Grizzly bears in southwest BC: prospects for survival

by Kaleen McNamara

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to go on a tour around the Lillooet and Pemberton areas, with Peter Wood, our Director of Terrestrial Campaigns, and several other conservationists in preparation for the launch of our new grizzly bear recovery project (more details on the project coming soon!). Our trip took us to striking locations near sun-soaked lakes and rivers where we met with bear biologists, members of the Pemberton Wildlife Association, and other locals to learn about the grizzly bears’ habitat needs, threats they are facing, and the potential for their recovery. 

We stayed at Texas Creek Ranch (above), a stunning spot tucked into the mountains on the east side of the Fraser River, in the Stein-Nahatlatch region. Peter explained the drastic change in ecosystems we witnessed along the way, from cool temperate rainforest near Squamish, to the dry, hot and mountainous terrain along the Fraser where Lillooet is situated, reminiscent of the desert-like landscape near Osoyoos.

Upon arriving we heard from the other conservationists about the dire status of grizzlies in the nearby Stein Valley, where the few bears that remain are the most isolated and inbred population in BC. Biologists believe that unless something is done soon, these grizzlies will disappear. After a night camping in a field, we were awoken before dawn by an overzealous rooster who apparently could not wait for sun to start his day (or ours). We talked about bears over breakfast and reviewed some regional maps (picture to the right).

Our first meeting was at Duffy Lake, a beautiful site along Highway 99, with two BC government bear biologists who have an amazing breadth of experience working in the region. This part of BC is gorgeous, and an area where you can definitely imagine grizzly bears roaming.                                               

Pouring over a map, we listened to the history of bears in southwest BC. All grizzly populations in this region are threatened. The biologists pointed out that it may already be too late for grizzlies in the Garibaldi-Pitt area (just east of the “Sea to Sky” highway connecting Squamish and Whistler), and that very few grizzlies remain in the Cascades ranges along southern BC and northern Washington – these bear are also extremely isolated. South Chilcotin grizzlies are more numerous, but are also threatened, and are under increasing pressure from new mining, independent power project (IPP) and road proposals.

The biologists showed us the places they believe will provide the best opportunities to re-connect high quality habitat from the Coast to the Cascade Mountains and the recovery steps needed to bring back healthy populations in these areas.

Next we met for lunch in Pemberton with a local farmer, rancher, outdoorsman and fourth-generation valley resident, who took us on a tour of the Pemberton Valley and described its most important conservation issues. We learned that it is a vital agricultural area, growing seed potatoes, root vegetables, berries, beef cattle, and much more. This is a place where generations of farmers have learned to co-exist with grizzlies, and is a key habitat corridor in the “coast to cascades” region, but it is also under a lot of development pressure. From a vantage point overlooking Pemberton Meadows, our guide reminded us that if a planned hydro-power project goes through on the Upper Lillooet, this landscape will be marred by a large transmission line and other infrastructure.

What we took away from our trip was that although there is real sense of urgency regarding the plight of the grizzly bear in southwest BC, there is still hope. The threat does not stem from any one project, but from the cumulative impact of various industries and infrastructure development efforts over decades, this is compounded by new projects (run-of the river, mines, roads and other developments). The sum total is having a devastating impact on grizzlies. However, if we give the bears a chance, by preventing further habitat fragmentation and reconnecting core habitat areas, we may see this species make a comeback in southwestern BC.