Injured black bear elicits inaction from the province of Alberta

By October 26, 2017Wildlife Blog

I was immediately struck by the rich, chocolaty eyes imprinted with a miniaturized reflection of the world beyond the road side grasses – a world made up of this black bear’s natural territory in Banff, interrupted by a busy highway traveled by thousands of tourists. About 10 to 15 vehicles were pulled over, watching the bear in his pre-hibernation push to ingest as many calories as possible.  He occasionally looked up, revealing a slightly raised brow positioned above gentle eyes filled with tenderness, curiosity, and perhaps a bit of confusion.  ‘Why are they all so interested in me?,’ he may have been thinking, but late October meant he had little time to pontificate over his spectators – he continued vacuuming up the vegetation on the side of the road, creating the fat stores needed for a long-winter’s rest.

As a bear lover and photographer, I found it very difficult to look away from this beautiful bear, who I later named ‘Gentle Eyes.’ It was October 2015 and I was ecstatic to be in Banff on such a beautiful fall day, viewing who I assumed to be my last bear of the season. Something compelled me to look up and examine the surrounding vehicles, and I found myself staring into another pair of beautiful eyes, belonging to a delighted young girl of about 10. Safely in a vehicle with her parents (I assume), she watched Gentle Eyes with an obvious sense of awe and wonder. I was so happy to see the expression on her face.  I imagined this was her first bear sighting, and envied the feeling of bliss that accompanies the gift of seeing a bear in the wild for the first time. Perhaps she went home and learned as much as she could about bears and the landscape that supports them? Maybe seeing this bear pulled her into the natural world, stoked the flames of passion and connected her to our environment? This is the power in viewing a healthy, happy, beautiful bear with gentle eyes.

As many wild animals in Canada’s national parks, Gentle Eyes is forced to figure out how to thrive among the overwhelming number of humans that visit his territory.  While perhaps not the most ‘natural’ setting for a bear, Gentle Eyes appeared to be doing well adapting to life in a busy national park. From what I hear, he is still living happily in Banff. He is actually pretty lucky to live in a national park, under the mandate of the federal government/Parks Canada. While not perfect, Parks Canada seems to view bears (and wildlife in general) from a holistic understanding of the important role they have in our lives, the environment and the planet in general. I believe Gentle Eyes, and his impact on the delighted young girl who got to see him in Oct 2015, is an important part of the mandate and purpose of Canada’s national parks.

If Gentle Eyes was to wander beyond the boundaries of Banff, he would be subject to what I consider to be an out-dated and prescriptive approach, the provincial mandate of Alberta wildlife management, which falls under Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP), Fish and Wildlife. I am not an expert in wildlife management or government policy by any stretch of the imagination, but there have been a couple of bear-related instances over the past few months that have forced me to think deeper about how the provincial government deals with our wild animals.

The story of Banff Grizzly Bear #148 is one such instance – I do not want to recap this story myself, but a google search will reveal the tragic tale. My current questioning of Alberta wildlife policy – and the reason for this blog post – has been prompted by a young, injured black bear who has been hobbling around a grain field West of Calgary for the past 5 weeks.

The nuances of this story are complex and far-reaching in terms of wildlife management and conservation. Currently, AEP is completely in charge, and has decided to leave this injured bear to fend for himself. According to a generic response being sent to all concerned citizens who wrote letters to the AEP, this is their reasoning:

Through our frequent monitoring of this yearling bear, our experts indicate the bear has been actively feeding and moving throughout its normal habitat. It is important that we provide ample space for this bear to continue feeding and preparing to hibernate for the winter. The best thing for this bear would be for it to wake up next spring in its own home range as a wild, free bear that has healed as best it can from an injury it unfortunately has suffered.

In choosing this course of action, I have sought advice from internal and external bear experts, who have provided their input and support for our decision to refrain from our rescuer impulse. The injury to this bear is one it can heal from if protected from disturbance by humans and with adequate food. While the injury may result in a lasting impairment, it is unlikely this impairment will impede its ability to forage or travel. Indeed, there are other bears in the wild with similar injuries, which have survived, thrived and produced offspring.

Wildlife-loving members of the public, including me, are worried this bear is in pain, suffering and will ultimately die alone in this field. We wonder what experts have been consulted. Wildlife rehabilitation professionals and the public are frustrated with a policy  – Schedule A – that prevents black bears (and a number of other animals) from being treated at qualified rehabilitation facilities. While the AEP is monitoring this bear from a distance, he has not been tranquilized and physically evaluated by a veterinarian or professional, so many are wondering, how can anyone really know the condition of this bear and his level of pain or suffering?

Whether or not this injured bear should be rescued and treated (I really think he should be!), I disagree with the policy that prevents wildlife rehab for many animals in Alberta. And, I disagree with a number of the policies and attitudes that seem to prioritize human interests and activities over the health of our wildlife.

So, I took the time to research the issue and write an informed letter to the AEP and my MLA about this injured black bear, only to receive the generic response that every concerned citizen is getting, in the form of a PDF attachment to an email, from Deputy Minister Andre Corbould.

