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.”

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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

Bringing Back the Fish – International recognition for Alberta’s fisheries science

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
September 2019

Equipped with balloons, a group of biologists traveled from across the province to Dr. Michael Sullivan’s lab in Edmonton for a special announcement. The Provincial Fisheries Science Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks is the 2019 recipient of the Award of Excellence from the Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society, recognizing his inspirational leadership in the fishery profession and substantial achievements for fisheries resources.

“First, I thought it was a joke,” Michael laughs. “I’m honored that my colleagues think I did something good, but to me the award is nothing compared to a three-year old catching walleye at Lac Ste. Anne, or telling Néhiyaw high school kids in Wetaskiwin to go fishing because fishing is good again.”

By receiving the prestigious international award, Michael joins a group of 32 exceptional individuals awarded for substantial achievements in the fishery profession. The award recognizes his outstanding contributions to walleye recovery in Alberta, his leadership in systems thinking and his mentorship in developing the fisheries team at Environment and Parks.

 

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Dr. Michael Sullivan with a silver redhorse fish – a bottom feeder native to Alberta – on the North Saskatchewan River.

From local pressures to international recognition

When it comes to fishing, Alberta finds itself between a rock and a hard place. “We have the rock of low fish productivity and the hard place of lots of people, tons of development and road access,” Michael explains.

Alberta’s fisheries are busy places: with 800 naturally fish-bearing lakes and over 300,000 anglers, think of 375 anglers for every lake in Alberta compared to two anglers for every lake in Saskatchewan with its tens of thousands of lakes.

Alberta’s cold climate and short growing season also results in fewer fish species and fewer individuals compared to southern locations. This in turn makes Alberta fish more susceptible to being caught – ultimately increasing their vulnerability to overharvest.

“The enhanced catchability in northern locations compared to similar species in southern locations is because northern waters have fewer fish species and thus fish can’t be picky. Northern predators must eat whatever is available, whenever it is possible,” Michael explains. “Anglers see this as: these northern fish are easy to catch. They bite on anything!”

The dilemma hasn’t gone unnoticed. The international fisheries community is looking to Alberta for solutions.

“This weird combination of what we call northern style biology and southern style fishing pressure led us to be at the forefront of fish conservation. We didn’t have a choice but to solve this,” explains Michael.

Shifting the baseline

Growing up in northern Saskatchewan, Michael always knew what he wanted to be. It all started with tales told by his dad, a military helicopter mechanic with the Geological Survey Canada in Canada’s North.

“He told me tales of caribou herds stretching to the horizon, barren-ground grizzly bears coming to the camp, dropping biologists off in remote places in the tundra, and I just fell in love with the wilderness and the stories,” Michael remembers. “Right from my father’s knee I wanted to be one of these guys – a biologist.”

Michael’s passion for wildlife biology led him through three academic degrees at the University of Alberta, where he currently serves as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Being from Saskatchewan, Michael also knew what good fishing looked like. During his first job as a junior biologist in St. Paul in 1983, however, he discovered fishing in Alberta wasn’t comparable to Saskatchewan.

“Fisheries had been collapsed so long in Alberta, people thought that poor fishing was normal – it’s called the shifting baseline,” he elaborates. “Luckily, I came from a different place without blinders on my eyes and I spent 15 years fighting to change the baseline.”

But shifting the baseline was no easy task.

“We couldn’t just tweak our way out of these problems. We had to throw some levers hard – for example, we had to go catch-and-release for years on the North Saskatchewan River,” explains Michael.

Part of the change was a new culture of fisheries science: “We changed the culture to one of systems thinking, critical thinking, hypothesis testing and adaptive management.”

The second part of the change meant having boots on the ground and waders in the water to test hypotheses in the field using scientifically-designed monitoring. Good data collection is essential to assess fishery status and inform effective management of Alberta’s fisheries.

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Michael and colleague Laura MacPherson seining for fish on Whitemud Creek using a fishing net called seine.

Heartfelt successes

The hard work has paid off in many ways.

“In the past decades, fishing in the North Saskatchewan River was so poor that anglers were mocked,” says Michael. “Now, with good water quality and science-based, effective fishing regulations, restored fisheries for walleye, goldeye, mooneye, northern pike, five species of suckers, and lake sturgeon support tens of thousands of anglers each summer in the Alberta Capital Region.”

For Michael, the restoration of healthy fish populations for traditional use is one of the fisheries team’s most heartfelt successes. “In the 1980’s and 90’s, of the 63 walleye fisheries in the traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in the Lac La Biche area, only two fisheries were sustainable while the rest were overfished to the point of collapse.”

With scientific information, good communication and effective trade-offs – such as harvest regulations including catch-and-release fishing and seasonal or spatial fishing closures – designed by engaged stakeholders, recovery happened.

“Fishing is now better than grandparents remember,” says Michael. “By 2018, 20 of those 63 fisheries were fully sustainable, with another 17 close to recovery and Alberta’s Indigenous peoples can once again celebrate this culturally critical connection to the natural world.”

All peoples benefit

Changing the culture through actual successes on the water and ground takes effort and time. “It was decades of work and I tell my people that,” Michael says. “Change is difficult. The benefits, however, have been overwhelmingly worth it.”

