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Grizzly in Canadian Rockies

A camera trap caught this image of a grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies. The unobtrusive nature of camera traps allows researchers to better understand how animals use their habitats without harassing them.

Roads don’t kill grizzly bears. People on roads kill grizzly bears.

Whether that’s a truism or a wildlife policy debate, the claim earned some scientific credibility with a recent study of Canadian grizzly bears. The researchers found that as the number of roads in the woods goes up, the number of bears goes down — assuming those roads are used.

“Not only do bears die near roads, bears also avoid these areas, making many habitats with roads through them less effective,” said Clayton Lamb, who led the research for his doctoral studies at University of Alberta. “By closing roads, we can reduce the negative impact of roads in a lot of ways. We can't turn roads back into forest tomorrow, so the best thing we can do right now is to close them. The effects are immediate.”

The study illustrates some intriguing differences between grizzly management in Canada and the United States, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the bears' Endangered Species Act protection.

Last July, the agency removed federal protection from grizzlies in the three-state area of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem after 42 years of recovery effort. That decision was immediately challenged in court. Nevertheless, FWS is also moving ahead with plans to delist grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between the Canadian border and Missoula.

The presence of roads in grizzly country plays a big part in the bears' long-term security. For example, grizzly advocates argued a proposed 13-mile road leading into the Montanore copper mine along the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness would lead to bear deaths, either by vehicle collisions or increased hunting accidents and poaching.

Access to decommissioned or abandoned roads is also a factor in Sen. Steve Daines’ proposed wilderness study area release legislation, which might allow bikes and off-highway vehicles in potential grizzly habitat in the Sapphire Mountains and Blue Joint wilderness study areas around the Bitterroot Valley. Flathead National Forest planners have developed road density standards for four national forests that harbor grizzlies.

Canadian grizzly bear scientist Michael Proctor said British Columbia wants to expand on the United States’ experience with the relationship between road restrictions and grizzly survival.

“You guys figured this out 30 years ago,” said Proctor, who assisted Lamb with his B.C. study. “You’ve pulled the Yellowstone grizzly population back to the point where it’s almost delisted. And road access management played a very big role in that.”

British Columbia voters ended trophy grizzly hunting last December. They took that measure despite living in a province with between 13,000 and 15,000 grizzlies, where hunters killed about 300 bears a year. Proctor said the decision appeared to be more a moral choice than a wildlife management one.

“We’re not closing the hunt due to a conservation issue,” Proctor said. “By and large, the hunt was sustainable. But most people don’t like it. That percentage is pretty high.”

However, Canadians like their motorized backcountry access as much as people in the United States do. So Lamb and his colleagues looked at how grizzlies use wild country when roads are present or absent.

Most of the work focused on population surveys in and around British Columbia’s 101,000-acre Granby Provincial Park. The protected area lies about 200 miles north of Spokane, Washington. It holds an estimated 87 grizzlies.

“There are about four times more bears in that park than outside in poorer habitat with more roads,” Lamb said. “But in those poorer areas, when they close the roads, grizzly density went up, as if the roads weren’t there.”

Lamb’s research has already led to some road closure decisions in the Monashee Mountains of eastern British Columbia, according to University of Alberta spokeswoman Jennifer Pascoe. But Lamb said those decisions have many moving parts.

“Our study shows if you have a lot of roads in productive grizzly habitat, closing or reducing those roads should help bears,” Lamb said. “How you go about closing them is more of a management decision.”