Coastal bear monitoring project
Glendale grizzlies, British Columbia (Photo by Klaus Gretzmacher)
The Wuikinuxv Nation and the Applied Conservation Science lab from the University of Victoria are partnering to monitor black and grizzly populations in Wuikinuxv territory. This project addresses an urgent conservation issue for carnivores of coastal BC — that of declining salmon populations. Salmon have historically provided a dependable, safe and nutritious food source for carnivores in the region, including wolves, black bears and grizzly bears. Today, these species receive only a fraction of the salmon they once did. Grizzly bears, a species of concern in northwestern Canada, may be particularly sensitive to these declines.
The process of monitoring bear populations can be valuable for many reasons, including increasing our understanding of bear-salmon dynamics and understanding bears as an asset for ecotourism. Inventorying grizzly populations can provide a "carnivore level barometer" of health that can inform both resource management and conservation. In addition, monitoring bears in the context of salmon abundance is also important.
When such easily accessible and high-quality food sources such as salmon decline, two important processes that can occur: females have fewer offspring and males engage in risky food-seeking behaviour that often ends in human-bear conflict and lethal control. An additional piece of evidence that suggests that bear and salmon populations are closely linked is the observation that bear populations with more meat in their diet occur at higher densities.
Owing to these relationships between bear populations and food abundance in other areas, and the current context with salmon on this coast, our work tries to understand if — and if so, how strongly — bear and salmon dynamics might be coupled. Knowledge about this relationship can help inform both management of both bears and salmon.
Passive hair snagging
Wuikinuxv high school students helping with bear monitoring project, BC (Photo by ACS Lab, University of Victoria)
This project monitors bear population trends in relation to salmon abundance using genetic and dietary data that can be collected from bear hair. The hair is collected non-invasively from scent baited, barbed wire corrals. Upon entering and leaving the corral, bears leave hair, which is subsequently used in genetic analyses. Notably, bears do not linger at or defend these stations because the bait cannot be consumed.
Hair samples tell us how much salmon individual bears are eating (via chemical isotope analysis) and how individuals respond to salmon declines (via hormones indicative of stress, reproduction and starvation).
Hair samples are then sent to the Wildlife Genetics International lab in Nelson, BC, where microsatellite genetic data identify species, sex and individual bears. Using this information, researchers can estimate whether population numbers are stable, increasing, or decreasing.
Hair snag information will be paired with with remote infrared cameras, in order to expand the available data on the populations of black and grizzly bears in the research area. Data from these cameras will fill in the knowledge gaps that DNA alone cannot answer, such as annual breeding success, size class of individuals and fine scale spatial and temporal use of resources.
Cameras will record data in the spring, summer and fall seasons, thereby gaining insight into intra-annual movement of bears, especially in close proximity to Wuikinuxv village. Remote camera photographs provide complimentary data to our sampling work, but also material for project outreach and a venue to engage community members and youth.