Local Group Leads Innovative Grizzly Program

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Agrizzly bear in the Blackfoot River Valley in western Montana can trigger an early warning system without even knowing it. As soon as he is spotted too close to cattle or a residence, the neighbour network is activated. Phones ring and e-mails arrive at inboxes at ranches in the area.

Through the neighbour network, a unique program under the “Blackfoot Challenge,” landowners are alerted about grizzly bears in the area, thereby reducing human-bear conflicts and livestock losses.

About 120 to 130 residents are involved in the volunteer program. By simply picking up the phone to call a few neighbours to tell them to take in pet food or perhaps move their cattle to a different area, they are eliminating many conflicts. The neighbour network is only one aspect of the Blackfoot Challenge, a landowner-driven watershed group, and one that Alberta may be looking to adopt.

Stephanie Palechek, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, says although there’s an informal network of ranchers in southern Alberta who will call each other if a problem bear is in the area, a more organized approach could benefit more producers.

“We went down to Montana and saw what the Blackfoot Challenge is achieving. Even though landowners there are dealing with a bigger area and more people, there are similar land use issues,” says Palechek. “They’ve got 15 years of experience working collaboratively with landowners, compared to our five years. Of course, there will be differences.”

In order to tap into some of the progressive programs of the Blackfoot Challenge, the Oldman Watershed Council invited Seth Wilson to speak at its 3rd annual Holding the Reins workshop at Fort MacLeod in early February.

Wilson, co-ordinator of the Blackfoot Challenge’s Wildlife Committee, says since the committee was created in 2003, there have been no livestock losses and an 84 per cent reduction in human-bear conflicts. “That’s a very encouraging trend,” he says.

The committee was formed in response to increasing human-bear conflicts and livestock losses in the 1990s. There was even one human fatality in the area. “All of that coalesced in the community’s mind that there was a problem,” says Wilson. Today, about 30 to 40 grizzly bears inhabit a core project area of about 750,000 acres, or about half of Blackfoot Challenge’s 1.5 million acres.

The significant reduction in human-bear conflicts and livestock losses can be attributed to landowner co-operation in programs such as the neighbour network, education and outreach initiatives, electric fencing around calving areas, and carcass pickup. Blackfoot Challenge also implements GIS and GPS technology to prioritize where and how to spend program dollars for bear-proofing measures, says Wilson.

More than bear alerts

In addition to the reducing human-bear conflicts, Blackfoot Challenge works to manage weeds, restore water quality and native fisheries, educate communities, and conserve land and water. The direct benefit to landowners in the watershed area includes fenced riparian areas to improve water health, off-site stock watering systems, conservation easements (93,000 acres) and prescribed burns to maintain grasslands for grazing.

“Blackfoot Challenge helps maintain ranches by offering conservation easements which, in some cases, give the owners the economic opportunity to keep the ranch; otherwise they might have been forced to sell,” says Wilson.

A not-for-profit watershed group built from the ground up by landowners beginning in 1993, Blackfoot Challenge has evolved to involve agency partners, state and federal governments, local governments and a full suite of stakeholders.

Perhaps Blackfoot Challenge’s success stems from its outlook on management, as stated on its web-site: “Here, private landowners take the lead and public agencies follow in a shared goal – to keep large landscapes intact and rural lifestyles vital. What’s our secret to success? Focus on the 80 per cent that folks can agree on and not the 20 per cent that might divide us. Leave egos at the door and wear a Blackfoot Challenge hat in our meetings. Listen well, don’t rush and find the common ground before acting.”

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