Alberta ranchers bluster about grizzlies too

Brian Horejsi takes some wind out-

In the United States we are familiar with livestock operators in grizzly country often complaining about how they have a lot of trouble with grizzly bears.

A half century ago, the province of Alberta had many more of the great bear than the struggling American populations south of the border. Times have changed. Alberta is now the petro-province. This has had enormous impacts on fish and wildlife; and, of course, on grizzlies. Given this huge decline in bear numbers, Americans might be surprised to hear Alberta ranchers still complaining about them and retelling most of the old arguments though there are only about 65 griz in entire southwestern Alberta.

Dr. Brian Horejsi is just the person to take this on because for over half a century has lived with, investigated, and written about the plight of, and been an advocate for grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains. This includes his home, Alberta.

A recent interview of an Alberta rancher prompts Dr. Horejsi to write about Alberta grizzlies on the basis of his professional knowledge and practical experience.

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Rancher blusters ‘bout bears!
By Brian L. Horejsi, Ph.D.

April 2013

I belatedly had a chance to listen to a recent radio interview in which a rancher living near Waterton Lakes National Park (in Southwest Alberta, bordering Glacier National Park in Montana on the north) carried on with a far too common bit of bluster about grizzly bears. Clipped into the interview were some comments from me. I figure that gives me license to reply via this commentary.

Credit goes to the interviewer for trying to focus on a couple issues – such as bears are valuable and awesome animals – but I wondered why there was no pursuit of the rancher regarding some of the many ideological unsupported and factually detached comments he made. Because that critical element was missing, the interview became misleading, inaccurate, and biased. All that did was enhance the mythological, no longer in existence, cowboy culture, while making it appear that grizzlies will , and I exaggerate to make the point, steal his babies from their crib.

These are some observations that I think bring to the debate some public interest perspective, some rational thought and analysis, and a long term solution to the festering conflict between ranchers and grizzly bears.

#1. In my interview clip I talked about attractants, and the significance of making them unavailable, and both the rancher and interviewer also did. Then the rancher referred to a grizzly “on his deck” that was searching for / got into his dog’s food, food the rancher or his family would have put there!!

He then proceeded to say his grain bin is vulnerable and accessible to bears. The reality is his property needs major bear proofing! (I support public $ for this, at least temporarily, until he’s not operating / not storing grain). This highlights the detachment between talk and actions (known as cognitive dissonance) that people like some ranchers in SW Alberta have become  associated with. This kind of “prattle” is widespread in the livestock industry.

#2. It’s interesting that even the rancher would recognize that only 1% of the bears cause difficulty for him and his neighbors. That varies by region, population, time of the year, etc., but it’s close to true. Given that there are fewer than 65 bears in all of Southwestern Alberta that makes essentially one bear (at any given time) the cause of their “losses” and paranoia.

Of course, there are few, very few, hunters on this earth that can “select” a “target” bear for a kill – far too many can’t even distinguish a grizzly from a black bear. There were three such mistaken identity kills in 2010 (out of 19 know mortalities). So, what are we to suspect would be the consequences of a hunt? As shown time after time, non target bears will die, often in considerable numbers, at the expense of the population and Albertans, and the sloppy management and husbandry that attracts bears and keeps them interested, will prolong and perpetuate the contact with people.

#3. It was of interest to hear the rancher claim – as I recall -that there were virtually no bears around his place about 30 or so years ago. That would be about pre-1980. Of course, wholesale slaughter of bears was routine practice then, so I suspect that early generations of ranchers engaged in this practice. Not only has this bred a form of contempt for bears – “if they cause people a problem, they deserve to – should be killed ” – that spans generations. It fuels disrespect / regard for public value and ownership (of bears and their habitat).

