Northwest Grizzly Bear Team – Video Release!

Check out our mini documentary on the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team and their work on the grizzly bear spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) project, the Grizz Tracker app and the implementation of Alberta BearSmart practises in the Peace Region. Keep your eyes on the gallery for new grizzly bear photos from the SECR project to be posted soon!

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Update: Grizzly Bear SECR and Alberta BearSmart

It has been a while and we thought our readers might be interested in knowing the status of the grizzly bear spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) project. The hair samples collected over the past field season have been sent to the Wildlife Genetics International laboratory in British Columbia and have undergone the beginning stages of analysis. With over 4000 samples, they certainly have their work cut out for them!

The lab has started a sub-sampling process of the hair samples, and once completed they will begin to run genetic analyses to determine how many unique, individual bears we were able to collect hair from. This information will provide Alberta Environment and Parks with valuable population density and distribution data to use toward bear management in the northwest, as well as the provincial Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.

We are expecting results from the genetic analysis sometime around July 2018. This will be the first grizzly bear population estimate for Bear Management Area 1!

In addition to a report on our SECR project, keep an eye out for the launch of our mini-documentary on the important work of the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team, a video series show casing the collaboration between multiple stakeholders across Bear Management Area 1 whom have been crucial to implementing the SECR project. This video series also features information on our Alberta BearSmart work. Check it out here and on YouTube!

We would also like to let readers know that we will soon be in full swing implementing Alberta BearSmart presentations and community activities including bear spray sessions across the Peace Region. Contact Courtney Hughes to book a session – call 780-624-6148 or email courtney.hughes@gov.ab.ca.

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Pronghorn Xing: A New Citizen Science Initiative

The Northern Great Plains Pronghorn are an important ungulate species in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. In order to procure the resources necessary to their survival, pronghorns go through long, seasonal migrations. Today, these migrations occur across a landscape that has been fragmented by highways responsible for disrupting movement patterns and causing direct mortality from vehicle collisions. To gain more insight into the impacts these highways are having on pronghorns and other wildlife species, a new and exciting development in the world of citizen science in Alberta is on the horizon!

About to launch is a new program that utilizes public sightings of pronghorn and other wildlife along highways in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan to gain a better understanding of common crossing points, wildlife collision locations, and wildlife movement patterns along these highways.

This program is called Pronghorn Xing and it came about as a collaborative partnership between:

  • Alberta Conservation Association
  • Alberta Environment and Parks
  • Alberta Transportation
  • Miistakis Institute
  • Saskatchewan Environment
  • Saskatchewan Government Insurance.

Pronghorn Xing consists of a smartphone app and related online mapping tool that was developed using the background code for GrizzTracker! By applying this technology to another platform, the increased efficiency and accuracy of publicly reported data will contribute to a scientifically viable dataset. This dataset will then be used to “inform strategies to improve wildlife movement and both wildlife and human safety.”

Similarly to GrizzTracker, Pronghorn Xing has a start route option that enables the GPS on your phone to record GPS points at certain time intervals to track your route. This important function allows researchers to account for observer effort (how often and where the highway has been driven) and more accurately model the location of wildlife crossings. When you come across any wildlife along the highway, the passenger can record the sighting directly using the option on the app. If you are the driver, you can record your sighting later using the online mapping tool by dropping a pin on the map provided and filling out the corresponding form. For those who are unsure of what species has been spotted, there is a Wildlife Identification section that breaks down how to differentiate between species of ungulates found in Alberta, including: white-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk. 

By using the collective power of public reporting in an automated and standardized way, this citizen science initiative will ultimately help to improve both human and wildlife safety along highways across the Canadian Great Plains.

To learn more about this project and to find links to the app, visit the website at http://www.pronghornxing.org

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Fall GrizzTracker Update

So what exactly is citizen science?  Simply put, it’s the engagement of volunteers in the scientific process. Not a new approach, but certainly gaining popularity over the years with examples from Monarch butterfly monitoring, bird or moose surveys, frog work and more. Common elements found in citizen science programs include collaboration with volunteers, scientists and organizations; useful and usable data collection; and learning opportunities, specifically related to scientific methods and processes.

