Located southeast of the Columbia Valley, the Elk Valley has developed into an ecological trap for grizzly bears due to an influx of human-wildlife conflicts in the area, according to PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Clayton Lamb.
“In the last eight years, we’ve lost 40 per cent of our grizzly bears in that area – that’s not normal,” Lamb said in an interview with Mark Hume of the Globe and Mail last week.
“Provincially, the populations that we’re studying, none of them that we are documenting are showing that type of decline,” he said in an interview with The Echo. “It’s not normal as far as what we have across the landscape right now where we’re studying.”
Lamb is the lead author of a study on grizzly bear populations in the Elk Valley that originated with the province of British Columbia in 2006 with co-authors Garth Mowat and Bruce McLellan of B.C. Ministry of Forests. Lamb joined the team in 2013 as a master’s student.
Lamb said they initially started the study to analyze grizzly bear populations, breaking the Elk Valley into different sections, to study grizzly bear demography and the impact human population has on it.
What they found was that an area that previously had one of the highest grizzly bear densities across North America showed a rapid decline in population due to human activity. His research indicates that 68 per cent of grizzly bear deaths in the area are from non-hunting related incidents such as collisions with vehicles and trains, which account for 54 per cent of grizzly deaths while poaching accounted for only 13 per cent of grizzly mortalities.
Notably, 33 per cent of bear deaths were due to human-bear conflicts such as animals searching for food and were thus shot by ranchers or euthanized by conservation officers. According to Lamb, unlike the mortality rates caused by hunting that can be reversed with the flip of the switch, these human-wildlife conflict rates are harder to control.
While in Elkford Lamb noted a number of mortalities that were all non-hunting related, including conflicts with people due to livestock, pigs, chickens, and a bear being hit by a train.
The Elk Valley provides a suitable habitat for grizzly bear populations thanks to its rich berry crops but when combined with high mortality rates caused by human-wildlife conflict, this can cause other bears from backcountry areas to refill these populations. Although he hasn’t studied the Columbia Valley exclusively, he said he expects to see similar patterns with the human presence so closely intertwined with wildlife such as bears.
Lamb hopes this study is able to shed light on a previously undocumented area in grizzly bear demography in the future. He notes that if this was happening without monitoring, we wouldn’t have known about it and he is excited that people can monitor these types of populations that could be suffering high mortality rates.