September 28, 2016 - 6:00 AM
EDMONTON - A study suggests hungry grizzly bears drawn to bountiful berry crops in southeastern British Columbia are dying in disturbing numbers.
The fruit the grizzlies want to eat is in the same Elk Valley area where lots of people live and work, so bears end up being hit by vehicles and trains or being killed by hunters and poachers.
Clayton Lamb, a University of Alberta researcher, said the combination of great habitat and human activity has captured the grizzlies in what amounts to an ecological trap.
"In the last eight years, we’ve lost 40 per cent of our grizzly bears in that area — that’s not normal," said Lamb, whose findings are being published Tuesday in the Journal of Animal Ecology.
Years of data shows more bears keep moving from the rugged backcountry to the Elk Valley area to find a rich supply of huckleberries and buffalo berries.
A high death rate in turn prompts more migration because the reduced population makes the area more appealing to other bears, since there is less competition for berries and space.
Once tempted to the region, bears tend to stick around. They prey on livestock, eat apples from orchards or nose through garbage.
That in turn can lead to conflicts with people, including bear attacks.
"We have a number of attacks in this region annually," Lamb said from Fernie, B.C. "We had more than one last year within the span of a couple of weeks."
He estimates that over an eight-year period the population of grizzlies in the larger South Rockies research region declined to 163 from 271 — a loss of 108 bears.
The survival rate in the "ecological trap" is even lower.
The study notes that about 12,000 people live in the Elk Valley region year-round, but each summer there is a major influx of tourists. Four highways and one major rail line either run through or near the area.
Just over half the grizzly deaths are caused by collisions. About one-third are from hunting, which is legal in B.C., and the remainder are due to poaching and other causes.
Lamb said the provincial government can control how many bears are killed by hunters, but more research is needed on how to reduce collisions with vehicles and trains, and how to decrease conflicts with people.
Research shows the need to provide the grizzlies with a refuge from human development by maintaining critical habitat.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016