BY LETHBRIDGE HERALD OPINON ON JUNE 25, 2020.
TOURISTS AGAINST TROPHY HUNTING
In his response to a recent open letter to the Alberta and B.C. governments, signed by more than 100 scientists, bear experts and advocates, asking for three grizzly cubs to be rehabbed for return to the wild, and for an updated grizzly recovery plan, Alberta government spokesperson Gordon Stenhouse seems unaware of recent studies in grizzly rehabilitation and behaviours. It is evidence that should factor into any decisions regarding individuals of a threatened species.
Until 2018 Alberta protocol for all orphaned bear cubs stated they are to be either shot by a conservation officer or sent to a zoo. But as the government well knows, the public reacts strongly to bad news about baby bears. It was only after intense public pressure in 2018 that two black bear cubs were eventually released to the Cochrane Ecological Institute. The new permission to rehab the orphans, however, did not extend to grizzlies, and when a cub was found and killed by conservation officers there was another storm of public protest. The Alberta Environment and Parks in the aftermath said it was “working with wildlife rehabilitation organizations on this issue.” Two years later there is no change. It is true that young cubs will not survive in the wild without their mother. But it is also true that one province away, grizzly orphans have been raised and rewilded for over a decade. The documented success of the Northern Lights Wildlife Society in Smithers B.C., no longer by definition a pilot project, contradicts the publicly expressed doubts of biologists advising governments on carnivore matters.
Rehab should be an option for grizzlies, because there’s plenty of evidence it works, says John J.Beecham, co-chair of the human-bear conflicts team of the International Union Of Conservation in Nature ( IUCN) bear specialist group. “Hundreds of bears have been successfully rehabilitated and returned to the wild worldwide, including in British Columbia, Canada.” His 2015 study examining the fates of 550 captive-reared bears concludes that most released black bears and all brown bears were not attracted to roads or settlements, or involved in conflicts. The lowest survival rates were connected to sport hunting and poaching. Life for young wild cubs is not easy, it’s true, but Mr. Stenhouse neglects to mention the very real and well-understood physical and psychological stresses of captivity. There is no evidence that zoos influence caring attitudes toward wildlife. But at time when so many of us are contemplating a broken bond with nature, the fate of these cubs is especially relevant.
A survey of attitudes in a community deep in Alberta bear country showed that 89 per cent of people felt grizzly bears should be allowed to thrive as part of the natural heritage. This corresponds to Alberta and B.C. provincial polls. Even so the Alberta government remains unconvinced, expressing concerns of habituation leading to human conflict. The provincial wildlife policy director recently said he would have no issue with cubs being rehabbed and released across the border, but that requires authorization by the B.C. government. The reality of course is that bears are without borders, routinely hike between the two provinces with whatever parasites and infectious diseases it is thought they may carry. These three cubs found in the Crowsnest Pass region could have been born on either side.
Mr. Stenhouse states that releasing the cubs would be inhumane, but the studies conclude that captive-reared bears survive in the wild at similar rates to wild bears in the same populations. Raising orphaned grizzly cubs for release is a global trend with clear benefits in maintaining genetic diversity in small, isolated populations and restoring bears to previously occupied habitat. Grizzlies were listed as a threatened species in Alberta in 2010. The recovery plan draft has never been finalized, a delay that has undermined public faith in the processes that inform decision-making.
It is past time we addressed the rights of wild beings to flourish in their natural place. As for these cubs? If all involved can agree, it would take only a signature to change a regulation, and permit three individuals to be eventually returned to a population that needs them.
Judy Malone is the founder of Tourists Against Trophy Hunting, an international group of conservationists, scientists, journalists and activists. She is a former journalist and has written opinion pieces on wildlife issues for various media in Canada and in Africa. She is based in Toronto and is a frequent visitor to B.C. where she has lived and has family.