Large numbers of grizzly bears once roamed the Prairies from Calgary to east of Winnipeg, but the carnivorous mammals were driven to extinction there during the 1900s, and Environment Canada concluded this summer that nothing can be done to bring them back.
Yesterday, conservation groups accused the government of failing to show any scientific evidence on why it's a lost cause to reintroduce the big bears into this broad area.
The conservationists are not yet calling on the government to start shipping grizzlies into parts of the Prairies, but they are asking Environment Canada to study the controversial idea and give it a fair hearing before rejecting it out of hand as being impractical.
"The government has completely failed to do its due diligence. It is lacking any kind of scientific rigour," Barbara Cartwright, a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said of the government's plan to do nothing for the bears.
The IFAW, along with the Sierra Club of Canada, jointly issued a report yesterday critical of the government's position. The report said "reintroduction of the grizzly bear is possible," and that having a larger, more widely dispersed population of the animals, created by transferring some from areas where they are abundant, would be critical to ensuring the long-term survival of the species.
The groups did not say where on the Prairies they thought grizzlies could be reintroduced.
But this summer, Environment Canada issued a proposed policy that concluded that trying to bring the Prairie population of grizzlies back from extinction "is considered not technically or biologically feasible at this time."
It said a key problem facing reintroductions of the bears is what it called the "lack of social acceptance" by farmers, livestock producers and rural residents who "generally have a negative attitude toward grizzly bears."
Another problem is that in areas where people and bears share the same habitat, humans tend to start killing the large predators. "Human-related mortality is the greatest threat to the persistence of grizzly bears today," Environment Canada said. "The recovery of the grizzly bear to the Prairies is not feasible due to a lack of habitat and an inability to mitigate threats."
The proposed federal position has been endorsed by the governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The proposal to make no effort to create a bear population on the Prairies was open for public comment until last week. Environment Canada plans to review comments for 30 days, and then decide whether it should change its position.
Before European settlement, grizzly bears lived throughout western North America from the Arctic to as far south as Mexico.
They are now found in a few isolated pockets of the continental United States, where about 1,200 exist, along with about 22,000 in Alberta, B.C. and the three territories, and another 30,000 in Alaska. But this area is less than half their former range.
The remaining bears in Canada are not at high risk of dying out, unlike their extinct Prairie cousins. They are considered a species of "special concern" under Canada's endangered species act, which means the population needs to be monitored to ensure there is no further erosion of numbers.
Grizzlies were a common fixture throughout the Prairies and the boreal regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, according to sightings by early explorers. Their numbers declined in tandem with European settlement and the destruction of plains bison.
After 1900, only a few isolated pockets survived. A hunter shot the last bear in Manitoba in 1923. One was shot in the Pasquia Hills of eastern Saskatchewan in 1939. The last reliable sighting of a grizzly was in the Porcupine Hills of Saskatchewan in 1960, according to Environment Canada.
Although the animals are occasionally seen on the Prairies, in places such as the Milk River and St. Mary River in Southwestern Alberta, these bears are considered to be part of the mountain population on a foray and not members of the extinct Prairie group.
The two environmental groups said failing to help the grizzlies would set a bad precedent for all cases in which a species-recovery effort would be difficult.
"This kind of approach, asserting that the factors that put a species at risk are insurmountable obstacles to recovery, would inevitably lead to the conclusion that recovery is not feasible for any species at risk," they said in their report.