Manitoba adds grizzlies to protected list

Globe and Mail
2009-03-02

By Chinta Puxley, Canadian Press

WINNIPEG — Recent sightings of grizzly bears — extinct from Manitoba for a century — have raised hopes the iconic Canadian mammal may be making a comeback.

They've also prompted the provincial government to add the bears and other extirpated animals such as swift foxes and muskox to the list of species protected under the wildlife act.

Wildlife biologists say the bears have been spotted in the northern part of the province and need more protection against hunters to encourage the animals to settle back in Manitoba.

“When there are so few of them, anything happening to them would be catastrophic,” said Bill Watkins, wildlife biologist with the Conservation Department.

“If you only have two or three bears in the province and one or two of them were poached, then that's the end of the reoccupation. It's important to protect these bears while they're so small in number and hopefully allow them to grow until we hit some sort of critical number for breeding population.”

While the province says increased sightings of the bear are a “good news story,” others say they are a harbinger of climate change and a warning that governments across the country must learn how to deal with new species as traditional habitat is destroyed.

Grizzly bears used to roam across the prairies, including southeast of Winnipeg. The very first European settlers came across the bears, but most of them were gone by the 1800s, Watkins said.

The new bears appear to be coming from Nunavut to look for food but could end up staying, he suggested.

“If we do get grizzly bears back in the north, that's probably the best place for them, because there is no conflict with humans most of the time,” Watkins said. “People in the north are already used to dealing with polar bears so what's another bear?”

Muskox and swift fox haven't been seen in the province yet, but Watkins said populations are rebounding in neighbouring regions so it's possible the animals may move back to Manitoba. The wildlife act helps to protect their habitat and makes it easier to prosecute hunters.

Gaile Whelan Enns, director of Manitoba Wildlands, said governments around the world will have to adapt as climate change drives species from their traditional habitat. Grizzly bears, which have been known to range for thousands of kilometres, are probably being pushed southward because of changes in permafrost and the growing unpredictability of winter, she said.

“We're going to have species shifting their range because of climate change and potentially being at different, new or greater risk,” she said. “They're trying to get away from one risk so they are shifting their ranges and moving into areas they haven't been.”

Carl Morrison, grizzly bear campaigner with the Sierra Club of Canada, said the bears are particularly threatened in Alberta, where population studies suggest there are fewer of the animals than previously believed. The government has banned an annual grizzly bear hunt for the last number of years, but Sustainable Resources Minister Ted Morton recently mused about lifting it.

Morrison said it makes sense to protect the hulking mammal because they are a so-called “umbrella species.”

“By protecting habitat for grizzlies, you essentially protect a host of other plants and animals that fall under that umbrella of protection,” he said.

The bears are also an indication of the state of the environment, he added. “If you start to see grizzlies blinking out of existence, that speaks to something larger than just the loss of the species.”

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