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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