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022 Grizzly Reintroduction to the North Cascades, North America’s earliest bison, the Rocky Mountain Pledge and people using wildlife corridors

This week we’ll look at efforts to reintroduce grizzly bears to the north Cascades of Washington State. The plan may include some Canadian bears to help repopulate an area that has excellent habitat for bears. We’ll also look way back into the earliest history of bison on the North American landscapes. With this summer looking to be the busiest ever, I’m promoting a new Rocky Mountain Pledge to help visitors enjoy the mountain landscapes in a safe and sensitive way. Finally, we’ll look at the challenges of human use in designated wildlife corridors.

Story 1 – North Cascades Grizzly Reintroduction

The long history of grizzly bears has seen them removed from most of their historic range. Today they are limited to only the wildest of western landscapes. Once they ranged across most of western and northern Canada and south as far as Mexico.

As people began to migrate westward, the grizzly bear was a natural competitor for many of the resources that these early pioneers sought. For this reason, like the buffalo, they were gradually wiped from the map of most of the United States and many areas of Canada.

Like Banff is doing with bison, other landscapes are hoping to do with grizzly bears, in particular, the north Cascades ecosystem in northern Washington State. Like the south coast of British Columbia, grizzlies have been largely squeezed and hunted to the extent that there are only a few bears in this particular landscape. Today, there may be less than 10 bears wandering the north Cascades – a landscape that could easily support a few hundred bears.

There is a growing movement to reintroduce grizzlies to the north Cascades. Now while we proudly boast about reintroducing buffalo, we need to realize that grizzlies ain’t no buffalo. Compared to grizzlies, bison are a piece of cake. They are incredibly adaptable ecosystem engineers. Like beaver, they change the landscape to benefit their expansion.

Grizzly bears are local specialists. You’ve heard me time and again talking about the importance of knowing the seasonal food preferences of bears in order to stay safe in bear country. Unfortunately, every bear population has a different list of seasonal foods. Bears in Banff have never tasted a salmon. Each bear must spend years with its mother learning how to survive in the landscape that it calls home. You can’t just airlift a bear from one landscape and hope that it can survive in another – especially when it doesn’t know what the locally available foods are.

To be successful, the north Cascades need to find bears with a familiar palate, bears that are familiar enough with the local flora and fauna so that they will be able to adapt to a terrain largely devoid of competing bears. If you can find the right bear and put it into the perfect landscape, then you may have a winning combination.

Wells Gray Provincial Park in southern British Columbia might be able to assist in such a reintroduction program. Its population was listed as 317 bears in 2012. The plan would involve removing just a few young bears to seed the reintroduction. Over the next five to ten years, 25 bears could be reintroduced from more than one seed population.

The plan can only move forward if the local populations can sustain the loss of some of their young bears. Populations in decline or in a precarious balance, obviously would not be able to become donors.

The north Cascades are in the midst of a huge public consultation at the moment…and even though this is taking place in the U.S., Canadian comments are also welcome – after all, Canadian bears are likely to be included in any successful reintroduction program.

The public comment period is open until April 28, 2017.You can add your voice to the discussion here: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=327&projectID=44144&documentID=77025

The history of the north Cascade grizzly has been a difficult one. During the period of 1827 to 1859, 3,788 grizzly hides were loaded onto Hudson Bay Company ships from trading posts in the area. No bear population can survive such an onslaught.

It would feel really great to help grizzly bears begin to march south again as opposed to having their range continually squeezed further to the north. What do you think?

Story 2 – Bison vs wooly Mammoths

Bison wandered the Canadian landscape for thousands of years. They helped to define the great plains as one of the chief ecological engineers helping to keep forests at bay and support huge populations of insects, and in turn, insect-eating birds.

It’s easy to toss out numbers like ‘thousands’, but just how many thousands of years? Just when did bison first appear on the North American landscape and how did their arrival impact the plants and animals that preceded them?

New research by University of Alberta biologist Duane Froese and Professor Beth Shapiro of the US Santa Cruz Genomics institute have pushed those boundaries back by a factor of 10.

Scientists have long debated the tenure of bison on the North American Landscape. Bison fossils from across the continent have often suggested different histories. One thing scientists do agree on is that the original migration of bison to the continent was from the north. This study looked at the oldest bison fossils known in order to try to narrow down the period in which they first thundered onto the North American landscape.

It is still believed that they crossed the land bridge across the Bering Strait, but when? During ice ages, the bridge formed when ocean levels dropped due to great extents of water being locked up as ice. As glaciers shrank, so did the bridge disappear as rising ocean levels submerged its ephemeral passageway.

By looking at the very oldest fossil sites in the Yukon Territories, they looked at the mitochondrial DNA found in these fossils. This DNA is usually inherited from the female and allows scientists to trace a long maternal lineage.

This study pushes the tenure of bison back…way back to 130,000 years ago and possibly as far as 195,000 years. These were not the bison we know today but were the ancestors that would gradually become the bison that Banff is so proud to have reintroduced recently.

Bison would have taken the landscape by storm. They discovered a place already populated with wooly mammoths, camels, sabre tooth cats, and wild horses. Bison don’t simply move in, they re-engineer the ecology of their adopted homes. Before long, they became one of the principal grazers of the Great Plains and were well-established thousands of years before the first humans set foot on the North American continent.

