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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The western Canadian province of Alberta moved to give greater protection to its small and declining population of grizzly bears on Thursday, designated the animals as a threatened species.
The move to protect the grizzly population, estimated this year at just 691, gives the government authority to invoke such measures as restricting access to their habitat and extending the four-year-old ban on hunting the bears.
The move comes eight years after a provincial Endangered Species Conservation Committee recommended the "threatened" designation, which is one notch below "endangered" in terms of the status of a species.
Environmental groups, which have long lamented Alberta's promotion as a destination for Canadian and U.S. hunters, had been calling on Resources Minister Mel Knight to invoke the extra protection for the bears.
Grizzly habitat includes much of the mountainous and rugged western regions of the province.
The government had engaged an independent scientist to prepare a status report based on DNA population surveys and satellite mapping of habitat.
The conservation committee recommended the threatened status based on population size, declines, species distribution and natural and human threats.
By contrast, the grizzly bear population in British Columbia, which borders Alberta to the west, is estimated at about 16,000, or a quarter of the North American population.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Rob Wilson