GrizzTracker was developed with these principles in mind – to engage people that live, work and recreate across Bear Management Area 1 (BMA1) in systematically collecting and submitting their grizzly bear sightings using a smartphone app.

Alberta Environment and Parks’ Peace Region staff worked with Miistakis Institute and the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team, as well as local industrial workers and agricultural landowners, to launch this app. The intent was that by engaging the people in using GrizzTracker we will collectively contribute to improved grizzly bear population monitoring, improved learning about scientific methods and wildlife and land management, improve safety conditions for those working out on the land, and encourage conservation stewardship.  

Innovatively, GrizzTracker standardizes and automates public reporting of grizzly bear sightings and collects observer effort (the time spent “searching” for grizzlies) via the smartphone’s internal GPS.

To date, GrizzTracker has received 193 registered users since inception, and has seen 371 trips started (averaging roughly 1547 hours of observation) since April 1st 2017. Some of our participants include AEP (72), CNRL (40), DMI (20), Canfor (7), Atco (3), ACA (2), Tolko (2), and Boucher Bros (1). Though still in the early stages of implementation, this form of data collection is a testament to the value of this tool. By standardizing how people report sightings, along with collecting observer effort, the app provides valuable insight towards grizzly bear use of human-dominated spaces.

In addition, GrizzTracker includes an online web-mapping tool – just in case people don’t have their phone handy but still want to report their grizzly sighting. Stay tuned for 2017 results of GrizzTracker, including mapped products (www.grizztracker.ca). Additionally, a forthcoming book chapter on GrizzTracker and the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team will be published in early 2018.

It should be that collaborative projects like GrizzTracker are helping provide valuable information for grizzly bear management, and signal the stewardship contributions of partners in the Northwest.

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Nabbing grizzly hair – spatially explicit capture-recapture techniques for grizzly bear management in Northwest Alberta

How do you (safely!) collect grizzly bear hair?  Using barbed wire of course!

To help fill knowledge gaps of grizzly bears in Northwest Alberta’s Bear Management Area 1 (BMA1), Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) as part of the Northwest Grizzly Bear Team was awarded a FRIAA grant to use spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) techniques to estimate animal population densities (how many) and distribution (where they are) across the landscape.

SECR techniques are non-invasive, meaning they don’t require us to capture the bear itself so there is no stress on the bear. Additionally, SECR techniques are useful for collecting population information from elusive animals like grizzlies, particularly when they roam through difficult and vast habitats like the boreal.

To get this project underway, planning began in late 2015, with the study grid design finalized in March 2017 and field site set-up completed in early May 2017. Following recommended guidelines, roughly one hair snag site was established per township, with 10km spacing between each site, across BMA 1’s Recovery Zone. A total of 286 hair snag sites were installed altogether, covering roughly 2.8 million hectares! As an added bonus, in collaboration with the BC government 33 hair snag sites were also installed and operated along the Alberta border.

Beginning on May 15th, one AEP and ACA ground crew, respectively, and two ACA rotary crews conducted site visits on a rotational collection period of 14 days. This went on until the completion of sampling on July 19th.

A total of 4208 hair samples were collected throughout the field season, along with 16 scat samples. Given the high sample size, AEP determined there was no need for another year of sampling, so all sites were taken down.

Over the course of the field season, roughly 5 km of barbed wire was installed, sampled, and removed, and 43 trail cameras from both ACA and AEP were used to confirm grizzly bear presence at sites. In total, the crews conducted 1401 site visits and logged 172 rotary flight hours. The AEP crew alone covered close to 2000km on an ATV!

It should be noted a huge success was the strength and quality of the health and safety protocols, project coordination, and safety culture of the field teams. There wasn’t a single accident or injury over the course of the project –  a great accomplishment in itself!

