University of Victoria student Megan Adams monitoring hair snags near Wuikinuxv Village, BC (Photo by ACS lab)
A grizzly bear approaches a tree then begins rubbing its snout, chest and back on it, eventually turning around and giving the tree a literal bear hug. Then, walking away, it opens its mouth and lets out a quiet yawn.
This secret moment between bear and tree is just a snapshot of the hundreds of hours of video footage captured by Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) remote cameras on and around NCC properties near the Wuikinuxv First Nation’s village in BC’s Rivers Inlet.
Among the myriad species of Canada’s landscapes, grizzly bears are perhaps one of the most iconic, striking both fear and awe in our imaginations. Creatures of the wild, they are surrounded by myth and mystery.
Now, on Canada’s remote west coast, a partnership between NCC, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the University of Victoria, Tula Foundation and the Wuikinuxv First Nation has formed to gain a better understanding of the bears and the landscape they inhabit.
What’s in a hair snag?
Collecting hair samples is a powerful yet non-invasive means of gathering information about wildlife. To collect the hair, barbed wire is wrapped low around trees. At the base of the tree, liquid bait is poured over a pile of branches. As the curious bears step over the wire to investigate, some hair is gently snagged by the barbed wire.
The hair is collected at 10-day intervals and sent to a lab for DNA analysis. Genetic analysis work in a suitable lab is expensive but yields remarkably valuable data. NCC and partners are currently looking for funding to complete this analysis.
The DNA analysis can help researchers identify each unique bear, by providing information on its age and gender.
Hair collected in the spring before the bears shed their winter coat can tell researchers what each individual has eaten in the previous year. While in one location a bear’s diet may be composed of 80 percent salmon and 20 percent vegetation, in another the balance may be different.
Some research has revealed that coastal grizzlies rely on salmon much more than was previously thought — up to 90 percent of their diet can be composed of salmon.
Where the bears are
In Wuikinuxv Territory, situated in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, bears and humans have shared the same riverbanks for thousands of years, with little conflict. But in recent years, the Wuikinuxv people have noticed more and more bears going without fish and changing their behaviour around the village.
The Wuikinuxv Nation became interested in learning more about the health of the bears, their population size and how it might vary in the context of changing salmon populations.
As it happens, many of these questions are also being asked by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and researchers at the University of Victoria. The researchers have been conducting bear monitoring programs to track just these questions with neighbouring indigenous Nations on the Central Coast of BC.
A natural partnership
In the spring of 2013, University of Victoria graduate student Megan Adams, who is working with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Wuikinuxv Nation, approached NCC about the project.
“After a discussion with community members and Wuikinuxv stewardship staff, we decided that we wanted to monitor bears around the village, where there is a high concentration of grizzly bears and where NCC has conserved a lot of the land,” says Adams.
Eyes on the ground
To assist with the project, NCC provided research permits and remote video cameras. Data from video cameras set up around the village, paired with hair samples gathered from rub trees and hair snag sampling stations, provide researchers with information such as annual breeding success, size and where and when the bears use certain habitat. But little did the researchers know the videos would be such a hit locally.
With much excitement, another partner came on board: the Wuikinuxv school, who enlisted the help of students to download and check the video footage. The students soon learned how to identify individual bears, even posting photos of individual bears on the classroom wall to help recognize them. The student also help Adams collect hair from the sampling stations set up around the village.
Wuikinuxv high school students helping with bear monitoring project, BC (Photo by ACS Lab, University of Victoria)
“The community has been connected to bears for so long,” reflects Adams. “This gets them back out on the territory to places they might not normally visit, connecting in new ways with the land.”
Connecting to place
Wuinikuxv school teacher Kevin Gianakos reflects on the positive impact the project has had on the students: "The bear camera project was amazing. The kids were asking on the first day of this school year whether we would be going out to do cameras again," notes Gianakos. "
It was a great opportunity for the kids to get out and experience the outdoors and their traditional territory in a way that perhaps they hadn't before. It was also a great opportunity for them to connect with professionals and scientists doing work in the territory that maybe they wouldn't have thought about doing."
At the end of the monitoring season, the children presented their findings in the Big House, with positive reception from the community.
“The community members like knowing these kids are connecting to place,” says Adams. “This also helps the children feel responsible for the well-being of the bears.”
As new grizzlies enter the valley in the fall in search of salmon, the researchers expect even more great footage and information in the months to come.
The project will continue for as long as the community is interested, says Adams. Meanwhile, hair samples are being sent to a lab for DNA and dietary analysis. This information will contribute to the emerging understanding of the bears’ reliance on salmon and other dietary components across a vast landscape.
“For me, this project is just as much about our relationship to bears on the landscape as it is about the exploration of population dynamics and dietary requirements for these bears,” says Adams.
“Combining the tools of science with the intimate relationship of the Wuikinuxv community to their landscape has made this project truly multi-dimensional. I am excited to continue improving our understanding of the interconnectedness of bears and humans on this beautiful landscape.”
The project is also an important one for NCC. “NCC consistently engages with partners such as other ENGOs, First Nations and academic institutions to ensure that the lands we protect are managed, in part, by a supportive local community, and that management conforms to the best available conservation science,” says NCC West Coast Program Manager Tim Ennis. “Projects like this one are a strong example of this approach.”