Home on the Range

On the Alberta Prairie, Ranchers Are Finding Ways to Coexist with the Grizzlies in their Midst


photo of men and a dog on a prairie, cattle and high mountains in the backgroundphoto Chris Yauck PhotographyAlberta ranchers Tony Bruder and Dick Hardy

In 1993, Jeff Bectell saw a grizzly bear – two, in fact – on his land for the first time in his life. It wouldn’t be the last.

Bectell runs cattle in southwest Alberta, just a couple of miles from the US border. Beyond his window the crown of Chief Mountain, flat and square as a giant molar, reveals where Alberta ends and Montana begins. Thirty miles west lie the southern Rocky Mountains, a block of habitat that encompasses Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks and harbors about a thousand grizzlies.

Yet, although the Bectells have ranched the same land in Cardston County since 1917, no one – not Jeff’s father, grandfather, or great-grandfather – had ever seen a grizzly on their property. None of their neighbors had ever encountered a grizzly, either. For more than a century, the province’s landowners and its bruins had adhered to an unwritten but inviolable contract: The ranchers roamed the prairies, and the bears stayed in the mountains.

Still, there they were on that August day – two grizzlies, digging up gophers on a hillside. Bectell figured it had been a bad year for berries in the mountains, and that the bears had strayed east in search of food. “We thought it was a freak thing,” says Bectell, whose bald head, glasses, and neat plaid shirt lend him the mien of a high school science teacher. “They didn’t cause any trouble. It was neat.”

As it turned out, however, those two bears weren’t freakish at all. They were scouts. Throughout southwest Alberta, ranchers began reporting more sightings. And as sightings ramped up, so did conflicts: bears breaking into grain bins, bears preying on cattle. Greg Hale, a wildlife biologist with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, says that today he fields about 90 bear-related complaints annually – three times more than he did just a few years ago.

Recent science backs up land-owners’ observations of increased bear activity. “Their range is expanding eastward, based on sightings and now the genetic samples we’re getting,” says Andrea Morehouse, a University of Alberta researcher whose DNA sampling identified 122 individual grizzlies in southwest Alberta in 2012 – more than twice as many as a 2007 population estimate. “The science seems to support what folks have been observing on the ground.”

Add up the empirical and anecdotal evidence, and the conclusion seems clear: Ursos arctos horribilis is reclaiming prairies and foothills it had occupied for millennia. Yet as bears push eastward, they have found themselves in ever-closer contact with the species that usurped them: Homo sapiens, an animal not known for tolerating other top predators. The grizzlies’ revival is a credit to its human allies – and a test of our capacity for coexistence.

When most people visualize grizzly habitat today, they conjure mountain strongholds and wooded wilderness. But as author David Knibb makes clear in his 2008 book, Grizzly Wars, high-elevation redoubts are merely the bears’ final refuge. “The smart and adaptable brown bear was equally at home in grasslands, river bottoms, ridgetops, and alpine meadows,” Knibb writes. When Lewis and Clark traversed the continent, they began hearing reports from Mandan Indians of enormous bears as far east as the Dakotas, 500 miles from modern-day grizzly range.

Canada, too, once supported a robust population of prairie bears: 13,000, by one estimate. By 1880, however, those grassland grizzlies were in precipitous decline, pushed to the brink by hunting, human settlement, and the destruction of bison. The bears fled for the mountains.

Canada didn’t eradicate its bruins as thoroughly as did the US. Today the country harbors 26,000 grizzlies, compared to just 1,500 in the Lower 48. Yet Canada’s ursine history is a tale of two populations. While grizzlies in British Columbia, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories persisted, Alberta’s bears appeared to flatline.

The problem, says wildlife biologist Brian Horejsi, was the province’s negligent bear management policies, which lagged far behind the United States’. The US protected grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act, prioritized habitat in National Forest plans, and designated protected areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Alberta’s government did little to preserve public lands, and continued to allow grizzly hunting until 2006. Consequently, Horejsi says, Alberta became a “mortality sink”: Bears wandered into the province from Montana or British Columbia, where they were comparatively safe, and lost their lives to hunters or landowners who adhered to a philosophy often described as “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

In the face of these pressures, Canada’s prairie grizzlies were officially declared extirpated in 1991. As recently as 2007, estimates hinted at fewer than 700 bears in all of Alberta – around 5 percent of historical levels. The era of the prairie bear was presumed over. This was a quintessential extinction story, tragic in its familiarity.

