By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
Innovation sometimes starts with little handwritten paper notes –– notes like the ones Courtney Hughes, Biodiversity and Landscape Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, and her team used to get from locals to report grizzly bear sightings in Alberta’s Lower Peace region.
“If they knew our phone number, people would call or text sightings and human-grizzly bear interactions, or they’d email us,” recalls Courtney. “A colleague, Lyle Fullerton, even received little handwritten notes reading things like ‘Saw grizzly down the road on the left’ on his truck windshield when parked in the field.”
While these grassroots efforts to contribute data were helpful, a more systematic approach was needed. “We needed a better way to collect this information while engaging the local land users and stakeholders to better contribute to scientific decision-making,” she elaborates.
The need for a more standardized and automated data collection tool to support citizen science lead to the new smartphone app ‘GrizzTracker’, which has transformed public grizzly bear reporting in remote parts of Alberta for the last few years, and is ready to go province-wide.
Tools like this app are giving us the chance to do better conservation science while engaging people,” Courtney says. “It’s an exciting time to be monitoring bears.”
Citizen science to fill knowledge gaps
In response to concerns about bear mortality and population sustainability, Alberta’s grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) have been listed as a threatened species since 2010, meaning they are protected by a provincial recovery policy that restricts hunting, and requires population and habitat research and educational outreach to address risks to bear survival.
The province’s grizzly bear population was estimated to be approximately 700 bears as of a 2010 status report, though recent population research across Alberta is providing additional information on bear density and distribution. Grizzly bear habitat spans from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the boreal forest in the northwest. In Alberta’s northwest – in the management zone called Bear Management Area 1 – the number of grizzly bears and their distribution is not well understood, however. This is largely due to the difficult, wet and boggy terrain of the boreal forest and the associated costs of undertaking time-intensive population research.
However, understanding where grizzlies live and how many bears there are is essential to addressing the provincial recovery requirements and informing management decisions.
Citizen science is one approach to collecting better knowledge; by working together, citizens, industry operators, landowners, and government can cover large geographic areas and contribute data to help advance scientific knowledge. Enlisting citizen scientists was a no-brainer for Courtney and the team.
“Engaging people in reporting grizzly bear observations, especially across remote areas where we (staff) may not be, not only makes good sense to complement existing DNA-based population inventorying, it’s considered essential to achieving recovery objectives,” Courtney explains.
“I’m very passionate about the people side, because it’s people who do conservation. If we weren’t around, critters and landscapes would sort themselves out,” she says. “I’m interested in people’s perspectives, their beliefs, values and motivations, and, as a conservation practitioner, the ways we can work with people to advance conservation goals.”
Courtney’s passion for science and the role of humans in conservation is evident in her educational journey and career with the public service in the Government of Alberta. Holding a Master’s degree in environmental education, she started her career as a science and environmental education teacher before pursuing a PhD from the University of Alberta in conservation biology, looking at the importance and influence of the human dimensions in grizzly bear conservation. She has also worked on projects across Canada, Belize, Cameroon, Namibia and currently has two projects in Tanzania –– all focusing on people-wildlife issues.
“Whatever country you work in, the interaction between people and wildlife will have impacts, whether on livelihoods and safety or wildlife survival and sustainability,” she says. “The best way to understand the nature of that, and to develop relevant solutions, is to involve the people who are part of the interactions.”
Harnessing local knowledge
Rural Albertans are helping advance scientific knowledge thanks to their detailed working knowledge of the province’s remote landscape, and the grizzlies that roam there.
“In Alberta’s northwest, there are a lot of industry operators who also happen to be landowners, farmers, recreational hunters or anglers, and these people want to see good things happen for the boreal landscape and the wildlife, balanced with economic or personal pursuits,” Courtney says. “We wanted to continue respecting and honoring that local knowledge and the fact that people want to contribute to scientific knowledge.”
With this in mind, the collaborative Northwest Grizzly Bear Team was founded in 2014 with representatives from Alberta Environment and Parks, Mercer Peace River Pulp Ltd., forest and industry stakeholders, the Miistakis Institute, the Alberta Conservation Association and public members, in an effort to help fill boreal grizzly bear knowledge gaps and management needs. GrizzTracker is one of the tools this team developed, to harness local knowledge and create engagement and education opportunities for specific land users and the general public.
GrizzTracker is a smartphone app platform that enables users to submit a grizzly bear sighting, or even tracks, scat or rub objects, using a standardized form with automatic data upload to a secure database. Available for download on Android or iPhones, anyone moving through an area where grizzly bears might be encountered can ‘Start a Trip.’ The app will then collect a location approximately every 90 seconds, which – importantly and innovatively – collects anonymous observer effort data. If a bear is spotted, the user can input the sighting using the form into the app, including a photo, if safe to do so.
Together, this data helps Courtney and the team receive accurate geospatial data about the sighting, which can be mapped to identify grizzly bear distribution across areas of human land use. In turn, this can be used to help inform bear management activities, such as conflict mitigation.
From pilot to provincial scale
As with any new project, rigorous pilot testing was required to ensure the app worked the way it was supposed to. Throughout 2017, 187 different users contributed to 18 sightings and over 2,281 observer hours. By the end of 2019, 286 users have signed up to the app.
Courtney and the Northwest Grizzly Team will continue to encourage local users in bear country to use the app, but now the team wants to expand beyond the original pilot in the northwest.
“Thanks to the geniuses at the Miistakis Institute, all the major bugs have been addressed, and we’re now ready to expand to a provincial scale,” says Courtney.
The team is also looking into potential partnerships beyond Alberta’s borders, including organizations in British Columbia where there is interest in the app and how it functions in different bear management areas.
“The bears don’t pay attention to provincial borders, but we still need to keep track of the ones who spend time here,” Courtney says. “Thanks to GrizzTracker and the citizen scientists who are using it, we hope to do that better into the future.”
- For more information on the app, visit the GrizzTracker website.
- The GrizzTracker App is available on Google Play for Android devices and the App Store for iOS devices – search for “Grizztracker”. A training guide is available here (pdf).
- Check out the mini documentary on the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team, their work on the GrizzTracker app, and more!