 My 2004 report (Grizzly bears in southwest Alberta) shows that large numbers of bears were relocated from and within the region in the 80’s (18 in one year) (page 43) and at least 40 were killed (page 72). Prior to this, reporting by ranchers was close to non existent – deliberately avoided in some cases (the old 3s approach ; shoot, shovel, and shutup) – and government records are almost as unreliable, so the extent of killing is unknown, but given the times (the late genesis period of the distrust of bears shown by ranchers) it may well be that almost no bears survived a foray onto private ranch lands. Pretty Sad!

But it doesn’t mean there were no bears! The point (partly) of knowing how many bears were removed / destroyed in the 80’s is that no grizzly/ brown bear population world wide has been known to exhibit an annual growth rate of much beyond 4%; most populations exposed to humans decline (even under restrictive mortality management situations) or grow at a rate of minus 2 to plus 2% per annum. Consequently, there WERE bears in SW AB in the 1960’s and 70’s whether or not local ranchers knew of them (or were prepared to admit it?). The suggestion that “suddenly” there were / are “to many” bears smacks of street naivety and politics – if he didn’t see them, they must not have existed” – apparently.

This is why science developed; it looks below the surface, so to speak. And it is why it continues to be necessary to gather evidence (not necessarily research, but scientific population monitoring) data, analyze it, make it available to the public, and employ it in the public interest. While Alberta has generally failed to employ science in land and wildlife conservation, it does not mean citizens and the media should be mislead by, or pander to, “street” generated trivia, much of it a product of ideology.

Its not surprising that science is avoided by people like SW Alberta ranchers (although they are not alone); Investigation and science delve behind the ideological and politically closed doors that individuals and special interests employ to avoid accountability and further their own, usually monetary, interests (ahead of and often at the expense of the public good).

#4. Some rancher’s preoccupation – paranoia – about human safety is a throw back to the dark ages (tongue in cheek, but it sure  doesn’t conjure up the image of the brave, tough cowpoke, does it?).

To my knowledge there has been only one young person killed by a free ranging grizzly bear in western Canada in the last century. If that’s enough to scare the old boys, and it seems something is stuck under their saddle, it probably wont even register with their own or their neighbor kids, unless dad’s fomenting fear. Message to rancher: the sand box is a pretty safe spot.

It would be of use, however, to remind ranchers that if there is a incident on their property and someone is injured, or worse, and there is any – repeat, any – sign of unprotected, unmanaged attractants that could contribute to the conflict, they should be held legally and financially culpable.

#5. No rancher is going to go to jail for killing a grizzly in defense of life! No person in our history (Canada) has gone to jail for killing a bear; I suppose they think this will pull someones heart strings!! I view it as just another ideological siren song that is essentially fraudulent.

In the future however, I can see that, if/when grizzlies achieve true legal protection as endangered species / population, a jail sentence for needles killing would be appropriate.

#7. Ranchers complain about the “cost” of bears on their property, but, surprise, they can’t / don’t come up with any numbers! Suspicious, really, given the implicit and stated message that “its tough to make a living with all them bears damaging property and eating crops and livestock”! Incidentally, its not often they reveal that if an investigation demonstrates that a bear killed livestock, they will be – probably almost all have been – compensated! Nice omission!!

#8. And how about this one: It has been reported that for every dollar income reported by the agriculture “community” – consisting of people like SW Alberta ranchers – the tax payer coughs up $3.83 in subsidies! Even if its close to that, these operations would be off the land if they didn’t have taxpayer handouts. That alone indicates “we” (taxpayers) need to buy people like this off of their land, or at least out of operation; by doing so not only would we contribute to the viability of the bear population, but we’d save the taxpayers a hell a lot of valuable, more appropriately spent dollars.

Tack on this: for every cow / calf unit (AUM) local ranchers graze in summer / fall on nearby public land – habitat where grizzly bears depend on vegetation diversity for forage and shelter/security – both of which are “consumed” or fouled by livestock – they pay the taxpayer less than the price of a loaf of bread per month (the fee has been “frozen” since 1994! Sweet deal, huh!).