Until, that is, the bears started moving east.

On a chilly October morning, a few miles south of an Alberta town called Pincher Creek, Dick Hardy zips up in his new ATV, a Polaris Ranger trimmed in red and black. Hardy’s face is clean-shaven and weathered beneath a well-loved cowboy hat and wire-rimmed glasses. Under his heavy-duty brown jacket, a blue silk kerchief is knotted at his throat. To my eyes, he looks like the archetype of a rancher, which is what he’s been since he bought this property in 1964, the year he turned 21.

I hop into the passenger seat and we bump down a rutted road. Black angus cows refuse to budge at our approach. Hardy steers around them. “Just took the calves off these ladies a couple weeks ago,” he says with an affectionate nod at one herd, whose offspring will winter in a sheltered pasture. The ATV inches up an impossibly steep incline. As we crest the hill, a coyote darts between stands of trembling aspen. “There goes my dog!” Hardy hoots.

Atop the hill, cows graze on timothy and fescue, their hulking bodies silhouetted against the snow-dusted Rockies. The land is furry with grass, patterned in every shade of yellow and brown, rippling in constant wind. The sky is blue and streaked with cirrus. It’s impossible to imagine a finer place for a black angus cow to roam.

photo of a grizzly in high grass and wildflowersphoto by Daniel Arndt

Hardy’s ranch sits smack in the middle of the Crown of the Continent, a mountain landscape that bridges Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia, and remains some of the wildest country in North America. It’s little wonder that grizzly bears feel as at home here as the cows do. Pinned to a bureau in Hardy’s dining room, like a cherished photo of a loved one, is a picture of a female grizzly and two cubs that Hardy took just 20 feet from his back porch. “This is some excellent habitat,” he says. “They’ve gotten pretty comfortable.”

That’s thanks largely to Alberta’s bear hunt moratorium, declared as a temporary measure in 2006 and still in place today. Yet grizzlies seemed to commence their eastern march before the moratorium. The grizzlies’ comeback, then, may not be attributable solely to silencing the guns. It’s also a tribute to the evolving stewardship practices of the province’s ranchers. “I’m not what you’d call a treehugger, and most landowners aren’t,” Hardy says. “But ranchers here know that land pays you back when you look after it.”

So how – and why – did ranchers like Hardy go about transforming their land practices and restoring habitat? Like many rebirth stories, this one begins with a flood.

In June 1995, heavy rainfall and snowmelt triggered catastrophic flooding throughout southern Alberta. Roads were washed out. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated. By the time the waters receded, the province had experienced $100 million in damages.

Among the affected watersheds was Drywood Creek, a modest stream that in normal years trickles through Hardy’s property and which during the flood swelled into a monstrous torrent that tore up trees. “I can’t even explain how much damage there was along the river,” says Tony Bruder, owner of Twin Butte Simmentals, another ranch along the Drywood. “In some places the creek had moved from one side of the valley to the other.”

In the aftermath of the floods, Hardy, Bruder, and their neighbors began to consider the alarming possibility that their grazing practices had contributed to the devastation. To find out, they invited a conservation group called the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, known locally as “Cows and Fish,” to assess their ranching techniques. To Bruder’s dismay, Cows and Fish’s assessors told him that by letting cattle drink from Drywood Creek, he had allowed his cows to strip the stream channel of vegetation, destabilize the banks, and worsen erosion. Other ranchers got similar bad news.

Bruder – an open-faced, blue-eyed man with a drooping Fu Manchu mustache – had lived on his ranch his entire life. His great-grandfather bought the parcel and built the house in 1914. Twin Butte Simmentals was his family’s livelihood. He committed himself to start doing right by the land.

