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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