“Knowing that kids are growing up in an environment where fishing and fish are part of their culture. Knowing that urban aboriginal youth are catching fish and urban seniors are watching fish spawn at the sweat lodge at Whitemud Creek – right in the city. That’s why we should care,” Michael says.

And while huge strides have been made and many lakes have recovered or are on the way to recovery, there is still a lot of work to be done, for example, recovering native trouts in the eastern slopes of Alberta. Michael is hopeful.

“Looking at my students who talk R-code, seeing them become adjunct professors themselves and seeing them training even younger people gives me huge hope. There’s a much more heartfelt desire amongst the younger biologists for Indigenous rights, for restoration, for reconciliation and it’s not that the policy says you must do this, it’s heartfelt.”

Michael and his team would also like to be more engaged with the public.

“Please stay tuned, please contact your local biologist. When you read the fishing regulation or hear us talk about closing fishing in an area, don’t just immediately come to a simple conclusion – sometimes the problem is more complex than it seems. But also understand that we’re going to make mistakes. We would really like to be much more engaged.”

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Michael and colleague from Parks Canada sampling Westslope Cutthroat Trout along tributary to Bow River. Westslope Cutthroat Trout are listed as Threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act in Alberta.

Crossing the stage for Canada

Following his late mentor’s advice, Michael will travel to Reno, Nevada, to cross the stage to collect his Award of Excellence from the Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society on September 30, 2019. The ceremony takes place at one of the largest gatherings of fish and wildlife professionals – the first-ever joint annual conference of the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society.

“My mentor Joe Nelson berated me: so few Canadians get these international awards, next time, you get an award, you’ll stand on that stage because you’re there for Canada,” Michael grins. “My hope is that this award will be used as a small box on which Alberta’s biological science family can stand to highlight the difficult changes, challenges and ultimate benefits of Alberta’s fisheries science success stories. Science!”

His advice to younger colleagues: “We’re in it for the long game. Don’t get caught up in the crisis of the moment. Remember we’re trying to restore these populations for the next seven generations.”

Fish Alberta – Pigeon Lake

Pigeon Lake is one of Alberta’s most intensively developed and popular lakes. It is located 60 km southwest of Edmonton, within Leduc and Wetaskiwin counties. The lake attracts people for camping, fishing, boating, swimming, many other watersports and relaxation. Continue reading

Avoiding Batty Stowaways

batonstalagtite DHSummer is here, and with it comes camping and other activities that involve travelling inter-provincially or perhaps down into the United States. While you want to take the experience home with you, that should not include accidentally packing up a bat! Continue reading

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

F is for Falconry: Rest and Recovery

Meet Kikki, a gyrfalcon biologists found injured in a field near Beaumont on April 1, 2016.

One year after she was found, Kikki was released back to the wild thanks to the work of Steve Schwartze, who worked with the falcon to get it to peak physical fitness before releasing it in March 2017.

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“To hunt successfully, a bird of prey needs to be firing on all 12 cylinders,” Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist Gordon Court says. “And this is why when injured falcons are helped by wildlife rescue organizations, there can be a lot of work to be done before they can be released back into the wild.”

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F is for Falconry: The Sport of Kings

Swooping, spiraling, diving and whirling. Seeing the graceful movement of a hawk on the hunt, you can start to understand why they are compared to Olympic athletes and why there is still an immense interest in falconry.

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“Falconry is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Activity. It’s been practiced for 4,000 years. And while it’s not widely celebrated here in Alberta, there is a global tradition of hunting with birds of prey,” Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist Gordon Court says. “While some people in Alberta would like to own a falcon, it’s strictly regulated and you must hunt with them.  It takes a lot of work to look after one of these birds – that’s probably why there are fewer than 40 people in Alberta who are licensed to do so.”

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Spare(ow) a thought for sparrows

Small, short-beaked, and ubiquitous, it’s easy to overlook the unpretentious sparrow.

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Blending into their environments with dun-coloured plumage, these small seed-eating birds are found on every continent other than Antarctica, and live in almost every human city. Because they are so small and easy to overlook, their diversity and importance to an ecosystem can be missed – and in some parts of the globe, they’re disappearing.  Which is why March 20 has been designated World Sparrow Day.

In Alberta alone, there are more than 20 different species of new-world sparrows, from Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow to the common white-throated sparrow – one of the most recognizable sparrows in the backyards and parks of our cities. Continue reading

Resilient Residents – Frosty Fish

This is the last of a four part series on our province’s most resilient animals. You can find out more about mammals that are active through the winter here, about mammals that are inactive but don’t hibernate here, or about birds that stay in the province over the winter here.

While mammals may burrow or hibernate, and birds can be seen shivering away on a branch, the average Albertan never sees what happens to fish during the frigid days of winter.

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Alberta’s Approach to Caribou Recovery

Alberta is home to abundant wild species, rich biodiversity and immense ecological heritage. This is something we sometimes take for granted.

Mountain/woodland caribou bullIn the past few decades a few things have become apparent when it comes to the environment. We need to make sure we are balancing activities on our landscapes, we need to have plans in place to lay the foundations of work to conserve and protect, and we need to work together to achieve the best possible outcomes for our wild species.

An example of this is the work being done to protect Canada’s woodland caribou. In Alberta, caribou ranges cover about 23 per cent of the landscape, with 15 ranges falling under provincial jurisdiction. All woodland caribou in the province are designated as Threatened under both the federal Species at Risk Act and provincial Wildlife Act.

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