The next phase of the project involves organizing and processing the hair samples, and preparing them for genetic analysis in a laboratory. This includes the samples collected from BC as well as all Alberta samples. And while we know that a good portion are likely to be black bear hair, we know we’ve also got grizzly bear!  The added value is, we’ve collected hair from both bear species – a first ever for Northwest Alberta!

It should also be noted the success of this collaborative project could not have been accomplished without the support of the Northwest Team, including:

  • Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP)
  • Daishowa-Marubeni International Ltd (DMI)
  • Alberta Conservation Association (ACA)
  • Manning Diversified Forest Products
  • Canadian Forest Products Ltd (CanFor)
  • Boucher Bro. Lumber
  • Tolko Industries Ltd.
  • Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Forestry Division (Forest Management Branch)
  • Alberta Energy Regulator (AER)
  • Miistakis Institute
  • Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL)
  • ATCO Transmission and Distribution
  • Gordon Stenhouse, fRI Provincial Research Scientist, Grizzly Bear Program
  • Dr. Scott Nielsen, University of Alberta
  • Dr. Garrett Street, Mississippi State University
  • Dr. Samuel Cushman, U.S. Forest Services
  • Private landowners

Without these partnerships and dedicated effort, this collaborative and integrative project would not have been possible. Certainly, the success of this study is directly attributed to the organizations and individuals who have worked together towards a common goal – to fill grizzly bear knowledge gaps for management planning across Northwest Alberta.

Stay tuned for updates on this project!

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Fall BearSmart Reminder

The hills are beginning to change colour, and the smell of another season is in the crisp fall air. Being active outdoors this time of year is a must for many, especially with the weather being as nice as it is. With bears being just as active in their voracious search for food before winter comes, it is as important as ever to exercise bear awareness and safety.

This time of year, bears are loading up on any nuts, berries or fruit still available to them. Grizzlies, for example, can consume upwards of 200 000 berries a day during peak feeding times! It sounds like a lot, but when you consume up to 25 000 calories/day of mostly vegetation, it seems appropriate.

With their noses down in search of food, it is up to us to practice bear awareness to prevent unwanted bear encounters when working, living, or recreating in bear country. Simple things to remember when outdoors include:

  • Make lots of noise
  • Watch for signs of bear activity (including diggings, tracks, scat, broken berry bushes, etc.)
  • Properly manage and store all attractants (i.e. food, pet food, garbage, toiletries) out of reach of bears
  • Obey trail and area closures
  • Carry bear spray and a noisemaker and make sure you know how to use them
  • Keep your campsite clean and pack out all garbage

For more information and to find resources on bear safety and how to practice Alberta BearSmart, you can visit the Alberta Environment and Parks webpage here at http://aep.alberta.ca/recreation-public-use/alberta-bear-smart/default.aspx

Personally, I’ve found these guidelines very helpful in keeping me safe when recreating in the Peace Country, and keeping bears alive.  Recently, I was very happy (and wise) I brought my bear spray along with me, on a hike in the north end hills in Peace River.  Half way through my hike I noticed scat on the trail, and though it appeared to be an older sample, it was indication a bear had been in the area and I should be cautious. I was already singing loudly and yelling out “WHOA BEAR, HEY BEAR” around corners and in thick brush, but having that spray with me was better assurance in case a bear and I crossed paths.

Thankfully my singing and yelling seemed to have done the trick, as I didn’t see any bears during the remainder of my hike. And if I had encountered a bear, I had my bear spray ready to use.

Reducing the chances of a bear encounter doesn’t take much if you are prepared, and have practiced proper bear safety. Looking for signs of bear activity, making lots of noise, and carrying bear spray (and being ready to use it) are simple things we can all do. Being informed and educated on how to prevent bear encounters in the first place, and knowing how to react to an encounter if it does happen, are important steps in minimizing human safety risks and helping keep our bears alive.

