Citizen scientists, industry and government working together to monitor Alberta’s grizzly bears

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.”

Grizzly bear cub

A personal photograph of a grizzly bear cub in 2015, courtesy of Wanda Watts

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.”

Map BMAs

Alberta’s seven Grizzly Bear Management Areas (BMAs)

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.

Courtney in Grande Cache

Courtney Hughes, Biodiversity and Landscape Specialist, Alberta Environment and Parks

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.”

Learn more

  • 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!
Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear in northwest Alberta (photo: Lyle Fullerton, Alberta Environment and Parks, Peace Region

Measuring Alberta’s air quality…from space!

By Casandra Brown and Greg Wentworth, Alberta Environment and Parks
January, 2020

Albertans usually experience clean air, but from time to time we all go through bad air quality events caused by things like wildfire smoke or smog. One of the first steps to improving air quality is to understand what pollutants are responsible for poor air quality and where they come from.

Traditionally, air pollutants are measured by monitoring equipment that is stationary and deployed on the ground. However, it’s not feasible to install this equipment everywhere across Alberta, due to factors such as cost, accessibility issues and power requirements. Enter: satellite-based sensors that can measure multiple air pollutants simultaneously across large areas from space.

Sentinel-5P_Europe_s_air_quality_monitoring_mission

Image of the satellite that carries the TROPOMI instrument, which measures air pollution from space (image courtesy of the European Space Agency)

Using Satellites to Monitor Air Quality in Alberta

Cristen has led collaborative research using satellites to help address specific air quality issues with other government agencies and universities across Alberta. She holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Toronto and has experience measuring atmospheric pollutants in the Canadian Arctic and Alberta.

Cristen has used satellite data to answer many different questions from large to small scale. For instance, satellite data was used to understand how much air pollution was emitted during the 2016 Horse River wildfire in Fort McMurray (check out this paper to learn more about this work). The team also used satellites as part of an investigation into increased sulphur dioxide concentrations at one monitoring station in Alberta’s oil sands region in recent years.

“Since satellites collect a lot of data over such large areas, they are able to capture events that scientists can’t predict or plan in advance for. For example, the first maps showing the full scale of the Antarctic ozone hole in the 1980s used satellite data,” Cristen explains. “Today, scientists continue to rely on satellite data to find and track air pollution sources, like wildfires and smoke plumes.”

Dr. Cristen Adams

Dr. Cristen Adams, atmospheric scientist, Alberta Environment and Parks

What’s Next?

In the next few years, a new satellite called TEMPO will be launched and held in position over North America. TEMPO will be the first satellite to take measurements of air pollution across North America every hour throughout the day. “Currently, satellites typically take snapshots of air quality about once or twice per day,” says Cristen. “With TEMPO, we will be able to track air pollution throughout the day. This will help us better understand the causes and track the movement of air pollution.” To that end, AEP is continuing to build capacity for using satellites to answer questions that will help us better understand, and ultimately improve, the air Albertans breathe.

“Satellites can help us fill in gaps between traditional on-the-ground stations and estimate amounts of pollutants being emitted. With new satellite instruments, such as TEMPO, coming online, we will be able to do this work with better spatial detail and shorter time periods,” Cristen adds.

Learn More

It’s All Hands on Deck to Protect Alberta’s Waters!

As summer comes to a close, Albertans will soon be packing up their summer floaties and digging out their warm winter gear! Instead of going into hibernation instantly, your important role as citizen scientists must continue on through the cold times ahead. We must remain diligent and keep our eyes peeled for invasive species. This year, we’re asking Albertans to band together and lend an extra helping hand while they are packing up their cabins at the lake. Continue reading

Clean, Drain and Dry: Pro Tips and Tricks

The Government of Alberta is committed to protecting and maintaining healthy and sustainable fish populations and aquatic ecosystems throughout the province, and the way we work as public servants reflects this.

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Plan ahead. Some gear is very difficult to clean. If you don’t need to use it, don’t! You only need to clean equipment that has been in contact with the water.

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Does Clean, Drain and Dry Really Work?

WD Life CycleIt seems so simple, almost too simple, how effective are the clean, drain and dry actions in preventing the spread of whirling disease and invasive species?

From oars to inner tubes and flippers to waders, any gear used in water can spread whirling disease or invasive species. By their very nature, aquatic diseases like whirling disease have qualities that allow them to spread and survive adverse conditions. For example, the whirling disease parasite is microscopic and survives in the environment up to 30 years. Whirling disease impacts fish populations, in the Western United States whirling disease caused up to 90% declines in wild fish populations.

The Clean, Drain and Dry practices provide simple and effective direction on how to prevent the spread of whirling disease and aquatic invasive species. Continue reading

Don’t sail through inspection stations – it’s a boat health!

Although spring was slow to arrive this year, yacht to know the aquatic invasive species team has already sprung into action in fight against aquatic invasive species! The mandatory inspection stations have started this year’s search for invasive species on watercraft entering Alberta and have already found the first mussels of 2018 on a sailboat headed for Ghost Lake. When canoe expect all of the stations to be open? They will all have their flashlights out to put a spotlight on these invasive hitchhikers by the end of May, so expect to be inspected!

Inspections 13 Continue reading

Student Action Challenge – One School’s Growing Success

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARobert Thirsk High School has brought its foods program to life thanks to a student with a passion for stewardship, a hands-on natural sciences program and an application to Alberta Environment and Parks Climate and Environment Student Action Challenge. Continue reading

The Wonderful World of Wetlands

Sloughs, potholes and marshes, oh my! The names may bring back happy memories growing up on the farm, less happy memories of itchy bug bites or perhaps you haven’t thought about wetlands since grade 5.  In Alberta, wetlands are grouped into five classes; bog, fen, marsh, swamp and shallow-open water. While they are sometimes thought of as a lightweight player in the world of water, these underestimated water-features do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to a healthy environment.

Wetland Sunset

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Water’ll we do without it? Finding Nature-Based Solutions to Protect Alberta’s Water Resources

Water has been boiling to the top of people’s mind as the world is faced with more and more water-related issues like flood, drought and water pollution. In Alberta, we continue to find ways to protect our water resources. As World Water Day approaches on March 22, the day’s theme, Nature for Water, couldn’t be more fitting. Finding nature-based solutions to help solve our 21st century world water problems is the key to preserving this resource.

Water blog

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This is the infestation that never ends…

 …Yes it goes on and on my friends.

The thing with invasive species is that once they’re introduced to a habitat in which they are not native, they’re extremely difficult to eradicate, especially if that population has been there for a while AND it’s in the water.

The flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus, is one such species.

Flowering rush

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