The first step was to fence off the creek so that cows couldn’t drink from it. Then Bruder dug a well so he could water his cattle away from riparian areas. Almost immediately his work began paying off. “Within three years we had juvenile trees coming up,” Bruder recalls. Cottonwoods and poplars flourished along the stream, stabilizing the banks and reducing erosion. Cows and Fish’s assessors came back and gave the efforts their stamp of approval. “Things are better for the cattle, better for me, and better for the water system,” Bruder says.

All that restoration work was expensive, but Dick Hardy, who’d fenced off his own stretch of creek, was busy drumming up support to get neighboring ranchers to follow his example. Many area landowners had an acrimonious relationship with government agencies, which they considered heavy-handed, and environmentalists, who they felt often treated ranchers as enemies. Yet Hardy recognized that seizing the impetus on conservation projects wasn’t only good for the land – it would allow ranchers to do things their way, rather than face inflexible regulations. “We wanted to steer the boat, rather than be told how to steer it,” Hardy says.

photo of hay bales in a mountain valleyPhoto by Chris Yauck Photography

In 2003 Hardy and neighbors founded the Drywood-Yarrow Conservation Partnership, an alliance of ranchers, government agencies, and environmental groups. Today, when one of the partnership’s ranchers wants to attempt a watershed stewardship project, a grant is typically available to fund it. Norine Ambrose, executive director of Cows and Fish, says that while the partnership’s model wasn’t unique, the group has proved uncommonly effective. Ambrose has worked with landowners around the province, and she’s observed a common trajectory: an early burst of activity, followed by a loss of energy as projects take years to bear fruit. Rather than sputtering, Drywood-Yarrow seemed to gain steam. “Dick and Tony were early leaders in their community,” Ambrose says. “It just takes a couple of key individuals to keep restoration on people’s radar.”

As the partnership grew, Bruder and Hardy began looking for other conservation opportunities. They invited Trout Unlimited to conduct fish surveys. They initiated an educational day for local schoolchildren. And, in 2008, they started to think about bears.

Like Jeff Bectell, Bruder didn’t see a grizzly on his land until the mid-1990s. Within a decade, he was seeing a dozen bears a year. He took pride in having land healthy enough to sustain wildlife. “I think it’s the coolest thing to see a bear walk across the hill,” he says. “I don’t know many ranchers who don’t think that.”

But the bears also made him nervous. They turned up in his backyard, even on his porch. They tore open his grain bins. One night a bear ripped a hole in a giant bag of silage; because the silage was exposed to oxygen while it was still fermenting, 40 tons of feed were ruined.

The bears killed livestock, too. Over in Cardston County, Jeff Bectell went to give his cattle salt one morning and found the remains of a calf. “It was just… gone,” Bectell recalls. “I’ve had calves die, and coyotes will eat the back end. I looked at this and could tell – this was different.” For his part, Dick Hardy lost sheep when a bear broke into his barn. “Sheep are like candy to a bear,” he says ruefully. He stopped raising sheep.

These conflicts weren’t the grizzlies’ fault, of course. The bears were just doing what bears do. And while the encounters were frightening for the humans involved, they were far more dangerous for the bears. In 2012, five grizzlies were killed by people in self-defense, and, since 2006, 16 “problem bears” – grizzlies that grew too comfortable around humans – have been put down. As long as bears kept associating humans with food, southwest Alberta was destined to remain a death trap for the animals.

To protect human property and ursine life, ranchers began working with the Alberta government to limit attractants. Once again, the local conservation partnership led the charge. Bruder put up electric fences around his silage, grain bins, and calving areas. On my tour of his property, Hardy showed me his old granary – a rickety wooden building that frequently fell victim to bear break-ins – and his new one, a bear-proof metal cylinder with a steel floor to prevent bears from digging through the bottom, funded by the government’s BearSmart program. “They did this for six, seven ranchers in this area,” Hardy says.

Still, getting other landowners on board remained challenging. Compared to watershed protection, bear mitigation was controversial. Some ranchers felt like their lands were being invaded – grizzlies hadn’t been on the landscape in a century, so why should landowners accommodate them now? How did the government know that reducing attractants would work?