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Miistakis at the 2017 Citizen Science Association Conference

In today’s world, citizens are faced more and more with challenging conservation issues both locally and globally. Solutions that encourage the public to understand these issues, lend their knowledge and experience, and implement strategies are key in overcoming conservation challenges. One way to engage the public to take responsibility for their environment is through the use of citizen science projects. Citizen Science as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is the, “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”

The Miistakis Institute is a research facility based out of Mount Royal in Calgary, AB that specializes in the evaluation and resolution of complex environmental problems. One of their six main research areas is citizen science for conservation. Miistakis uses a citizen science approach to help inform conservation challenges, from informing biodiversity monitoring and management in an urban environment to improving human and wildlife safety along highways in western Canada. Citizen Science has helped the Miistakis Institute generate valuable datasets while also engaging the public to understand and address local conservation challenges.

This past May 17-20, Miistakis staff had the opportunity to attend and present at the 2nd biannual Citizen Science Association (CSA) conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. This diverse conference brought together researchers, practitioners, community groups, and individuals to experience over 400 presentations from a wide variety of disciplines and collaborations.

Miistakis Executive Director Danah Duke and Krista Tremblett from Alberta Environment and Parks presented on the value and common obstacles faced by government agencies.  Danah and Krista gave mention to GrizzTracker as an example of a collaborative partnership between government and partners that is exploring the value of a citizen science approach to inform grizzly bear management. In addition, Senior Project Manager Tracy Lee presented on Advancing Citizen Science and the role of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and Research Assistant Holly Kinas gave a poster presentation on the Quality Control Considerations for Public Engagement in Urban Biodiversity Monitoring.

A few other standout moments the Miistakis staff enjoyed from the conference included:

  • A presentation from Virginia Tech’s Dr. Marc Edwards and Flint, Michigan citizen Lee Anne Walters on how combining science and citizen engagement helped overcome an environmental disaster.
  • Applicable lessons on integrating citizen science into a federal government agency were shared in a panel presentation by a number of United States government agencies.
  • A current societal trend is a focus on smart cities, urban ecology, and citizen science leading to increased public involvement in conservation challenges in urban centers.
  • Speaking with Zooniverse staff and understanding the power of crowd-sourcing image, video and sound processing. Check out snap shot Serengeti where the public classify over 10,000 images a day! https://www.snapshotserengeti.org/
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Alberta BearSmart Lower Peace Region Update

As our communities and access to landscape stretch further into valuable bear habitat, the potential for conflicts increase. Alberta BearSmart was launched alongside the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan in 2008 as an initiative to promote bear awareness and deliver conflict prevention strategies to people living, working, or recreating in bear country. This program strives to reduce human-bear conflicts and facilitate public stewardship in Alberta. Alberta BearSmart’s three main goals are to:

  1. Keep people safe
  2. Help bear populations survive
  3. Reduce property damage

Educating and shifting peoples’ mind frames from reactive to more proactive and preventative strategies is key in reducing human-bear conflicts. A reduction in the number of human-bear encounters, number of bear mortalities or relocations, and reduced annual costs of property damage are the desired outcomes of a successful Alberta BearSmart program.

In the Northwest region of Bear Management Area 1 (BMA 1), Alberta Environment and Parks staff provide Alberta BearSmart information to various industry and community groups, at local trade shows, through signage, communications mail outs and on utility bills, and offer bear spray demonstrations.

 

Since mid-May 2017 there have already been 23 presentations across the Lower Peace Region alone, ranging from bear spray and awareness sessions for industry and municipalities, to information booths at local community events, to social media posts and school presentations. Local radio communications, newsletters, and emails to hunters have also proven to be useful ways to distribute Alberta BearSmart information.

It has already been a busy year, with many bear sightings around the region. With breeding season coming to a close and bears actively searching for food to prepare for winter, it is important to practice extra care when in bear country. Carry bear spray (and know how to use it!), keep dogs on leash, stay in groups and make noise while in bear country, and pack-in and pack-out garbage are all ways to reduce negative interactions with bears. You can be sure that Alberta BearSmart educational efforts will continue to be showcased in the Northwest to help reduce human-bear conflicts and keep people and bears safe!

