Fears raised by growing bear numbers

A bear safety training program in southwestern Alberta will arm producers with some knowledge about bear behaviour — and their very own can of bear spray

A$10,000 farm safety grant may keep southwestern Alberta producers a little safer from bears.

“(Bears have) been a problem that the community has grappled with,” said Jeff Bectell, chair of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association in Pincher Creek.

“Any time a community is facing issues, it really feels good when they know people understand… and are actually trying to help in solving those concerns.”

The association will host a series of workshops in June for farm families in the Cardston and Pincher Creek areas to cover general bear safety and behaviour. They will also offer some hands-on training on using bear spray — albeit without the bears or real spray. A bear spray-style canister containing an inert gas is used instead, but it’s good practice, said Bectell.

“They can actually pull it out of the holster, point it at a target, and see… how it works.”

Every family will get a canister of real spray so they “have a tool that they know how to use and maybe feel a little bit safer.”

Bears have become a growing cause for concern in southwestern Alberta over the past decade. University of Alberta research found 51 grizzly bears in 2011 and 122 a year later. The actual number is well north of 130, said Bectell.

“(This research) has really supported what the community has been saying, that grizzly bear numbers have been increasing in this area. That’s part of the reason we’re seeing an increase in conflict.”

In the area where Bectell ranches near Cardston, there were four livestock kills and two bear incidents in farmyards in a two-week period in April.

“Large carnivores and people should both have a place in the landscape,” he said. “Most people don’t want to see bears or wolves completely gone.”

The association has other programs to reduce the potential of conflict between farmers and ranchers and large carnivores. This includes bear-proofing grain bins, removing deadstock, and installing electric fencing. But you can only reduce the chance of a problem, not completely eliminate it, he said.

“Everything on a farm is a bear attractant,” said Bectell. “It’s not practical to imagine that we’re not going to have anything that might let bears be a problem.”

Bectell has lost livestock to bears in the past, and while he hasn’t had an aggressive encounter with the animals, he calls living with them “nerve-racking.”

“We just didn’t have bears on my farm when I was a boy,” he said. “Places I used to go and ride a horse when I was a kid, I’m a little nervous to let my kids ride in those locations.”

Producers need to be more “bear aware,” he said.

“We’re just trying to help people who are having problems to deal with these problems in a proactive way.”

The farm safety project is funded by Farm Credit Canada, which partners with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association to deliver the AgSafety Fund, which doles out $100,000 across Canada every year to non-profit groups for agriculture safety programs.

This year, four Alberta projects received funding. The others are a one-day Safety Day in the northern hamlet of Bezanson, a series of farm safety workshops hosted by the Battle River Research Group in east-central Alberta, and a youth safety training session in the southern Alberta village of Delia.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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