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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A Day in the Field

Today is the day – its field day! A definite favourite part of the job amongst many of the biologists working on the grizzly bear project. It doesn’t feel much like work when you get to be outside exploring the world around you!

The morning is fresh and bright, and we’re eager to start the day. Although it’s a little cloudy, this doesn’t dampen our spirits as we head out on the road to begin our grizzly bear hair snag set-up. As we make our way, the truck loaded to the brim with gear and pulling a trailer with our trusty side-by-side, the sun starts to peek through the clouds, energizing us for the day ahead.

After a bit of a drive, we’ve made it to our first site. Despite what started out as a lovely morning, the sky darkens as we start to unload the truck and we feel the threat of rain. Welcome to springtime in Northwestern Alberta! Luckily, we’ve come prepared – in this job, you have to be ready for anything!

With our gear unloaded, we head out on the side-by-side… and that’s when the mud starts to fly! With all the rain we’ve had over the past couple of weeks it makes for an exciting ride! The roads and trails are okay for the most part, except for some very obvious washouts, potholes and ruts. Needless to say, the side-by-side is working very hard and we are getting a mud bath! Luckily, our trusty machine is able to get us to pretty much all of our sites, and we make new ones where needed.

At each of our sites, the hair snags are set with barbed wire pulled tight, approximately 2.5 – 3 ft off the ground, and about 6 ft in diameter. When a bear visits the site, the barbed wire serves to snag clumps of hair as the bear rubs against it. In order to attract bears to the area, these sites are scented with a natural lure poured on the ground in the center of each snag site. Our sites are signed and labeled, and approximately placed in each township across Bear Management Area 1 (BMA1). Wherever possible, we make sure to set the snag sites in habitat that would most likely be used by bears, such as wet meadows or stream banks, gully bottoms, groundwater seepage areas, regenerating burns and clearcuts.

Over the coming field season, we are excited to be working across BMA1 alongside our delivery partners, Alberta Conservation Association (ACA), from mid-May until mid-July. Our next visit out to the field will be to collect bear hair, set camera traps, and of course, continue the fun!!

Here’s a link to see a bit of what our field day looked like:


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Alberta BearSmart – Spring is Here!

ABS Spring Newsletter

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What exactly is GrizzTracker?

People that spend time out on the landscape often have information that can be useful for monitoring wildlife populations, and the collection of these data is referred to as citizen science. Unfortunately, citizen science programs often have a variety of pitfalls, and there are rarely opportunities to include this type of information into management programs. Our team has worked to develop a citizen science program that can fully utilize the wealth of local knowledge and experiences of people working across BMA1, within a scientifically rigorous framework.

The objectives of GrizzTracker are to:

1. Record opportunistic sightings of grizzly bears in a scientifically defensible way, allowing for integration of land-users experience with science-based decision making. This would greatly improve the utility of citizen science data collection in a variety of other research programs.

2. Provide opportunities for public involvement, education, and awareness related to grizzly bears and landscape management. Public engagement is critical not only for achieving wildlife management objectives, but also for building and maintaining social licence operating on the landscape and encouraging a stewardship ethic.

3. Continue to build and strengthen relationships, facilitate dialogue, data sharing, and knowledge transfer between organizations interested in the BMA 1 landscape.

Previous efforts to use opportunistic wildlife sightings have been hampered by limited information on variation in observer effort through space (where people are searching) and time (when people are searching). This shortfall has severely limited how useful many citizen science programs area. GrizzTracker is a specially designed smartphone app that attempts to overcome these hurdles.

To do this, GrizzTracker will record the spatial and temporal distribution of observer effort by collecting GPS location “pings” from smartphone users. But have no fear – location pings and user information is all totally anonymous! (all app users are issued a number). However, this location information is incredibly important – as previously noted, by collecting it we can determine how much time an app user spends “looking for grizzlies” in their day-to-day activities, across a certain area. With this in hand, we can then relate the distribution of grizzly bear sightings, through both space and time, to our distribution of observer effort.

This allows us figure out where grizzly bears are being seen or not, and how frequently, based on how much a user is “looking” for bears in an area. This data will enable grizzly bear occurrence to be displayed across BMA1. It will also help with monitoring seasonal patterns in grizzly bear occurrence near human-use areas, and can be used to develop real-time safety alerts for industry and other people working across BMA1. Even more broadly, the general public can learn about population monitoring techniques, Alberta BearSmart, and what we find through citizen contributions to grizzly bear data collection.

Overall, engaging industry and agriculture personnel, and the broader public, in reporting sightings will encourage stewardship of grizzly bears and their habitat. And that’s something we’re all striving for.

For questions or comments, please contact Courtney Hughes at Courtney.Hughes@gov.ab.ca

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Check out the great story on GrizzTracker and the Northwest Grizzly Bear Program!

Thank you to Trina Moyles and Keeley Dakin for the great story and photos!


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Grizzly Bears in Alberta

Grizzly bears are listed as a Threatened species within Alberta, meaning that habitat alteration and human-caused mortality have the potential to put the species at a risk of disappearing from the Alberta landscape.

One of the main hindrances to grizzly bear recovery efforts in northern Alberta is a lack of knowledge on grizzly bears in the area. Grizzlies in northern Alberta’s Grizzly Bear Management Area 1 (also referred to as BMA 1) experience different habitat and landscape conditions from the rest of Alberta’s grizzly bear range. Therefore, it is very difficult to apply grizzly bear knowledge learned elsewhere in the province, to the vast landscape of BMA 1.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration, including government, researchers, petroleum industry, forestry, utilities sector, agriculture, recreation and other land users is a vital step in learning more about Northwest grizzlies.

The Northwest Grizzly Bear Program was reconvened in January 2014 as a collaboration between government, industry, and researchers to address grizzly bear knowledge gaps in BMA1. Members of the NW Program team include:

  • Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) Resource Management staff
  • Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) staff
  • Daishowa-Marubeni International Ltd. (DMI)
  • Canadian Forest Products Ltd. (Canfor)
  • Manning Forest Products, a division of West Fraser Ltd. (MFP)
  • Boucher Bros. Lumber Ltd.
  • Tolko Industries
  • ATCO Electric
  • Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL)
  • Husky Energy
  • Public at Large representative

Additionally, this team works in collaboration with:

  • Miistakis Institute (MI)
  • Dr. Scott Nielsen (University of Alberta)
  • Alberta Conservation Association (ACA)
  • Dr. Samuel Cushman (U.S. Forest Service)
  • Gordon Stenhouse (Foothills Research Institute)
  • Dr. Garrett Street (Mississippi State University)
  • Alberta Energy Regulator (AER)

The aim of this team is to leverage available funding, resources, and opportunities to identify and address knowledge gaps related to grizzly bear population size and habitat use within BMA 1. Secondly, this team aims to identify practical, locally appropriate practices and contributions industry can make to Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery goals within an integrated forum. The team has a long list of projects we would like to accomplish, and with two major programs currently underway.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates on GrizzTracker, and the Northwest Grizzly Bear Program!

For general information on grizzlies in Alberta, or Grizzly Bear Recovery, visit: http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/mammals/bears/grizzly-bear.aspx or http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wildlife-management/grizzly-bear-recovery-plan/default.aspx

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