In the U.S., habitat has been set aside, hunting outlawed and dumps closed as part of the national effort to protect brown bears. Nearly 100,000 grizzlies are thought to have once inhabited an area west of the Mississippi which stretched beyond the boundaries of Canada and Mexico, but today there are perhaps a thousand bears in the lower 48 and a few hundred more in Canada, where their future remains uncertain.
Canadians have much less stringent laws, according to Brian Horesji, a veteran researcher with a forestry degree from the University of Montana. Because of the nature of provincial governments, he continues, and the lack of anything resembling the U.S. Department of Interior or other agencies charged with instituting top-down conservation efforts-however flawed they might be-remnant grizzly habitat in B.C. and Alberta is being whittled away by logging and mining companies, as well as by ongoing population pressure in the Canadian West.
Horesji went on to say things are unlikely to change in the province of British Columbia or Alberta-where most Canadian grizzlies live-any time soon.
"If you're going to save populations of bears in the Yaak, Selkirk and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems," Horesji told the American journalists, "you're going to have to do it yourself."
Following two full days of discussion about the status of bears below the 49th parallel, which barely touched on the international concerns, Horesji blasted his own government with both barrels, noting that "bears don't recognize boundaries, but are confined by them nonetheless."
Horesji's talk countered the widely-held belief that the Canadian Rockies are a veritable grizzly refuge. His talk resonated strongly with American grizzly activists, who are already aware of three shared pockets of occupied habitat on the Canada-U.S. border: the Selkirk, Yaak-Cabinet and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems, which includes Glacier National Park and stretches down through the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
In the Selkirks, across the Idaho panhandle, Horesji notes that logging is the leading industry, and logging levels in B.C. currently exceed those anywhere else in Canada. Horesji also has figures reflecting the fact that British Columbia is the world's largest exporter of both milled timber and pulp products, dwarfing the exports found in the United States' Inland Northwest.
"There is nothing there that is going to provide long-term habitat protection for bears," Horesji says. "There's no ecological approach when it comes to conservation, and there are no core areas of grizzly habitat which have been set aside.
"Land use in British Columbia has been built around maintaining the cut. If I were an American and I wondered whether they were serious about preserving Canadian caribou or grizzly bear populations, I would ask about this timber-based planning process."
During the past few years, Horesji adds, Canadian officials have acknowledged that mortality rates for grizzlies-numbering about 2,500-have exceeded acknowledged limits. Despite this fact, a hunting season for the brown bears continues to allow the legal killing of nearly 300 bruins each year.
Further, Horesji says, there has thus far been very little coordination between the neighboring countries' governments about how to establish a safe zone for the bears. And that, he says, could spell trouble not just for the bears themselves, but for the widely-publicized Bitterroot reintroduction program in this country as well.
"It's a political sensitive issue," Horesji says. "They may be killing 300 bears per year, but sending 24 to the U.S. is another story.
"I don't think you'll just zip these bears out of there like you did with the wolves," he says, referring to the wolf reintroduction effort of 1995, when Canadian wolves were transplanted to Yellowstone and Idaho. "The first time many Canadians heard about that was on the television after the wolves were already here."
Grizzly bears, which are protected as endangered in the United States, face unmitigated pressure in Canada. Photo courtesy of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.