Slowly, and aided by evidence, minds changed. Where electric fencing and bear-proof grain bins were installed, scientists set up motion-activated cameras. “We had images of bears trying to get into grain bins and not being able to, images of bears coming up to electric fences and standing away,” says Jeff Porter, former head of the Southwest Alberta Conservation Partnership. Data collected after mitigation projects showed a nearly 100 percent reduction in conflicts – not a single electric fence or bear-resistant bin was breached. In the last five years, Porter says, a growing cadre of ranchers has accepted the economic rationale of bear-proofing.

An even greater challenge than fortifying grain bins was dealing with dead livestock. For years, cattle that died of natural causes in Alberta had been carted off by rendering companies to become animal feed. That changed in 2003, when an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – Mad Cow Disease – resulted in new regulations that made rendering more expensive. Rendering companies began charging a fee for each animal, leading ranchers to dump carcasses at on-site boneyards – piles of meat that made for grizzly magnets. Unsurprisingly, researchers found that grizzly conflicts involving dead livestock more than tripled after the Mad Cow outbreak.

photo of a man in a cowboy hatPhoto by Chris Yauck Photography“We wanted to steer the boat, rather than be told how to steer it,” Dick Hardy says.

To solve the carcass crisis, the conservation partnership drew inspiration from a group called the Blackfoot Challenge – a coalition of Montana ranchers that for years had been composting carcasses at a bear-proof facility. In 2011, the Drywood-Yarrow group began a livestock collection program of its own, receiving funding from the government and Shell Canada to pay renderers to pick up carcasses. Last year, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association, a group now led by Jeff Bectell, set up a pilot carcass-
composting project in Cardston County.

There’s little question, biologist Greg Hale says, that conflict mitigation programs have reduced conflict. Still, they’re no panacea. “We have lots of good bears, bears that can pass through ranchlands and stay out of trouble,” he says. But, just like humans, bruins have distinct temperaments – and some are incorrigible. “No matter what you do for attractant management, you’re still going to have trouble with certain personalities.”

When possible, Alberta relocates those difficult grizzlies – it moved 29 conflict-prone bears in 2012 to remote areas – but problems persist. “We had fairly severe predation problems this year at calving time,” says Jennifer Jenkins, a rancher near Waterton Lakes who has electric fences and bear-proof grain bins on her property. “We lost a number of calves before we were able to get the bears relocated.” Jenkins’s struggles force a question: When a grizzly kills a cow, what recourse do ranchers have?

Alberta, like most Canadian provinces, is endowed with a Wildlife Predator Compensation Program, a fund that pays ranchers for livestock killed by bears, wolves, cougars, and the occasional eagle. Predator funds, first created by Defenders of Wildlife in the 1980s, are meant to ensure that producers don’t get hosed by carnivore recovery efforts, and to engender goodwill toward oft-despised species like wolves. Today, some US states and the US federal government have similar funds.

But for all their benefits, creating a compensation program is fraught with logistical difficulties. Who decides whether a dead cow was killed by a bear or just posthumously gnawed upon? How generously should ranchers be compensated? Who pays?

In Alberta, those questions are knotty. The province’s compensation program is administered by the government, but the money comes from the Alberta Conservation Association, a nonprofit that funds the program through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Last year, much to ranchers’ dismay, the program ran out of money, postponing payments for months.

Even when funds are available, ranchers don’t always receive what they believe they’re owed. Ten years ago, when Jeff Bectell found a cow that appeared to have been killed by a bear, he summoned a wildlife officer to the scene. The officer examined the evidence and decided that, while a grizzly had chewed on the carcass, he couldn’t determine whether the bear had done the killing. No compensation was awarded. Bectell suspects he’s lost four cows to predators over the years. He’s been paid for one-half of one cow.

“I think it’s the coolest thing in the world to see a bear walk across the hill. I don’t know many ranchers who don’t think that.”

