Program aims to put space between carnivores and Alberta ranches

The Carnivores and Communities Program was set up in 2009 to reduce conflict between ranches and predators, such as bears, wolves and cougars

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Jeff Bectell’s family had been ranching for decades without ever seeing a grizzly bear on their property.

It was 1993 before one finally showed up on the family ranch south of Cardston, said Bectell, whose family has ranched there since 1919.

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“You know there’s grizzly bears further west, but they didn’t get out to our farm,” he said. “But we started seeing them about that time (in 1993) and that’s pretty consistent with people north of Waterton, it’s pretty consistent with people down in Montana.”

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Today, predators such as grizzly bears and wolves are doing well in Alberta, with the threatened-species designation of grizzly bears being reviewed by the Alberta government. With Alberta’s population also increasing, that has led to more conflicts between wildlife and humans, said Bectell.

Bectell co-ordinates a program that reduces conflicts with grizzly bears, black bears, wolves and cougars by reducing attractants. The Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association’s Carnivores and Communities Program (CACP) started in 2009 and has received ongoing support from the Alberta government.

Last week, the province announced funding of $700,000 over five years for the CACP, including $160,000 in 2023-24 and $135,000 for each of the following four years.

Through the CACP, more than 140 on-farm projects have been completed, many involving making grain or feed storage bear-proof. A typical project could involve putting a bear-proof door on a grain bin, replacing a wooden bin with a steel bin or a shipping container, or placing an electric fence around grain bins, chicken coops, calving fields or bee hives.

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Through the Deadstock Removal Program, an important part of the CACP, hundreds of carcasses are picked up each year. That program costs between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, said Bectell.

“There’s no silver bullet that is the one solution to this,” he said. “It’s all of these working together. It’s deadstock removal, it’s grain bin upgrades, it’s having good compensation in place for when people have livestock killed. It’s managing the wildlife as well — sometimes there has to be lethal control of a problem bear or a problem wolf pack.”

Jeff Bectell
Jeff Bectell stands next to a deadstock bin on Alberta ranchland. Good Planet Project photo

One big issue remains to be addressed — livestock predation is “still difficult” and can be costly for ranches, says Bectell.

If a rancher has a cow killed by a large carnivore and a Fish and Wildlife officer can confirm the kill, the rancher will be compensated, and in most cases landowners would say the payment is reasonable, said Bectell.

“The challenge is that you don’t find every animal killed by a predator, especially in an area with many trees,” he said.

Ranchers have been asking the province to provide improved compensation for cattle killed by predators. After talking with producers, the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association came up with a multiplier of 2.5, representing the difference between the number of confirmed killed animals and those ranchers suspected of being killed by a predator.

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“The community is discouraged that after over two years that hasn’t yet materialized, and it’s been over 11 years since we first took this suggestion of putting a multiplier in place on confirmed kills,” said Bectell, emphasizing that the association is “not trying to put more money into rich ranchers’ pockets.”

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Still, the association is grateful for the province’s continued support for the program, said Bectell.

“We all like to see wildlife, whether it’s deer or elk or bears, and yet there’s challenges with it,” he said. “It’s not easily solved, but people are working together on it, and that’s really good.”

In a news release, the province praised the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association for successfully working to promote peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife in the Waterton Biosphere Region.

“Coexisting with wildlife, including large carnivores, is an everyday part of living and working in rural Alberta,” Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said in a statement. “The Carnivores and Communities Program is making a difference for farmers, ranchers and landowners in the Waterton Biosphere Region, and this investment will help protect humans, wildlife and infrastructure.”

Alberta Forestry and Parks says it is considering a pilot program to improve predator-livestock management. The main goal of such a  program would be to equip producers with tools to reduce and prevent predator-caused livestock deaths, says the ministry.

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