ABS Newsletter BearSpray LateSummer-Fall

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DNA study fieldwork wrap-up

Grizzly bears are a highly recognizable, charismatic species that often interact directly with humans due to their large home ranges and increasing human presence across the landscape (COSEWIC 2012). In Alberta, grizzly bears were declared a threatened species under the Wildlife Act in 2010, due to the small population size, slow reproductive rate, low immigration from other populations, and increased human activity in their habitat (Grizzly Bear Conservation in Alberta 2013).

To address these issues, a Recovery Plan was developed, which among other things identified the necessity to determine a reliable population estimate (AGBRP 2008).

To date, various actions have been implemented across the province including DNA analysis to distinguish population units (BMAs) and estimate populations within these units, and development of BearSmart Communities.

However, the northwest region of the province, which includes Bear Management Area 1 (BMA 1), has lacked a population estimate. This is largely due to the difficult landscape, the vastness of the area, and the unsuccessful prior attempts at collaring bears. Due to the unknown population size and yet a reported increase in bear sightings and accounts of bears “expanding” into agricultural areas, a DNA-based population estimate was necessary to conduct across BMA 1.

With significant interest in grizzly bears from the public, industry and various stakeholders, a unique Northwest Industry Task Team was formed for BMA 1. This team supports implementation of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. With cooperation from industry and government staff, a DNA hair snag pilot was launched in 2012 to determine viability of this methodology. This was the first attempt to do such work in BMA 1. In 2014-15 the pilot was expanded with the cooperation of the Foothills Research Institute to include the collection of scat.

After proving the potential for a DNA-based study in BMA 1, the Northwest Team was awarded a Forest Resources Improvement Association of Alberta (FRIAA) grant for full-scale study implementation in 2017. Partnering with Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) as field delivery agents, Alberta Environment and Parks Resource Management staff designed, planned, and implemented the DNA study following Spatially Explicit Capture-Recapture (SECR) methodology.

Using a combination of truck, side-by-side and rotary transportation to collect hair samples, fieldwork was conducted by 5 field crews (one AEP, three ACA, and one from BC working jointly on their side of the border) over five 14-day sampling sessions beginning May 15th and ending July 19th. All together these crews conducted 1401 site visits, logged 171.7 flight hours, and installed about 40 trail cameras. The AEP crew alone covered around 2000 kilometers on the side-by-side. An average of 280 hair snag sites were sampled in each of the 5 visits, leading to an expectation-exceeding total of 4208 hair samples.

Currently, hair sample collection has formally ceased and all sites have been taken down and removed. Data is now being entered and prepared for laboratory analysis. Results of the DNA project are expected to be shared by mid-2018.

It is through collaborative projects like the DNA study in the Lower Peace Region that help provide valuable information for the grizzly bear recovery, and signal the stewardship contributions of partners in the Northwest Industry Team.

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Alberta BearSmart training – Weed Inspector Workshop

Its summertime in Alberta, and bear season is in full swing! Breeding season – late May through July – is still upon us, so in addition to actively searching for food, bears are looking for mates as well. This means that people need to practice extra care while working, living, or recreating in bear country. Most bear encounters, whether its grizzly bears or black bears, can be avoided in the first place. It is up to us as the public to be informed on the different ways in which we can prevent them.

Alberta BearSmart is a program geared towards reducing human-bear conflicts and increasing public stewardship in the province by providing information and educational materials to the public, various stakeholders, and government staff. Human-bear conflicts come in the form of damage to property and stored feed, livestock depredation, and public safety concerns. Educating the public on bear awareness and safety strategies, and encouraging a more proactive approach that gives responsibility to the public to do as much as possible to prevent bear encounters is key in limiting the number of habituated and problem bears, and reducing potential safety threats to people. Information provided through Alberta BearSmart programming includes everything from tips on how to manage attractants in an area, to how to properly respond to different types of bear encounters if they occur. Media campaigns, distributed BearSmart materials, BearSmart information booths at local events, and workshops are just some of the ways Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) staff connect with the public through this program.

