Jeff Bectell is not a bear lover.
He’s not a bear hater either. He’s a lover of wildlife but he’d never call himself a conservationist. Yet, among conservationists and cattle ranchers in southern Alberta, Mr. Bectell is best known for his role in decreasing conflicts with grizzly bears.
Since 2010, he has been the co-ordinator of the Carnivores and Communities Program with the non-profit Waterton Biosphere Reserve, known as the rancher doing his part to save the grizzly bears from becoming the epitome of “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
“The motivating factor for me getting involved in this was helping the people around me. It was not to help the bears. It was to help the people,” he said.
With grizzly bears being a threatened species under the Alberta Wildlife Act, it has been illegal to hunt them in the province since 2006. In 2008, the grizzly bear population across Alberta was listed at less than 700. In March, 2021, Alberta Environment and Parks estimated there were between 856 and 973 bears in the province.
As the number of grizzly bears increases, they are being found farther east from the mountains, encroaching onto ranchland, causing potential conflict with humans and livestock. With financial support from the Alberta government, Carnivores and Communities uses a variety of mitigation techniques to reduce the number of conflicts while helping to create a sustainable future for wildlife and people to live in harmony.
Mr. Bectell’s family have been cattle ranchers in southern Alberta for more than a century. He first saw bears on his property, just south of Cardston, Alta., around 1993, when two young grizzlies were digging for gophers near a patch of willows. Before that, his family had never reported seeing grizzlies, as far as he knows.
“We thought it’s maybe a bad berry year and these two bears just happened to wander down. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is dangerous,’ or, ‘These bears are going to kill something,’” he said.
“But I also thought it was a one-off. It’s not something that would become commonplace.”
But, it became a trend. As more grizzlies started making their way onto nearby ranches, landowners began to complain to Mr. Bectell.
Outside of the national parks, bears are managed on both public and private lands by Alberta Fish and Wildlife. According to John Paczkowski, the human wildlife co-existence team lead for Alberta Environment and Parks in the Kananaskis region, his mandate is to “conserve lands and the species that live there.”
Mr. Paczkowski has more than 30 years of experience in carnivore research, primarily bears, in Alberta and British Columbia. He said that grizzlies moving into ranch lands – with the plains being their more historical habitat – is a high-risk, high-reward lifestyle for the bears. It also proves to be a “fascinating next question for bear conservation,” as there are no bear management resources east of the mountains into the foothills.
“There are unsecured grain bins and there’s calving and there’s all sorts of these food sources, which are just heaven for the bear,” said Mr. Paczkowski.
“But they don’t realize that huge reward and protein, which is the currency of bears, can put them on the wrong side of management and they could get relocated or captured or even killed depending on what they’re doing,” he said.
Alberta Fish and Wildlife will compensate ranchers whose cattle are killed by grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, cougars and eagles. A “confirmed kill” will receive full market value of the livestock, while a “no kill” receives nothing. A “probable kill” can receive half the market value if another kill by what appears to be the same predator is found within three months and 10 kilometres of the original kill spot.
Mr. Bectell said the reality is, it’s hard to prove a bear killed a cow because of how little of the carcass might be left for the wildlife officer to assess.
Around 1995, Mr. Bectell said he had his first livestock killed by a grizzly bear and received a “probable bear kill” from fish and wildlife. A week later, his neighbour lost a calf to what was considered a “probable wolf kill.” Neither rancher was compensated for their loss.
“There was some frustration in how it went – the compensation investigation – and just the bureaucracy of the program frustrated me a little bit,” he said.
“It’s part of what launched me on to 10 or 15 years of involvement, is just trying to fix these things so they make a little more sense.”
Around 2007, Mr. Bectell attended community meetings about how to manage the bear conflicts with ranchers. In January, 2010, the community met with Alberta Fish and Wildlife representatives in Cardston to discuss how to better manage grizzlies in the area.
A week after that meeting, Mr. Bectell was offered $10,000 by the Alberta government for an ad hoc community group to help mitigate bear conflicts. And in 2011, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve, for which Mr. Bectell was working, took over a $240,000 grant from the Alberta government to help manage bear conflicts over three years.
“That’s how the Carnivores and Communities Program congealed into what it is today,” Mr. Bectell said.
As a flagship program, Carnivores and Communities has secured provincial funds each year as well as occasionally federal and other grant money.
Through the program, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve provides a cost-share opportunity for ranchers for certain bear-mitigation techniques, such as putting up electric fences, deadstock boxes and bear-proofing grain bins.
Mr. Bectell warns against falling prey to the stereotype that ranchers are resorting to “shoot, shovel and shut up” when it comes to grizzly bears. “Most ranchers do not hate grizzly bears. They just don’t like them to cause them problems,” he said.
Attitudes are changing, he added. He attributes this to the Carnivores and Communities Program and the fight to ensure that ranchers are properly compensated for lost livestock, which he has been lobbying the provincial government to improve.
“If all we do is kill problem bears, that’s not sustainable. If all we do is pay high compensation when your cattle are killed, but we don’t do anything to keep them from getting killed, that’s not sustainable,” he said.
“But when they all work together, we generate fewer problem bears, we have less conflict, we have to kill fewer bears, it’s a positive loop.”