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Grizzly bears kill 17 sheep in unusual attack on Alberta ranch

Grizzly bears kill 17 sheep

Grizzly bears killed 17 sheep and five lambs on a Southern Alberta farm this week, in a gruesome attack both the rancher and wildlife experts say is rare, especially considering the sheer number of animals slaughtered.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mike Walter from the Spring Point Hutterite Colony about 200 kilometres south of Calgary. “It’s just dead sheep everywhere, torn apart.”

Alerted by a farmhand Monday morning that something had happened to his flock, Mr. Walter said he was “shocked” to see the number of sheep carcasses strewn across their pen.

He said he’s seen bears before near his cattle ranch a few miles away from where he keeps the flock. Once, he said, a black bear came through the area, but it didn’t harm the sheep. “I’ve never really seen a grizzly here.”

According to a 2021 province-wide census, the Alberta grizzly bear population is estimated to be between 856 and 973, a significant increase from previous years when it was below 700.

Grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species and in 2006 the provincial government made hunting them illegal under the Alberta Wildlife Act in an attempt to boost their numbers. As the population grows, however, bears can venture away from their mountain habitats and closer to ranchland, making encounters more likely, according to one expert.

University of Calgary biologist Kathreen Ruckstuhl, who researches the behaviour and ecology of wildlife, said that while bear-livestock confrontations are unusual, predators killing large numbers of animals isn’t unheard of.

“It is not uncommon for a bear, or carnivores in general, to kill more animals than ‘needed’ given the opportunity,” Ms. Ruckstuhl said in an e-mail. “Typically, in the wild this is not possible as individual prey will run and disperse to avoid predation.”

Mr. Walter said at first he wasn’t sure what had caused the attack and initially didn’t think it was a bear considering neighbours had said cougars had recently killed some of their livestock.

But an Alberta Fish and Wildlife officer investigated the incident, Mr. Walter said, confirming the attack was from a grizzly bear. Fish and Wildlife officials said Wednesday that they believe it was a sow and two cubs, and they have set two traps to capture and relocate the bears.

“They hardly fed on anything. One sheep – it seemed like they chewed around,” Mr. Walter said. “It was almost like for fun.”

Ms. Ruckstuhl said that, although it might seem like the bear killed for sport, it was likely following its natural tendencies.

“I think it is an instinct to kill more if the prey does not escape,” she said. “Domestic sheep seem to be particularly vulnerable because their instinct is to flock when frightened.”

Mr. Walter said bear attacks like this are “pretty rare” in their area. He’s heard of farmers losing a few sheep further south around Cardston, but never anything of this magnitude.

“Even the warden said he’s never seen so many at once,” Mr. Walter said.

There were between 40 and 50 sheep in the pen, Mr. Walter said, adding he expects to lose some animals to weather and disease, but never this many at once. While he said he will receive compensation for the losses, the attack still creates financial strain.

Last year, Mr. Walter paid $350 each for 17 adult sheep, meaning with the recent losses he’s out close to $6,000. He said lambs typically sell for $300 each, so losing five is another financial blow.

Alberta Fish and Wildlife offers either full or partial compensation depending on whether an attack is a “confirmed” or “probable kill.” In the first case, ranchers receive full market value for the livestock. In the latter, they can receive half the full value but only if another kill by the same suspected predator occurs within three months and 10 kilometres of the original kill spot.

Despite what happened to his sheep, Mr. Walter said, he still looks on bears with respect even if there is no clear way of preventing future attacks.

“They’re majestic animals and we kind of admire them, and it’s too bad that they do that, but I don’t know what the solution is,” he said.

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