Just east of these foothill ranchers, on private land, that animal unit month can cost about $20 per AUM. And this $18.00 subsidy doesn’t factor into the $3.83!

Add the cost to taxpayers of degraded wildlife habitat and constant babysitting by Fish and Wildlife, and even other subsidies, and the tab keeps climbing.

The reality is taxpayers / citizens cant afford to keep some of these people in the ranching “business”.

All of the preceding political and ecological bubbling and boiling takes place under the umbrella of evolutionary, ecological and behavior reality that grizzly bears (and humans) cannot escape. This means that as long as there is one bear on the landscape, there is a risk of contact with humans and their property. Bears can be opportunistic (within the framework of being relatively “smart’) and human endeavor or carelessness or indifference that provides attractants dramatically escalates the risk of contact with humans. Consequently, there will always be a particular bear, or circumstance, that may warrant euthanization of a specific bear, provided – and this is fundamental – provided all possible actions have been taken to “clean up” a farming / ranching operation and make all attractants inaccessible to bears. Destroying a bear is a job for Fish and Wildlife – its not sport – after a protocol driven, serious assessment.

If some humans can’t or won’t live with these relative exceptions, or behave in ways that escalate their frequency, the best citizens / society can do is get those people off the landscape. Its way past time to kick this practice into gear in SW Alberta. We need to get something positive done, something with real consequences for Albertans, public assets, and bears.






  1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    I find it pretty hard to stomach ranchers complaining about wild animals interfering with their business, given that the ranching profession would have disappeared from western North America long ago were it not for various and numerous citizen subsidies, including nearly free use/abuse of public land/wildlife habitat. How about we cut back on the subsidies and see how they like that?

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Change every instance of the word ” Alberta” to ” Wyoming” , and I could read this letter out loud here in Cody Wyoming GYE – USA for all to hear. Except they would plug their ears… heresy !

    With all the talk in COngressional circles about bringing the deficit under control and reducing spending, I have yet to hear one word emanating from Washington on raising the AUM grazing fee to something approaching even half the fair market value , and likewise ” adjusting” all the livestock and resource federal subsidies to achieve parity with taxpayer investment in same.

    Heresy! – to suggest any of that common sense bipartisan politically neutral fiscal policy . Guess I’m a heretic.

    1. mikepost Avatar

      Obama’s budget proposal contains a $1 increase in the AUM…good luck though…

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan


        It is extremely modest, but it is at least something.

        Thanks for the info. I hadn’t heard it.

  3. dc Avatar

    When a rancher’s entire life is predicated on raising (domesticated) animals in order to slaughter them, then it should not be a surprise that the rancher’s solution to any inconvenience or intrusion from (wild) animals is to slaughter them.

  4. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    I got an e-mailto add my name to write to congress to add a small amount of money to every stock transaction,that would make up for the entire deficit alone,just like the Aum grazing.

  5. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    I would suggest if anybody reads this go to the Robin hood tax in D.C. site ,it will happen April 20th and will have a live stream at 12:00 P.M. EST Keith Ellison d-Minn, but out a bill to have a sales tax on wall street transactions. This is something worth looking into,may not happen but a great idea.

  6. Barrie Gilbert Avatar
    Barrie Gilbert

    Brian Horejsi is right on target. I was a wildlife biologist in Alberta and watched this stuff.
    If you can believe it I had a locker in the gym near an Albertan who told me that a lot of his father’s neighbors in the area Brain talks about killed and buried many grizzlies. He knew I supported grizzly conservation and also knew that I’d narrowly missed being killed by one in Yellowstone before I went on to help them the rest of my life. But he seemed to want me to know how extensive was the destruction. Some ranchers, like the Russell family near Waterton, lived close to, and defended grizzlies through their life. charlie Russell continues the tradition of helping us understand our ignorance of these magnificent animals.
    Thanks Ralph for all you do.


    1. JB Avatar

      Thanks to you, Barrie–for all you did and do for grizzlies.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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