Bectell is one of those people who can’t avoid serving on commissions and sitting on boards – “I see people griping and say, man, there’s got to be a solution” – and in the compensation fund, he saw a source of griping that seemed to have solutions. Among Bectell’s efforts is a committee called the Carnivore Working Group, which last year submitted a proposal to reform compensation. The group proposed full payment for kills deemed “probable” (as opposed to the current system, which awards 50 percent compensation only if the same predator strikes nearby within 90 days). The group also suggested ranchers be awarded 2.5 times the market value of every killed head of livestock, to make up for preyed-upon animals that couldn’t be confirmed.

The recommended changes would have added nearly $400,000 to the fund’s costs in 2011-2012 – an increase that Bectell acknowledges is significant. “Nevertheless, we think it’s justified,” he says. “These are real losses that real people are having, and if you want bears and wolves on this landscape, you have to address this.”

Not everyone agrees that the program needs revamping. Brian Horejsi, the wildlife biologist, scoffs at the notion that ranchers should receive more compensation. “We see this constant posturing, threatening to get rid of bears if the government doesn’t do A, B, and C in their interests,” he says. To Horejsi, compensation represents a subsidy that supports risky behavior.

Horejsi fears that important questions about the bears’ population structure – are there enough breeding females, are juveniles surviving into adulthood – will be glossed over in premature claims that grizzlies have recovered, perhaps leading to the resumption of the bear hunt. Indeed, while populations are increasing, Alberta’s bears continue to die at alarming rates: 31 bears perished in 2013, 26 of which were killed by humans. Horejsi, an Alberta native who grew up roaming the foothills, isn’t always popular with landowners; a rancher once expressed the desire to tie him to a tree and let bears chew on him. Yet he acknowledges that ranchers have helped Alberta’s prairies by restricting hunting and off-road vehicle use. “Private landowners realize that having four-by-fours running over the landscape is destructive as hell,” he says. “They’ve controlled human use, which government has never done.”

To Jeff Bectell, landowners’ willingness to steward wildlife is a public service, akin to freshwater management, that should be rewarded. “If you’re going to maintain a public asset on private lands, the public should help pay,” he says. “Society values wildlife. Let everybody share the cost.”

As with many conservation issues, there are two communities invested in the grizzly’s revival. There is the “community of interest” – the people, many of them urbanites, who support conservation with their minds and wallets. Then there’s the “community of place” – the folks who actually live with conservation’s consequences. I often wonder how the community of interest (of which I’m a card-carrying member) would react to having grizzlies in its backyard. Would it happily install electric fences, bear-proof everything, and accept the occasional uncompensated loss of property? Does the community of interest understand who’s doing the hard work of conservation – perhaps imperfectly, but earnestly and, by most accounts, effectively?

“There’s such disconnect from the landscape now,” says Bruder. “There was a time when almost everybody in Calgary knew somebody in agriculture. Now I don’t think it’s 5 percent. Everybody says they want more bears. But are you willing to pay an extra 20 dollars a year in taxes to pay for that? It would be nice to have some assistance to do what the public demands.”

After I leave Pincher Creek, I drive south to Waterton Lakes National Park, where I pitch a tent and rent a bicycle. I’m riding alongside a river when a long black snout and round ears pop from the brush 15 feet in front of me. A bear – a black bear, not nearly as dangerous as a grizzly, but not to be trifled with, either.

The bear steps from the brush, its head cocked, and ambles toward me. I’m thrilled, and more than a little afraid. The creature is at once a spectacular wild animal and a dangerous hazard. I feel both fortunate to have encountered this animal, and secretly, guiltily relieved that I don’t have to worry about it every time I ride a bike.

And unlike local landowners, I don’t have skin in the game. “When we were losing calves this year, it’s hard to describe how upsetting it was not being able to protect my livestock,” I recall Jennifer Jenkins telling me. “I would leave the cows and stay up all night, thinking about them getting attacked. It’s a terrible feeling being helpless to look after your own animals. I don’t know if that can easily be portrayed to people who don’t live on the land.”

I don’t live on the land, but for a brief moment I think I understand, in a small way, what it means to cohabit with carnivores. I put my bike between my body and the bear, and holler. The animal bolts, gallops across the road and up the rise on the other side. It takes a quick peek back at me before disappearing over the hill.

Ben Goldfarb’s writing has appeared in High Country News, OnEarth, and The Guardian. This story was funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

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