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Province to limit vehicle access for grizzly bear recovery

Upper Lillooet River and Birkenhead area closures follow landmark study and stakeholder advocacy

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Government officials have agreed to restrict public access to key Sea to Sky grizzly bear habitat, recognizing that it is vital to recovering the species in the region.

The closures will take place in the Upper Lillooet River and Brikenhead areas, north of Pemberton. The Lillooet South Fire Service Road (starting near the 2-kilometre mark) will be closed from April 1 to June 15 and Sept. 16 to Nov. 30, and the Birkenhead Lake fire service road (starting near the 14-km mark) will be closed from July 15 to Oct. 31.

The closures will not apply to commercial users or First Nations, and hikers will still be able to access the areas on foot.

The Upper Lillooet River watershed is shared by four different grizzly bear population units—all are deemed to be "threatened" by the province.

According to the province, the South Chilcotin Ranges Grizzly Bear Population Unit (GBPU) is estimated to have 203 bears, the Squamish-Lillooet GBPU has 59, the Stein-Nahatlatch has 24, and the Garibaldi-Pitt GBPU has just two.

"The Upper Lillooet River watershed is a linchpin for regional grizzly bear conservation and recovery because, in addition to its inherently high natural productivity of high-energy food (specifically huckleberries and salmon), it provides multi-season core habitats for female bears and their cubs," wrote Frank DeGagne, a land and resource specialist with the Sea to Sky Natural Resource District in an email to Pique.

Moreover, because the area is shared territory, it is seen as vital to demographic exchange, which in turn is vital to creating healthy, resilient grizzly bear populations.

"As such, it is critical that motorized access be managed so that it does not threaten the security of grizzly bears," DeGagne relayed.

The closures were identified in a recent government report: Motorized Access Management: Recommendations to Protect Grizzly Bears in the Upper Lillooet River Area.

The core planning team behind the report included representatives from government, the Lil'wat Nation, the Pemberton Wildlife Association (PWA), and Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, which played a major role in bringing about the closures.

According to Allen McEwan, president of the PWA, the March 2018 report clearly illustrated the importance of the area to grizzly bear recovery using hard, scientific data.

"I think that the biologists were aware of the important areas, but it had never been compiled on a map like this before, where a layman like myself could understand the importance of these habitats," said McEwan.

The closures will help protect vital wildlife burn areas in the Upper Lillooet River watershed, he added. The huckleberry patches they produce are "phenomenally important" to grizzlies, he added.

Since 2007, the report's study team has collared nine females and seven males in such areas. In addition, there have been at least four "uncollared" mature females with cubs recorded in the last three years at DNA hair-snag sites set up there.

For McEwan, getting the closures in place now is a great move.

"We've seen a tremendous rise in recreational use in all areas in the Sea to Sky," he said. "So I think that the government bringing this out now is very timely, because it puts us a little bit ahead of the rush."

According to an October 2017 Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia audit of grizzly bear management, there are some 600,000 km of resource roads in B.C., with an estimated 10,000 km added each year.

"This expansion allows greater human access into wilderness areas, which results in increased illegal killing of grizzly bears, and greater human-bear conflicts," stated the report. "Yet, long-promised resource road legislation that could address this risk is not yet in place."

Moreover, research now clearly shows what many biologists have long-believed—higher road density leads to lower grizzly bear population.

In January 2018 a study from the University of Alberta used non-invasive DNA collection to scientifically illustrate the relationship. Studying threatened grizzly bear populations in the Monashee Mountains, it found that road closures boosted bear density by 27 per cent in areas with closures and found that road densities greater than 0.6 km squared were associated with fewer bears.

For McEwan and others, road closures are an effective and cost-efficient way of recovering grizzly bear populations.

"It's a very common practice in other parts of the province," he said. "But this is one of the first in recent years that's come through in Pemberton."

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