Gentle Eyes, Banff, AB

I am painfully aware of the complexities of this issue – I saw the bear myself four weeks ago and I have been immersed in the story ever since. I realize there are countless issues government officials are required to deal with every day – one little black bear may not be high on the list of priorities – but the treatment of this bear represents a wide range of management issues that need to be looked at.

At a minimum, I want the provincial government to commit to examining wildlife policies in Alberta, to provide evidence and rationale for their actions which is based on research, science and consultation with a wide range of professionals. Ultimately I want to live in a province where animals are respected and appreciated as a vital part of our world, to ensure more children have the opportunity to see a Gentle Eyes of their own.

I will not proclaim to know exactly what’s best for this bear, but as a concerned citizen, I really wish my letter was actually read and considered, not just shuffled into the pile of ‘injured black bear emails – send form letter PDF’.

In case this is helpful to anyone concerned about the issues surrounding the injured black bear, I have included my letter here and encourage you to persist in being a voice for the wildlife in our province. Please write your MLA, and members of the AEP – perhaps we can push our leaders to think beyond a standard form letter aimed at appeasing an emotional public and encourage real action.

Attention: Andre Corbould, Deputy Minister of the Environment; Honourable Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks

CC: Mr. Greg Clark, MLA for Calgary-Elbow

I am writing to add my voice to many Albertans who are concerned about an injured black bear on highway 22, West of Calgary, and a policy that prevents this bear, and many other Alberta animals, from being treated at qualified wildlife rehabilitation facilities in our province. 

Heart-breaking is the only way to describe seeing a small black bear hobbling around in a grain field last weekend, an obvious injury to his hind leg preventing him from traveling beyond an area that is so dangerously close to a busy highway. Knowing a rehabilitation facility is ready, willing and able to help him, but cannot legally do so because of Schedule A, is devastating.

This is a very sad circumstance, but I understand the complexity of wildlife management in our province, and the need to look beyond emotion when it comes to creating policies around our wild animals. So, I have done my best to put aside my emotion and educate myself on this policy.

I have read Schedule A and the wording is very clear as to what animals are not allowed to be rehabilitated in our province. What is not clear, however, is the rationale for the policy. Why are bears, lynx, cougars, wolves, etc not allowed to be rehabilitated in Alberta? Especially considering other provinces in Canada are able to care for these animals and do so successfully. There may be a document containing the rationale of Schedule A somewhere – if so, I would love to see it.

Without official documentation from AEP, I have only been able to glean the following reasons from newspaper articles and by talking to people who work in wildlife rehabilitation:

1.) The worry of habituating rehabilitated animals

2.) The worry of spreading disease

3.) In the case of black bears, they are not endangered so not a conservational concern

If these are indeed the reasons for Schedule A, I wanted to outline a few counter points:

1.) There are studies based on specific experience from other facilities worldwide that have shown bears who are rehabilitated are not more likely to be involved in human/bear conflicts, as referenced here:https://ricochet.media/en/1903/why-does-alberta-kill-orphaned-bear-cubs 

2.) If an animal is sick with a contagious disease that could impact the health of the entire population, would a rehabilitation facility not be the best place to either treat the animal if possible, or humanely put the animal to death? 

3.) Even if black bears are not endangered now, virtually every wild animal in Canada and beyond is on the brink of declining in numbers, as outlined by the Living Planet Report Canada by the World Wildlife fund: http://www.wwf.ca/newsroom/reports/lprc.cfm. Having a good population at this time does not mean we always will. Also, I have read that there has not been a proper study on black bear numbers in the province since 1993. I am sure much has changed.

Again, I may not understand the rationale behind Schedule A because I have not seen any documentation, but I did find a powerful statement on the AEP website:

AEP Vision:

A healthy and clean province where Albertans are leaders in environmental conservation and protection, enjoy sustainable economic prosperity, quality of life and outdoor recreation opportunities.

I am not a scientist or expert in wildlife management, I am simply a ‘born and raised Albertan’ who loves her province and all our natural wonders. I spend countless hours in the Alberta wilderness, photographing and admiring our wild animals from a place of respect and awe. I do not feel like Schedule A was created with a mandate of respect that is necessary to be a leader in environmental conservation and protection.

I believe environmental leaders need to have a holistic view of how wild animals fit into the environment, to realize that wild animals are essential to maintaining the health of our province. Management and policies are necessary, but we as a province have an immense responsibility to ensure the policies we enact do the best possible job in protecting our wildlife. We need to focus on co-exsisting with the wild animals we are so blessed to share our home with. 

This injured black bear is a great opportunity to ‘walk the talk’ in terms of being leaders in environmental conservation. Schedule A should be reviewed at every level, with input from independent scientists and researchers, wildlife professionals, rehabilitation professionals and members of the community. According to this article, a review may occur:
 
http://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/injured-bear-wont-be-moved-but-wildlife-rehabilitation-policy-under-review-says-province

I sincerely hope this is the case. 

I appreciate your time and look forward to learning more about what the AEP is doing to fulfill its vision.

Kerri Martin

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