The territorial government released its first comprehensive territory-wide draft plan on grizzly bear conservation Wednesday, complete with 33 “actions” that would help meet seven overall goals.
The report itself is not meant to be prescriptive, and does therefore not offer concrete recommendations to which hard timelines are connected. It does, however, provide a roadmap of sorts about the 25-year-outlook for grizzlies in the Yukon.
That’s according to the Environment Department and Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board (YFWMB) officials who told media at a technical briefing Wednesday afternoon that the document could be used as a stepping stone to legislative or act changes.
“We had a lot of regulatory proposals put forth for grizzly bears without really having a framework to rely on in terms of what our overall vision or strategies were,” said Tom Jung, a senior wildlife biologist with the department.
“It was important to have this base piece of information.”
That’s after the federal government classified grizzly bears as species at risk – a webpage shows that the species are of “special concern” in areas like the Yukon, Nunavut, B.C. and Manitoba, while in Newfoundland & Labrador and Quebec, they are listed as extinct.
Creating this plan was an effort to be “proactive ... knowing that somewhere down the road, Canada would be looking at putting in a grizzly bear national plan,” Jung added.
It’s something the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) said is also a step in the right direction, calling it “encouraging.
“This is a pretty high-level document,” noted Adil Darvesh, the communications co-ordinator with CPAWS.
With one of the plan’s seven goals focusing on taking care of the land that bears inhabit, he said, there could have been more of an effort to address the cumulative effects on the land.
“I didn’t see that in any of the actions on how they plan on mitigating those,” Darvesh said.
That can go beyond things like the building of roads to include factors like noise pollution and human-bear interactions and conflicts, Darvesh added.
One of the survey’s questions (39) hinted at this, asking if the surveyors opposed or supported making sure that proposed developments in the area would minimize the potential to create conflicts. The majority (86 per cent) supported the idea while five per cent were neutral and the remaining nine per cent opposed it.
Those developments, the report noted, can include residential subdivisions, industrial properties and agricultural developments.
While the report does not make specific recommendations, Darvesh did acknowledge that it could be used in decisions around land-use planning and the proposal of other developments in areas around the territory.
“How those projects will affect the habitat and ecological integrity of the environment” are all important considerations, he continued.
Things like human-bear conflicts can grow increasingly important with the influx of tourists the Yukon sees throughout the summer months as well.
For instance, in July and August, the number of people who cross the border at Canada Customs points of entry climbs to about 100,000 from the much lower 3,000 to 4,000 just a couple months earlier during January and February – that’s according to figures provided by the Yukon Bureau of Statistics earlier this month.
The draft plan does not, however, rule out any regulation changes, with a release noting it “could include” these by helping inform management decisions.
Echoing Darvesh’s statement, the YFWMB agreed, noting the plan may have been a long time coming.
“It’s something that has been anticipated for a long time by organizations like (renewable resources councils) or municipal governments and so forth,” Graham Van Tighem said.
He noted that his time as executive director on the board has enabled him to hear a diversity of opinions.
Part of those views are reflected in the report: perhaps the starkest difference of opinion lies between big game hunters and those who are not.
On average, big game hunters supported the hunting of grizzly bears by Yukon residents, while those who were not opposed it.
However, both those from a community and people in Whitehorse specifically opposed non-resident hunting of the bears.
The plan was also sparked in part by public concern of roadside bear hunting dating back to 2010.
The territorial government did not accept the board’s recommendation to implement a hunting ban in certain ares of the territory over the last number of years – a recommendation that itself has evolved.
This time around, the draft plan does not explicitly take a position on the issue, but it does reference the results of one of the questions asked in the survey.
That question (37) asks if surveyors oppose or support regulations to restrict roadside bear hunting, to which most responded that they strongly agree.
That means that 75 per cent supported the idea, while five per cent were neutral and 20 per cent opposed it.
The report adds that “as such, there is currently no clear path forward on this issue at the territorial level.
“Rather, the issue has been reviewed and is best addressed at a local level through the Yukon Wildlife Act regulation change proposal process,” it continued.
That was echoed by Van Tighem, who said the board deals with Yukon-wide issues but there are bodies that may be better left to make decisions about their traditional territory.
“One of the things we didn’t want to do is create a plan that would take away from local management,” he said, adding that local management can involve First Nations government and renewable resources councils.
“We don’t want to have a plan that overrides renewal resources councils’ ability to create their own management strategy.”
Jung nodded, adding that “the conservation plan can inform policy developments or regulations, but it doesn’t make them.”
Adding that taking a closer look at setting quotas for hunting may be helpful, Darvesh noted “it’s important to have science-based decisions.
“As long as the decision is made with a conscious effort to keep grizzly bear populations sustainable into the future, then it’s the right move.”
Jung explained that there are more short-term and long-term priorities that lend itself to the overall vision of the population of grizzly bears over the next couple of decades.
“For short-term priorities, looking at immediate changes, we can take one to two years – longer term was more on the order of five years or so,” explained Tyler Kuhn, a biologist with the department.
It’s also partly why the plan didn’t specify a timeframe, he added, as Jung noted that longer-term actions could take generations to achieve.
One of the immediate actions (4.1) the plan says is possible that will help achieve one of the overall goals of ensuring harvesting is sustainable and respectful, is to implement a total allowable harvest of grizzly bears in each bear management unit within the territory.
“Conceptually that sounds pretty straight-forward to do in terms of making a regulation change – however, it’s going to require a lot of discussion,” Jung explained.
Van Tighem hinted that changes to the practice could be in the works, but it was too soon to say one way or the other.
“I would anticipate in the future there may be some specific regulation changes that come up from some of the communities to deal with issues such as roadside bear hunting,” he said, explaining that it may be a concern for one community or First Nation, for instance, but not another.
As for the next steps: the department explained that the draft plan will be open for public comment come September and last about 60 days.
Community meetings facilitated by First Nations governments and councils are common, Van Tighem added, along with the government’s consultation process.
The YFWMB is hoping to recommend the plan to the minister at its December board meeting.