EDMONTON, Alta. - HOLD to move Sunday 8a

Members of an advisory group say Alberta is putting politics before science by delaying a decision on protecting the province's dwindling number of grizzly bears.

In March, the government-appointed Endangered Species Conservation Committee told the province it should list the bears as a "threatened" species based on research that says there are fewer than 700 grizzlies left in Alberta.

Two months have passed and the government still hasn't made a decision on the recommendation and may not make a decision this year, saying it wants feedback from people in rural ridings.

"They have all the information. The scientific sub-committee presented it to us and we all agreed that it makes sense, so take action now," says Phillip Penner of Nature Alberta, one of the groups represented on the committee.

"It is political. Listing the species creates legal responsibilities for the government. It is a fear of what happens if they list the species and how they are going to manage our resources."

The delay is puzzling when you consider the committee that approved the recommendation includes strong representation from the energy, forestry and ranching sectors.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Alberta Forest Products Association, the Alberta Fish and Game Association and Alberta Beef Producers all have representatives on the committee. The group also includes academics, First Nations and conservation groups.

No one opposed the recommendation, although two representatives abstained, say committee members.

Martin Sharren of the Fish and Game Association says his organization doesn't favour listing the grizzly as a threatened species. He says such as move could prevent the government from reinstating an annual hunt for the iconic bears. It was suspended in 2006.

Sharren says he doubts the government will make a decision to list the grizzlies as threatened because it is afraid it would be politically mauled by rural voters. He says it is no secret the government is taking pains not to annoy rural supporters in the face of its sliding popularity and the rise of the more conservative Wildrose Alliance Party.

"They don't like to get letters and there is the Wildrose Alliance," Sharren says. "They don't want to stir the pot unless they have to. It is a contentious issue and there are enough things going on right now and they are not looking for more."

Mel Knight, Alberta's minister of Sustainable Resource Development, has said he wants to consult with members of the government caucus before making a decision.

Officials in the department say the issue has other complications. There are concerns that if the bears are listed as threatened Ottawa could have a say in their welfare under the federal Species at Risk Act. The province would also have to look at restricting access to grizzly bear habitat, which could affect resource projects and recreation.

Darcy Whiteside, a government spokesman, says Knight wants to listen to his government colleagues because his decision on the grizzly bears is expected to attract plenty of attention. Controversy over the grizzly bear hunt in British Columbia last month made headlines around the world.

"There is a larger public awareness, more interest from stakeholders and the general public," Whiteside says.

"You do have the hunters and some of the ranchers who believe there is going to be a threat to their livestock or livelihood if the grizzly bears are designated as threatened. There would be concerns from industry on what the designation would mean in terms of access and in terms of approvals for leases."

This isn't the first time Alberta's Progressive Conservative government has been faced with a recommendation to add the grizzly bear to the threatened species list. In 2002 the committee made a similar call to protect the bears.

Rather than comply, the government eventually suspended the hunt and called for more research on the number of bears in Alberta. It is that new research that the species committee considered in March before making its recommendation to the province.

Mark Boyce, a University of Alberta grizzly bear expert who has been advising the government, says the foot-dragging is frustrating and doesn't bode well for the big bears.

Political concerns could very well trump science when the minister makes his final decision, he says.

“The recommendation based on science has gone to Mel Knight and Mel has to make the political decision on whether to list the bears as threatened,” Boyce says. “I don't think he is going to do it.”

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