate budgets make it difficult to accurately assess the status of many species, while others that should be listed are not. And even if a species has been listed as “threatened” or “endangered,” the actions necessary for protection and recovery are often delayed or ignored because they would interfere with the economic and/or recreational activities that put the species at risk in the first place. And when government chooses not to act, it is virtually impossible for concerned Canadians to force the implementation of laws and regulations that could improve the situation.
All of this helps to explain why only 24 of Alberta’s 2,800-odd species are officially listed as threatened or endangered, despite government’s latest report on at-risk species showing just 62 per cent of all Alberta mammals, 53 per cent of its birds, 40 per cent of its fish and 30 per cent of its amphibians can be considered “secure.” Meanwhile, all Alberta reptiles are labelled as “sensitive” or “may be at risk.” An additional 200 Alberta species either haven’t been assessed or are listed as “unknown”; 300 more are rated “may be at risk,” including the grizzly and the province’s last 20 breeding pairs of Clark’s grebe, which despite being “important for the biodiversity of the province” and “vulnerable to disturbance of nesting colonies and susceptible to oiling mortality in wintering areas” remains underdesignated and utterly unprotected. At least six species – including the Eskimo curlew, black-fronted ferret, Takhoka daisy, greater prairie chicken, plains bison and prairie grizzly – are already gone, presumably forever.
Amongst species that have been listed, the mountain caribou is most in jeopardy: its numbers in Alberta have plummeted almost to the point of no return since it was first designated as “threatened” 23 years ago. Yet despite this designation and a recovery plan developed by numerous stakeholders (including government and the timber industry), no action has been taken regarding what is most needed: protection of the caribou’s remaining old-growth habitat. Similarly, the greater sage grouse, renowned for its spectacular spring mating dance, is also endangered. A recent lawsuit brought against federal environment minister John Baird by conservation groups claims neither the federal nor provincial government is protecting the bird from oil and gas activity, which undermines the birds’ ability to breed and, in turn, the population’s ability to recover. But even if the environmentalists win there is no legal mechanism by which the courts can force either government to protect the grouse – or any other species – from the activities that imperil it.
Ord’s kangaroo rat. Piping and mountain plover. Western silvery minnow. Prairie rattlesnake. Tiny cryptanthe. Small-flowered sand verbena. In every case, it’s the same story. Alberta’s prairies, foothills and forests have been fragmented and otherwise encroached upon to the point that they can no longer sustain their wildlife populations without immediate intervention. Sometimes a species is listed; occasionally a strategy is implemented to staunch the losses: population augmentation for the swift fox, for instance, or, as in the case of the caribou, a government-sponsored wolf hunt. But according to Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Nigel Douglas, one of the many environmentalists at today’s January 2009 grizzly workshop, rarely is the necessary cure – enhanced habitat protection – enacted. “There’s a complete disconnect between what the science says and what land managers actually do,” notes Douglas. “In Alberta, we’re good at doing the science, but we’re not very good at applying it. There’s not a species I can think of to which that doesn’t apply.”
A Salt Lake City machinist who was a key figure in securing the Utah Wilderness Act in 1984, Pissot returned to university in his early 30s to complete an undergraduate degree, then scored in the 99th percentile on the GRE (the mandatory entrance exam for graduate studies in the U.S.). He hasn’t looked back since. In the 20 years following his graduation from Yale, he has dedicated his life to fighting tooth-and-nail for wildlife species bound for oblivion. Battling to save the endangered northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s, for example, he toiled 15-hour days for the National Audubon Society, mapping owl habitat and building local support in Washington State, where the timber industry was clear-cutting the last vestiges of old-growth forest that still harboured a shrinking spotted owl population. Ultimately, Pissot and his colleagues prevailed with lawsuits against the federal government. But the Owl Wars, as they became known, were contentious and even dangerous: there were days when he feared for his life and the safety of his family.
The Owl Wars were followed by a successful stint in Washington, D.C., with the National Parks Conservation Association. Then in 1999, Pissot and wife Val left the U.S. for Alberta. Surprisingly, however, his work has proved much more difficult – albeit safer – here than in the U.S., “where we have the full power of the Endangered Species Act and the citizen’s right to sue government to obey its own laws. In Canada, federal legislation to protect endangered species is weak and the provincial laws even weaker,” he notes. “And there is literally no way to force either government to obey their own laws. It’s like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”
But it is Albertans’ fondness for roads that most worries Pissot. Studies in other places where grizzly populations have been revived show it’s almost impossible to maintain healthy numbers where road densities are too high. And the mountains and foothills of western Alberta, site of the province’s grizzly recovery zone, is an ever-expanding maze of forestry, oil and gas roads, seismic lines, cutlines and off-highway vehicle trails that far exceed the threshold for the bear’s successful recovery.
The problem isn’t so much the roads themselves, say the experts, but the access they provide increasing numbers of people – most of them armed with guns and propelled by increasingly powerful off-highway vehicles – into the bear’s wild habitat. Also, there is no legal mechanism to keep Albertans off roads on public land once they are built and too few conservation officers to enforce what few rules there are for limiting access. Installing locked gates, which some companies have tried, just doesn’t work. “Even if you put a security guard at the gate,” a provincial government employee who asked to remain anonymous tells me, “they just drive to the next seismic line and away they go. There’s simply no way to stop that.”
