Bears in the Canadian Rockies May Be Fighting a Losing Battle

Grizzlies are being edged out by human developments

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CANADA'S grizzly bears have an image problem. They grow up to eight feet tall and more than 1,000 pounds, have large teeth, and their scientific name - Ursus arctos horribilis - doesn't help.

But intimidating as they are, grizzlies are on the run - from humans. Scientists say grizzly-bear populations are threatened throughout the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains and even inside Banff National Park, Canada's most famous.

Under pressure from hunting, oil drilling, logging, and resort developments, grizzly populations are declining mainly because their habitat is being chopped down, paved over, or otherwise disrupted by human activities. Biologists say the process of disrupting bear living space with ``an overwhelming human presence'' is so advanced it may eliminate grizzlies from the southern Canadian Rockies - and even one of the grizzlies' last strongholds - the national parks.

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``The situation is dire,'' says Michael Gibeau, a Banff park biologist and warden who is studying grizzly populations. ``These bears need `core' refuges - areas where they won't constantly run into people. Banff is supposed to be one of those. But I think within the next five to 10 years, we'll seal the fate of grizzlies in the park.''

Part of the problem is that grizzlies require lots of room to roam. A male grizzly needs up to 1,000 square kilometers (385 square miles) of running room to find the food it needs. But as oil and gas exploration pushes into the last mountainous wild areas of Alberta and British Columbia, grizzlies are caught between invading industry outside the parks and hordes of people inside them. This is particularly true of four adjacent Canadian national parks - Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay.

``There is growing human pressure inside the national parks at the very time that pressure is increasing outside the parks,'' says Dr. Stephen Herrero, a University of Calgary biologist and grizzly expert. ``Here in Alberta and in British Columbia, even critical wildlife areas are being squeezed for every dollar they can provide.''

Banff National Park is 2,560 square miles of snow-capped peaks and forested mountain valleys. People love the park, and they are loving its animal populations, including its grizzlies, to death.

More than 4 million people visited Banff last year. Ski slopes, hotels, and convention centers are being built in, around, and through the Bow River Valley, a critical feeding area and pathway north for grizzlies. A major rail line and the Trans-Canada Highway run through the park. In Banff and neighboring Kootenay, 41 grizzly bears were killed by trains, cars, hunters, and trappers from 1986 to 1993. Almost half were killed by cars.

Although the number of bears killed may not sound excessive, biologists point to grizzlies' slow reproductive cycle: A female may bear two cubs every two years, at most. And only about 50 grizzlies remain in Banff, Mr. Gibeau estimates. If adjacent areas are included, there may be 80, he says.

Development interests are quick to point out that no one yet has a precise handle on how many grizzly bears are left in the Rockies south of Banff, or just how steep the decline has been in their populations. ``The media are still printing lies about the resources in the park,'' says David Day, a past superintendent of Banff National Park, now an environmental consultant to businesses in the park. ``There has been no disruption of grizzly-bear habitat in Banff National Park.''

But that's not the conclusion reached by a study recently done by Gibeau assessing the impact of development on grizzly habitat in Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay. ``In a great many cases the actual ability of the landscape to support bears has been significantly reduced,'' it says. It concludes that 44 percent of Banff park is either at the maximum level of human disturbance that the bears can tolerate or ``no longer can support bears.''

Grizzly bears are at the top of the food chain and compete with humans for living space. Because their populations are affected soonest, they are an early-warning signal of threats to other animals and habitat, biologists say.

Dr. Herrero concurs, saying that unless something is done to limit the fragmentation of grizzly habitat, viable bear populations will decrease until they are extinguished. And while the Canadian Rockies have traditionally been a conduit for bears moving south to Montana and Yellowstone National Park, Gibeau says the southernmost range for grizzlies may soon be north of Banff.

Even park officials, who are under steady pressure from developers and who many say tend to downplay human conflicts with nature, acknowledge that one thing is for sure: ``You can't have the kind of development we've had in Banff and not have some impact on wildlife,'' says Jillian Roulet, acting park superintendent at Banff. ``But the full magnitude of the impact is not known.''

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