Story 3 – The Rocky Mountain Pledge

I was listening to the Roadtreking podcast recently and host Mike Wendland did a story about the Yellowstone Pledge. The story really struck a chord with me. As a naturalist and guide, I’ve watched and reported on, the challenges inherent in increasing numbers of visitors heading to the Canadian Rockies every year. When I heard about the Yellowstone Challenge, I thought, why not adopt a great idea and see if we could help it to adapt to a wider geographic area. So here’s my pitch!

Yellowstone, like the mountain west, has become number one Americans bucket list of travel destinations. Surprisingly, the same site that introduced me to the Yellowstone Challenge has a picture of Moraine Lake on their home page today with the headline: “Why Canada needs to be on your 2017 RV Travel Bucket List”. Like Yellowstone, we run the risk of becoming a victim of our own success.

2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday and we are all proud as a nation, especially during some of the turbulent times that are taking place in other parts of the world. As a Canadian, I’m very proud to showcase the Rockies to visitors every year. However, like Yellowstone, we struggle to create an atmosphere that will encourage visitors to feel the same way we do about the importance of keeping the wild in wildlife, and of protecting the landscapes that will be the focus of so many selfies in the upcoming months.

Yellowstone developed the Yellowstone Pledge. It is a series of promises that it’s asking visitors to take to help make sure that their visit will combine amazing experiences with minimal impact. Let’s jump right into it – here’s my suggestion for the Rocky Mountain Pledge

To be a steward and help protect myself and the park, I pledge to:

  • Practice safe selfies by never approaching animals to take a picture
  • Park in designated areas and avoid blocking traffic
  • Make sure my actions do not add additional stress or danger to the wildlife I am lucky enough to view
  • Stay with my car if I’m stuck in a wildlife jam
  • Follow speed limits and pull over to let cars pass
  • Travel safely in bear country by carrying bear spray, making noise, and hiking in groups
  • Keep my food away from animals
  • Recycle what I can and put my garbage in bear-proof containers
  • Report resource violations by calling 911 or talking to a member of the park staff

You can read more about the Yellowstone Pledge by visiting: https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/yellowstonepledge.htm

Like any pledge, it’s critical that we ALL take the pledge and share it on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and our other social networks with the hashtag #RockyMountainPledge.

Maybe we can help to create a movement that can translate to some of the many visitors that come to the mountains every summer. This year we will see record numbers of travelers that have never experienced a landscape like the one that surrounds us. Don’t judge them by the looks of wonder that will be all over their face. Rather, we need to help educate them. Everyone in the mountains needs to be a part of the message this year. We need to spread the Rocky Mountain Pledge far and wide and help visitors to understand how these 9 simple pledges will help to ensure that their grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to share the same experience when Canada celebrates its 300th birthday.

I for one will take the pledge…will you?

Story 4 – Humans in the Corridors

A recent study by Alberta Environment & Parks looked at current wildlife corridors in and around Canmore and they came up with some disturbing stats: humans represent 94% of the use of wildlife corridors. Researchers Melanie Percy and John Paczkowski collected 1.5 million images from wildlife cameras. These were broken down into 178,000 separate events and of those, wildlife accounted for barely 6%.

Even more disturbingly, 56% of the total events included humans with dogs. Of those, 60% of the dogs were off-leash. Let me say that again…60% of the people with dogs in the designated wildlife corridors had those dogs off-leash.

The town of Canmore works in conjunction with the province on wildlife corridors in and around the town and while they have developed some recommendations around wildlife corridors, clearly something has to be done. While wildlife are becoming more and more limited in their movements within the Bow Valley, these designated corridors need to be protected for their movement – and not for illegal off-leash dogs.

For too long in the Canmore area, dog owners have rarely been charged for having their dogs off-leash. Perhaps utilizing wildlife cameras in known corridors can help file more charges against flagrant violations of laws relating to dogs on leashes.

At the same time, we need to make sure these wildlife corridors are clearly marked so there can be no doubt when people begin to stray off designated trails and into wildlife corridors. Banff National Park has excellent signage where designated trails intersect with critical corridors. Great examples are along the Sulphur Mountain Road and around Johnson Lake. It is very difficult to ‘accidentally’ wander into closed areas and so it becomes much easier for Wardens to lay charges to violators. Banff also uses automated cameras for protecting sensitive sites like the restricted area around the middle hot spring along Sulphur Mountain Road.

As developments like Silvertip, Three Sisters, and Smith Creek move forward, every corridor in this valley will become increasingly precious to animals trying to move through the area. The corridors in and around Canmore offer critical connections between Banff National Park to the west and Kananaskis Country to the east.

Towns like Canmore become roadblocks to the movement of these animals. As humans, we tend to build towns at crossroads. At Canmore, we have the confluence of numerous valleys offering access to Spray Valley Provincial Park, Wind Valley, Cougar Creek, Slogan Pass and others. We need to make sure that connecting corridors remain viable so that animals can continue to move freely within the valley.

2 Comments

  1. Nicola
    Nicola March 29, 2017

    I love the Rocky Mountain pledge idea! This is a great way to remind people that we all have an impact on our environment, and of the importance of reducing that impact as much as possible!

    • Ward Cameron
      Ward Cameron March 29, 2017

      Thanks so much Nicola. Don’t forget to share it on your social media with the hashtag #RockyMountainPledge. Hopefully we can get the message out far and wide this summer.

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