Bear essentials | Monitoring project uses hair to count number of threatened bears
Ryan McClelland of Beaver Mines, Alta., doesn’t know how many grizzly bears live in his southwestern corner of the province.
But he knows there are at least nine.
The rancher saw all nine of them at once when they were in his yard this past October looking for food in grain bins and sheds.
Since then, he has applied for a handgun carry permit to protect himself and keeps close watch on his three children when they are playing in the yard or waiting for the school bus. He has seen grizzlies within 150 metres of the bus stop.
Most rancher-grizzly bear encounters don’t involve quite so many animals at once, and the prevalence of conflict is difficult to quantify because not all cases are reported.
However, ranchers in the region have had to protect their property from the big carnivores by installing bear-proof grain bins, electrifying feed yards and building secure livestock carcass disposal sites and collection systems.
Human interaction with grizzlies is part of the reason for an ongoing study to determine the population, density and distribution of grizzly bears in the area north of the U.S. border, south of Highway 3, west to the British Columbia border and east to the edge of grizzly bear range.
The project, which is co-ordinated by biologist Andrea Morehouse, collects hair samples from grizzly bears that then allows individual animals to be identified.
The good news is that humans don’t have to get close enough to a grizzly to pull out its hair. The bears do it themselves.
Black bears and grizzlies have a natural tendency to rub against trees as a means of communication.
Morehouse and her team find these trees, affix several strands of barbed wire to improve hair gathering and return later to collect hair samples.
“There’s a few nice things about rub trees,” said Morehouse. “It’s totally non-invasive. We don’t have bait set up or lures or anything. They’re relatively easy to find once you know what you’re looking for.”
Rub trees are usually smooth on one side, discoloured and have bites and claw marks.
“The other nice thing about this is that we can use the existing trail network because the bears will travel on these trails.”
The four-year pilot project of hair collection began in 2011 with 501 sites, from which 950 hair samples were collected. Genetic tests identified 51 bears.
Morehead was surprised to find that a 2007 grizzly population estimate for the region also put the number at 51.
“It was sort of ironic that we got exactly 51, but that’s our minimum number. That’s not a population estimate.
That’s just the number of unique individuals we detected from these hair samples we collected.”
The project ramped up last year when another 330 sites were added for a total of 831. Year one involved sites only on public land, while 60 landowners and four grazing co-ops helped identify sites on private land in year two.
Ranchers know the location of bear trails and other places the animals frequent, based on their own sightings and observations.
“That sort of information really helped us target our survey efforts.”
Last week, Morehouse drove 4,200 bear hair samples collected last year to the testing lab in Nelson, B.C. Results are expected in May.
“We’ve got a nice solid base line at this point, so the plan for 2013 and 2014 will be to visit all 831 of those rubs every three weeks from June 1 through the second week of November, so that everything is done consistently across the study area for the next two years.”
Morehouse, a crew leader and three volunteer field technicians collect the samples, as do Parks Canada employees in Waterton National Park.
Grizzly bears are designated as a threatened species in Alberta, which means existing numbers are protected so that populations can increase.
Morehouse’s survey will determine how successful the protections have been for grizzlies in the area designated as Bear Management Area 6.
“The goal is to make sure we have a good understanding of what’s going on with bears in this region, so any changes to policy or management are based on some really solid science,” said Morehouse.
McClelland thinks there are more grizzlies than is safe.
“Right now, the numbers are out of control,” he said.
He would like to see the return of a hunting season for grizzly bears, although he doubts that will happen.
He lost more than 1,000 bushels of grain this year when grizzlies broke into bins, and over the past six years has had other property damage for which there is no compensation.
“The fish and wildlife officers are excellent, but they are limited in what they can do.”