From 2011-2014, Andrea and a team of more than 30 people took a walk on the wild side to gather data on the movements, habits and identities of the grizzly bear population in the southwest of the province. The project was initiated because of a need to have updated density and abundance estimates for BMA6 (the study area). The last population estimate happened in 2007 and under the 2008-2013 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, it was recommended that population units be reassessed every five years.
A collaborative effort from the beginning, supporters for this work are numerous – each contributing funding, in kind support and logistical support where they could. It’s neat to see the grizzly bear population doing well in this area of the province.
Andrea and BMA6
Andrea came to Alberta in 2007 as one of her many world-wide stops to pursue a M.Sc. degree at the University of Alberta. As part of the degree, she worked in southwest Alberta researching wolf diet. After completing that work, she was presented with the opportunity to work on grizzly bears for her Ph.D. and jumped at the opportunity. Working for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (now Environment and Parks) from 2011-March 2015, she coordinated the Southwestern Alberta Grizzly Bear Monitoring Project while simultaneously working on her Ph.D. with Dr. Mark Boyce at the University of Alberta – she successfully defended her Ph.D. in April of this year.
BMA6 is not a super-secret spy organization, but rather Bear Management Area 6, the area Andrea and her team worked in for this project.
The study area boundaries were Highway 3 to the north, British Columbia to the west, and Montana to the south. The eastern boundary aligns with existing Wildlife Management Unit boundaries in the area and is intended to encompass the majority of the eastern extent of grizzly bear range.
This is a unique part of the province in that there is a very abrupt transition from public mountainous lands to the west to private agricultural lands to the east. Large carnivore home ranges overlap substantially with multiple land uses.
It’s all in a day’s work
For the first two years, the team focused on identifying rub objects. This involved surveying the existing trail network and consulting with landowners to identify rub objects. The last two years focused on the collection of hair samples. In the end, 899 rub objects were identified that were visited eight times throughout the field season.
The first visit cleared the hair samples and the seven visits after that sampled the object. This was no small feat; teams sometimes hiked more than 25 km each day, every day, from the end of May through early November. A total of more than 7,000 km were travelled on foot in total each field season.
Though they had the usual field season challenges – bad weather, stuck trucks, ATV failure and more – they worked to retrieve the hair samples for analysis.
Once the hair samples were collected, they were turned in to a genetics lab to determine species, sex and the individual identity of the bear. From this information, the team was able to use spatially explicit capture-recapture models to estimate grizzly bear density.
Bears without borders
Andrea and her team were able to confirm that grizzly bears in southwest Alberta are part of a larger international population of bears that includes bears in southeast British Columbia and Montana. The number of bears that would be considered “resident” Alberta bears is smaller than the number of bears that use the area. It’s the larger number of bears that represents the number of bears that local communities are encountering and that have the potential to be involved in conflicts.
Through their work, the team was able to reinforcing the idea that there is no ecological basis for partitioning an Alberta-specific portion of this bear population. Increased coordination between different jurisdictions will be important to future bear monitoring and management activities.
With the work done for BMA 6, work being done with communities to find ways to coexist with grizzly bears and other large carnivores and the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan Consultation Survey underway until July 15th, there are many significant strides being made in grizzly bear work in the province.
The next steps for grizzly bear data are to finalize the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan and continue work on an ongoing bear monitoring project in the southern portion BMA5 including including Highway 3 to the south, British Columbia to the west, and Kananaskis country to the north.. This will be a joint effort between Environment and Parks and the Alberta Conservation Association using similar methods to those done in this study.