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Cochrane Ecological Institute embroiled in dispute with Alberta Environment and Parks over suspended rehabilitation permit

The story of an ongoing dispute between a private wildlife rehabilitation centre in Cochrane and the provincial government department overseeing it has more twists and turns than a mountain trail in bear country.

The story of an ongoing dispute between a private wildlife rehabilitation centre in Cochrane and the provincial government department overseeing it has more twists and turns than a mountain trail in bear country.

And until it’s all sorted out, Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers called out to dangerous and sensitive bear encounters are operating in a kind of limbo, as their usual options may now be limited.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI) and Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) have been embroiled in a ‘he said, she said’ debate over what’s best for orphaned black bear cubs since the province revoked CEI's license last year. Then, AEP admitted they shouldn’t have, re-instated the license two months later, before revoking it again seven months after that.

It all began in 2021, when a five-kilogram bitumen-covered black bear cub was delivered to the Cochrane-based rehabilitation centre from a fly-in oil camp in northern Alberta.

The oil company employee who rescued the cub had called provincial wildlife officers the year before, when a mother bear was hit and killed by a truck, and had to watch in horror as the officer shot and killed the cub that was left behind. Still upset about that experience, this time, he contacted CEI President Clio Smeeton to see if she could take in the abandoned cub.

Koda, as the tiny cub came to be named, arrived at CEI on May 18 and was taken immediately to a wildlife veterinarian in Airdrie where she was cleaned up, checked out, and began feeding and acting like a normal cub.

CEI staff notified the province about the situation on May 21 – two days after they had picked up the cub from the veterinarian.

On June 1, Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers took the cub away, along with the facility’s permit to rehabilitate bears, much to the surprise and chagrin of Smeeton.

She had no inkling of how the byzantine world of Alberta bureaucracy was about to unfold.

An Aug. 15 letter from the South Region Program Manager stated, in part, that “Upon review, I have determined I erred in my decision of June 1, 2021 to cancel Cochrane Ecological Institute’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Permit . . . .” The letter goes on to say that their permit was therefore reinstated.

But confusion re-emerged and escalated the following spring when, as required by AEP, the institute applied for the annual renewal of their license.

A Mar. 31, 2022 letter from Travis Ripley at AEP advised CEI that the department was again revoking the permit – a reversal of the reversal, basically.

Although nothing new had happened in the interim, they were changing their minds again. “On the basis of our review, I have made the decision to not issue the approval for CEI to rehabilitate black bears at their facility in the upcoming permit year (2022/23),” the letter read.

Ripley added in the letter the decision was based on ongoing legal considerations. Subsequent communications from Ripley included an apology for not providing more detail in his letter, and pointed out the province was pursuing legal action because CEI broke three rules.

First, the institute didn’t notify AEP within 24 hours of receiving the cub. Smeeton admits it was closer to 45 hours, but argued it was a very busy time at the centre, and she disagreed with the seriousness of the infraction. She provided them with the full veterinarian’s report within a couple of days.

Second, AEP said CEI was not supposed to allow members of the public to transport the cub. The cub was flown out of a fly-in camp to about halfway to the facility.

“The rest of the distance it was transported by a trained wildlife professional tasked with bear management at an oilsands operation,” Smeeton said. “There was no inhumane treatment and all decisions were made with the wellbeing of the cub in mind.”

Finally, AEP said the third rule CEI broke was that the veterinarian they took the cub to was not listed in the formal facility plan.

Smeeton can’t understand why AEP is being so rigid on the issue. She said they hadn’t added wildlife veterinarian Dr. Cody Creelman to their plan with AEP in February as planned because his new building was not quite completed at that time. He is on their approved list now.

CEI is a registered charitable wildlife organization, whose expertise in rehabilitation based on scientific research has been recognized internationally. They’ve received the Order of the Bighorn from the province, and an Emerald Award from the Calgary corporate sector. Their advisory team has representation from Indigenous groups, internationally recognized academic specialists, farmers, ranchers, and others.

A Sept. 21, 2022 statement on behalf of the Government of Alberta was issued in response to a bear information meeting called by Bragg Creek Wild (BCW) in the nearby park that same evening. It stated: “Research on wildlife rehabilitation indicates that human intervention is likely to cause greater harm to these cubs based on their age.”

All four bear biologists present at the meeting believed that statement is false and has no peer-reviewed scientific support. Dave Klepacki of BCW said they fully support the work of CEI.

Eyewitnesses to the euthanasia of a mother black bear in Bragg Creek Aug. 28 said Fish and Wildlife officers were going to shoot the dead sow’s orphaned cubs as well, until residents convinced them not to.

The Public Interest Law Clinic at the University of Calgary is representing CEI in their dispute with AEP. Shaun Fluker, a lawyer with the clinic, noted that removing CEI’s permit before the allegations are proven amounts to yet another reversal – this time, of a fundamental principle of law.

“So much for innocent until proven guilty, I guess,” he said.

In Fluker’s view, the cub received excellent care, and he’s puzzled by the province’s position.

“CEI has a very strong international record and it’s a charity, to boot. They aren’t spending taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s certainly odd, for sure.”

The clinic received documents in 2018 under a freedom of information request they had submitted to AEP prior to the revocation of CEI's permit in June. The purpose of the request was to gain insight into the government process involved in the revised black bear policies and protocols from earlier that year, which allowed for black bear cub rehabilitation.

The 2018 policy replaced one that had been in place since 2010, which heavily limited wildlife rehabilitation.

An email contained in that record from an AEP biologist read: “I’ve finally been tasked with revising our policy to include the rehabbing of black bear cubs. It’s been a long time coming and takes a political maelstrom to make it happen, but here we go.”

There were numerous news stories during this time period about bear cubs being killed.

The Law Clinic summary of the freedom of information record is critical of how heavily redacted it was, and concluded, “The policy for wildlife rehabilitation in Alberta appears to be based more on inertia than a scientific consideration of the effectiveness of rehabilitation.”

Fluker called the recent Bragg Creek incident a “very obvious illustration of the shortcomings” of AEP’s rehabilitation protocols.

“What do you do with the three cubs that are orphaned? You’ve got a local facility with all that’s needed to take them in that can’t take them in. Who’s losing out here? It’s the wildlife. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

A request was made by The Cochrane Eagle to AEP to comment on the handling of CEI’s permit and to provide the research they cited in the Sept. 21 statement about the Bragg Creek incident, which was disputed by the bear biologists at the meeting that day. Their response was to re-send the statement.

With respect to CEI’s questions, an AEP spokesperson stated in an email: “As the matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to provide comment or more information on the matter.”

Lost in the haze while lawyers sort out if, when, and how the rehabilitation centre might be allowed to take in orphaned cubs again, are the cubs themselves.

And conservation officers are now faced with the unenviable task of applying strict provincial guidelines in delicate situations where public scrutiny is high because everybody loves bears – especially those little cubs.

Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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