On May 25th, Courtney Hughes, an AEP Peace Region staff, presented Alberta BearSmart information to more than 100 weed inspectors and agriculture fieldmen at the annual Weed Inspector Workshop in Peace River, AB. Courtney began her presentation with a brief introduction on the two species of bears in Alberta, including: their biology and range; how to differentiate between the species; various food sources; how to spot signs of bear activity in an area; how human-bear conflicts can occur and how to mitigate or avoid them; and, what to do in the event of encounters including use of bear spray. She then went on to describe the various aspects involved in being BearSmart:

  1. Managing attractants is first and foremost: garbage, pet food, BBQs, bird feeders, fruit trees, compost, deadstock, recycling, gut piles, camp food, natural vegetation all need to be stored and disposed of properly.
  2. On the farm:
  • Bears may target injured or sick animals – monitor livestock closely 10 days following castration, dehorning, and branding.
  • Dispose of animal carcasses properly – follow the Livestock Diseases and Public Heath Acts. Best to have carcasses removed promptly to a rendering plant.
  • Be cautious when working around cereal crops, especially at dusk and dawn.
  • Maintain your granaries, and invest in retrofit grain hopper systems.
  • Clean all spilled and waste grain ASAP – if spillage is unavoidable, locate storage facilities away from areas of human use and known bear habitat.
  • Consider electric fencing – in areas with valuable products or those at high risk of bear-human encounters (i.e. bee hives).
  1. Preventing bear encounters:
  • Make noise when working or recreating in bear country – let them know you’re around.
  • Stay alert – watch for signs of bears.
  • Travel in groups and keep your dog on a leash.
  • Store all food/garbage away from human and out of reach of bears.
  • Obey all trail and area closures.
  • Carry and know how to use bear spray and noisemakers.
  • Pack out all garbage and keep a clean campsite.
  1. What to do in the event of a bear encounter:
  • Do not run.
  • Stay calm and assess the situation.
  • If the bear is at a distance and doesn’t see you – move away slowly and don’t yell, leave the area, watch for the bear until you reach your destination.
  • Defensive or Surprise Encounter – protecting cubs or kill.
    • The bear may stand up to catch your scent, lower its head with ears laid back, pop its jaws, woofing or blowing hard, pound its paws on the ground, make itself look larger, make a bluff charge.
    • Don’t run, talk to the bear calmly, slowly back away, keep your eye on it without staring aggressively, have bear spray and noisemaker ready to use.
    • If the bear makes contact, roll onto your stomach and lock your fingers around the back of your neck, spread your legs, if the bear rolls you over immediately roll back onto your stomach.
    • Wait until the bear has left the area before getting up and going for help…it may take a while.
  • Non-defensive or Predatory Encounter – not defending cubs or kill, may be curious or dominant, may see you as a food source.
    • The bear may close the distance between you, show no signs of stress, stare intently at you, circle around, remain quiet, approach slowly, and keep its head and ears up.
    • Don’t run, prepare to fight back, make yourself look big and shout loudly, use noisemaker and bear spray, pick up anything to use as a weapon, if bear makes contact fight back with force.
  1. Bear Spray:
  • First line of defence.
  • Sometimes the unfamiliar sight and sound of bear spray releasing is enough to deter a bear.
  • The active ingredient (oleoresin capsicum) severely irritates the bear’s eyes, nose, and throat.
  • What to look for when buying – make sure it says ‘bear deterrent,’ check Capsaicin level and size of canister, check expiry date (within 3 years).
  • Using bear spray – Stand your ground, do not play dead, keep tabs on the wind, speak in an authoritative voice and make yourself appear larger, remove safety clip, aim low in front of bear, when bear is in range (9-15m) start spraying in short ½ to 2 second bursts, hold your breath, retreat when attack is interrupted.

To conclude the workshop, Courtney emphasized the importance of knowing how to use bear spray, and carrying it with you whenever you are spending time in bear country. Attendees were invited outside to participate in a bear spray demonstration using inert cans (lacking the active ingredient) and life-sized black bear targets, to learn the proper technique for using bear spray.

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