Over lunch between workshop sessions, one of the foresters shares his concerns about poaching. In the Swan Hills area northwest of Edmonton where he works, “it’s common knowledge that poaching goes on,” he says. “One guy I know brags about killing four or five grizzlies every year.” (This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure. But as sustainable resource minister Ted Morton recently noted, he is willing to consider anecdotal evidence alongside scientific data.) Perhaps the most chilling news of the day, however, is delivered by Scott Nielsen, a U of A professor whose computer simulation model illustrates the impacts of logging on grizzly populations south of Hinton and east of Jasper National Park. The model shows that logging plans for the area will actually improve the habitat for bears by emulating the fires that once created patchy forests and more food for the animals. But the roads built to access that timber will also increase human-caused mortality rates; by 2050, says Nielsen, the grizzly will be found only in national parks. Looking around the room, I see no one seems the least surprised.
The eight-hour workshop has morphed into a litany of ominous predictions about the future of Alberta’s grizzlies, but Pissot ends his presentation on an upbeat note. “I won’t sugar-coat the picture. But that doesn’t mean I’m not optimistic,” he says. “The swift fox is an example of Albertans doing things right and making a difference. And I think we can maintain a healthy grizzly bear population and enjoy a healthy economy at the same time.” What we need to do, he suggests, is embrace the Yellowstone model. The grizzly population in and around Yellowstone National Park is the only one in the world that has been brought back from the brink of extinction. And the man who coordinated that effort for more than 25 years, Chris Servheen, is scheduled to conclude today’s workshop.
Wearing jeans and a red-and-black plaid vest, a grey handlebar moustache adorning his weathered face, biologist Chris Servheen is an iconic figure, one both loved and hated by those in the ranching – and environmental – communities. Still, he has weathered the storms and saved Yellowstone’s Great Bears. In 1975, when the park’s grizzly population was listed as threatened, there were only 200 of the bears in the region and not a single wolf. Today, there are more than 600 grizzlies and 170 wolves thriving in an area one-tenth the size of Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery zone – a miracle witnessed firsthand last May in the park’s Lamar Valley, when I watched for more than an hour as five wolves battled a grizzly sow and her three yearling clubs over a bison carcass the size of a small car.
“Recovering grizzly bears is a social issue, not a biological one,” begins Servheen. “And you can’t let political impediments get in the way. Providing habitat security and managing access are key – we closed thousands of miles of roads, for example. And yes, it took serious government commitment. So that when difficult decisions had to be made, they were made.”
How does Alberta’s situation compare to Yellowstone’s? asks the AWA’s Nigel Douglas. Alberta is way ahead of the U.S. in the science arena, answers Servheen. But in terms of management decisions and political support, “you’re probably back where we were in 1982.”
Rick Bonar, a prominent but somewhat controversial biologist for the forestry company Weldwood, which cuts timber in both Alberta’s caribou and grizzly recovery zones, wants to know how to manage access without removing roads. “That’s a Holy Grail question,” replies Servheen carefully. “In the U.S. we have what’s called the Knucklehead Factor: it’s always five to 10 per cent of the people who cause all the problems. We don’t even count gated roads as closed because we can’t get people to obey the closures. So if the Knucklehead Factor exists in Alberta, you can’t reduce access without closing roads.” Later, I track down the government employees I chatted with earlier. “Do we have the Knucklehead Factor in Alberta?” They smile and nod. “Yeah,” they admit. “It’s everywhere.”
By the end of the workshop, the grizzly’s chances in Alberta seem grim. I’m not particularly optimistic about those of the northern leopard frog, either, or the trumpeter swan, mountain short-horned lizard or western blue flag’s. But on the car ride home, I find myself wondering, Is the future really so bleak after all? When the U.S. began its Yellowstone grizzly recovery in 1975, there was little political support and a vocal minority that opposed it every step of the way. Still, Servheen and a host of environmentalists like Pissot refused to give up. The Yellowstone grizzly population is now healthy. And the same is true in northwest Montana, where the number of grizzlies has multiplied over the last 20 years to the point that the bears are now migrating onto the Great Plains, a region they hadn’t been seen in for more than 100 years. “What we faced in the U.S. is exactly what you’re facing here now in Alberta,” Servheen had told us. “There were lots of people who didn’t want it to happen. There were entire groups created to prevent it. But we did it anyway.”
“What needs to be done?” I ask Pissot over the phone a week later. “What can I do?”
“The only way things are going to change is if a whole lot of people stand up and say they need to. Join a group. Better yet, call your MLA. Write a letter, and advise you’re not voting for his or her party unless it protects the grizzly . . . and the caribou and the sage grouse.”
A few weeks later, I phone and leave a message for Premier Stelmach, then write this “letter” on behalf of Alberta’s Great Bear.
Jeff Gailus has been researching and writing about endangered species in Alberta for more than a decade. His current project: a book about the history and future of the Great Plains grizzly.