Call it the animal kingdom’s version of ‘Meals on Wheels.’
Only in this case, the mode of transportation is helicopters and the menu consists of roadkill carcasses being airlifted to the denning areas of grizzly bears high in the southern Alberta Rockies.
Collected by highway maintenance crews, and held in cold storage by the Alberta Fish and Wildlife branch, the partially frozen bodies are dropped along the Eastern Slope between the Montana border and Crowsnest Pass. Biologists and ranchers alike hope these bears will feed on the handouts and ignore calving operations just a few kilometres downhill.
The program, known as ‘the drop,’ was conceived in 1997 by now-retired provincial biologist Richard Quinlan, who wanted to combat declining grizzly numbers, believed to be partly due to fed-up ranchers adopting a “shoot, shovel and shut-up” approach to solving their predation problem.
“There was a lot of guesswork and unknown territory back then,” said Quinlan. “We didn’t start out being super scientific. Heck, we didn’t even have much information on denning locations. So we just decided to drop the carcasses in positions above calving grounds, along ridges and drainages bears normally use on the way to their spring range… and the intercept program (as it’s now known) was born.”
One of the main objectives was to keep locations so remote people wouldn’t stumble into them.
“I may have been the first person to say ‘Let’s do it,’” says Quinlan, “but it was my technician Wayne Norstrom who really got the pro-ject rolling. He was the one who lined up helicopters and lobbied key ranchers and highways’ guys, convincing them it was a good idea. He was out there pleading for support, and persuading them to store dead animals in their gravel pits and deliver them come spring.”
The first few drops were simple, said Quinlan.
“We basically just went in and out with very little work on the ground. The first trail camera wasn’t used until the spring of 2000 and only as an initial step to verify the project’s success.”
Today, there are 15 drop zones and a dozen of those have been rigged with an array of trail cams and hair snares that will help biologists identify individual bears, their health and genetics as part of a much larger study.
The project has become somewhat secretive, as provincial officials don’t want the public to get close, including any ranchers who blame a “wildlife welfare program” for artificially boosting grizzly populations and are tempted to correct the perceived imbalance with a rifle.
Sightings of the bears, the province acknowledges, are rising with some observed well out on the prairie, where they wreak havoc with grain bins and beehives. (A current study using barbed wire to snag bear hair on natural ‘rubbing surfaces’ and DNA testing is trying to determine how many grizzlies now spend time on low-elevation ranchlands.)
“We’re seeing grizzlies, and I mean lots of grizzlies, where we’ve never, ever seen grizzlies,” says Pincher Creek rancher Clarence Cyr, who has recent photos of the bears in his corral.
“For sure feeding them is increasing their numbers. When these grizzlies come out in spring, they’re immediately treated to a huge protein diet. It’s a feast, a real feast, and it’s bound to boost survival, reproduction and displacement of other bears.”
Last year, the area along the Eastern Slope-prairie interface was declared “a hot zone for grizzly encounters” by university researchers. The 10-year-long University of Calgary study documented 303 grizzly-human encounters (where a grizzly approached people or posed a threat). Amazingly, the vast majority of encounters weren’t in the mountainous backcountry, but on private ranchland.
Quinlan says he’s not surprised by the growing concern over increased grizzly numbers and range expansion, but suggests that’s due to several factors including strict grizzly protection, lots of satellite surveillance on collared bears, harsh penalties for poachers, and a willingness among a new generation of ranchers to try and coexist with the big bears. Heavy recreational use, including off-road activities and random camping in the forest reserve, also seems to be pushing reclusive grizzlies into the quieter countryside.
“There will always be some people opposed to intercept feeding — ranchers who just don’t like to see government money being spent on things like this,” Quinlan says. “The increase in grizzlies and increase in concern is a complex issue.”
Program designed to keep hungry bears away from newborn calves may havemade predator problem worse