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Jumbo Ski Resort Threatens Grizzly Bears From Southern B.C. Into U.S.: Scientists

10/31/2014 05:57 EDT | Updated 12/31/2014 05:59 EST
Piriya Photography via Getty Images

Grizzly bears in the Central Purcell Mountains are more vulnerable than shown in 15-year-old research being used by proponents of Jumbo Glacier Resort, says one of Canada's leading grizzly bear experts. And he adds that if the resort is built, it could threaten grizzly populations through southern B.C and into the U.S.

Michael Proctor has studied grizzly bears in the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges in southeastern B.C. for almost 20 years and his work is regularly published in scientific journals. He recently completed two ecological analyses of the Purcell grizzly population and found --based on data-driven population surveys -- that bear populations are about 50 per cent smaller than previous estimates.

In 1999, government scientists estimated the area to be at 93 per cent of carrying capacity for grizzlies, but Proctor's research, completed more than a decade later, found grizzly capacity to be at 54 per cent. The capacity is the population an environment can sustain.

Human encroachment likely cause of drop in grizzly population

Using DNA analysis from hair snagging, Proctor found the Purcell grizzly populations are depressed, bringing them "close to or below the threatened population threshold." The reason for the lower than expected numbers is most probably more roads into the backcountry and human-caused mortality associated with the activity that roads bring.

Work needs to be done on helping the population recover before efforts to mitigate the negative effects of the proposed resort come into play, he said.

"To improve the status of the Purcell grizzly it will likely be necessary to improve the balance of human use and wildlife habitat needs. The Jumbo Glacier Resort would challenge our ability to accomplish that goal," Proctor said in a 2010 letter to the provincial government.

Purcell/Selkirk grizzlies act as anchor population

An even more important issue, Proctor said in an interview, is that the proposed resort will likely fragment the approximately 600-strong Purcell/Selkirk grizzly population and compromise its ability to act as a core anchor for beleaguered and already-fragmented smaller units to the south. Keeping that population intact is probably essential to maintaining international grizzly bear populations extending south into the U.S.

"Those small, fragmented populations just to the south are too small to survive long-term without the larger Purcell/Selkirk regional core population to act as a long-term source of immigrants," Proctor said.

It is an argument that has been emphasized by Wildsight, a non-profit group fighting approval of the proposed resort.

"This is the last stop. There's small bits of populations to the south and in the U.S and, if we cut them off they are hooped," said Wildsight spokesperson Robyn Duncan.

Although Glacier Resorts spokespeople say there are few grizzlies in the area that would be used for year-round glacier skiing, there are numerous anecdotes about resort proponents ignoring grizzlies that appear almost in front of them.

Bob Campsall, a long-time Jumbo Creek Conservation Society board member, recalls one of the first meetings about the planned resort.

"I asked about grizzly bears and they said they had studied the grizzly bear population and there were not enough to be concerned about. I had hiked up there the previous weekend and saw four grizzly bears," he said.

Most up-to-date grizzly research not considered by B.C. government

Proctor said that, as Jumbo is in the central spine of the Purcell Range, it is in the area where the bears are generally going to travel.

"Ski areas are not generally bad for grizzly bears; it's the location of this one," he said.

However, Proctor's latest research appears to have been ignored by the provincial government. The Environmental Assessment Office is currently considering whether the environmental assessment certificate, first granted in 2004 and renewed in 2009, should be made permanent.

"They haven't incorporated the new information I have given them," Proctor said. "They said the research was too late."

That is a disappointment, according to Proctor, who has a reputation as an independent research scientist, whose only agenda is science.

"It is a shame not to use the latest science," he said.

Gerry Wilkie, a director of the Regional District of East Kootenay, is angry that Proctor's research is not being taken into account and believes it illustrates how poorly the Jumbo decision is being handled by the government.

"It's a debacle," he said, describing the project as a white elephant.

"The fact that Mike Proctor's work on population dynamics and fragmentation of habitat of the southern interior grizzly was disregarded is of critical importance."

The Environmental Assessment Office determined that the 1999 report, conducted for Glacier Resorts by Axys Environmental Consulting (PDF), satisfied the requirement for a pre-construction inventory of grizzly bears in the study area, said an Environment Ministry spokesman.

The project is in compliance with five conditions related to grizzly bears, but future work is required, the spokesman said.

"Jumbo Glacier Resorts is currently developing plans for the next steps in monitoring for potential impacts of the project on the grizzly bear population."

Proctor is not the only one to conclude the resort would be bad news for grizzlies

Alton Harestad, former co-chair of the provincial Grizzly Bear Scientific Advisory Committee, concluded the development would adversely affect the grizzly population in the South Purcells.

"The size and nature of the development will result, eventually, in the loss of bears locally and will diminish the viability of the regional population of grizzly bears," Harestad wrote in a report.

"There are no examples in North America where grizzly bears have coexisted successfully with large human development over the long term."

The Jumbo Glacier Resort Master Plan, approved by the province, relies heavily on mitigation efforts, ranging from Bear Smart programs to establishing partnerships with government and local forest tenure holders to improve grizzly habitat in and around the almost 6,000 hectares of controlled recreation area -- Crown land that the company will lease from the province.

Ktunaxa spirituality not up for grabs

However, members of the Ktunaxa Nation, like other critics, say categorically that mitigation is not possible.

The Ktunaxa, who are appealing a B.C. Supreme Court decision turning down an application for a judicial review of the province's approval of the resort, know the area as Qat'muk, the place where the Grizzly Bear Spirit was born, goes to heal itself and returns to the spirit world.

The heart of the nation's spirituality is not up for grabs, says Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

It is easy to understand why the Jumbo Valley is so special in First Nations culture, Duncan said.

"It's where grizzly bear science and spirituality come together. It's not a coincidence that the Ktunaxa knew from living on the land that this is a core area -- that this is an area we don't touch," she said.

- By Judith Lavoie, DeSmog Canada

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