Grizzly bear field work wraps for the year

DENNIS STRANACK

Participants in the Grizzly Bear Hair Snag Project met at Xaxl’ip Hall on Oct. 17 to celebrate the wrap-up of the 2019 effort with a slide show, dinner, presentations, and plenty of memories.

The DNA monitoring project focusses on the small, genetically isolated Stein Nahaltlatch population of 17-20 bears which is in decline and is the most endangered in Canada.

Lenora Star, lands and heritage manager with St’at’imc Government Services, opened the gathering, cutting quickly to a theme that would be returned to again and again by subsequent speakers, that of the potential for collaboration, in this type of research and beyond, between communities within that St’at’imc nation.

“The beauty of this project has been the breaking down of those internal boundaries… if you look at the big picture it’s really significant that we’ve had these reserve lands designated to us… we lose sight of that St’at’imc Nation… and that’s okay, we’re responsible for our areas, but the goal of this project, because we’ve had so many communities involved in the nation, was to break down some of those boundaries,” Star said.

“We were back and forth in each other’s backyards, in our own backyards exploring. To see it unfold in such a beautiful way with the communities working together was really awesome and it was really nice to see those internal boundaries knocked away for a year or two, here and there.”

Star’s opening words were followed by introductions around the room, and then wildlife technician Darwyn John gave a slide presentation of photos taken during the project.  That sparked memories among those in attendance of helicopter rides, wet days in the bush and wildlife encounters not just with bears but with many other animals.

Most of the photos in the presentation were from trail cameras and included images of a huge array of wildlife including plenty of bears, along with deer, moose, cougar, bobcat, owl, marten, wolverine, fisher, porcupine and even wolves.

John spoke a bit about the challenges of collecting data with the cameras, including one that had pitch from the tree it was attached to ooze across the lens, and addressed some areas where training for mounting the devices could be tweaked.

Then the floor was turned over to project advisor and retired wildlife biologist Bruce McLellan, who pioneered the field technique being used for gathering hair and also installed some of the sites, to talk about what will be done with the samples that have been collected. The first answer to that is that they will be sent to his daughter, Michelle McLellan, who is also a wildlife biologist and who will be organize the samples and pass them on to Nelson-based Wildlife Genetics International for analysis.

“It does pretty well most of the genetic analysis of bears and many other species all over the world,” McLellan said of the company.

The first step in that analysis will be to determine if a sample is from a black or grizzly bear. If it’s a grizzly, they’ll do a sex test and then investigate each individual more closely.

“This population that we’re working in is isolated, small, and when things get isolated and small, they get inbred and when they’re inbred there’s not a lot of diversity,” McLellan said, adding that lack of genetic variability can make differentiating between individual bears a challenge.

Depending on workload, the data will likely come back next spring, McLellan said, and then Michelle will use statistical models to estimate population and other specifics.

“Then you’ll know individuals you’ll know more about their relatedness, you’ll know what the population’s doing, we’ll know who the cubs are, who’s the dads, who’s the moms.”

McLellan said much of this information is already known about the Stein-Nahaltlatch population and that this sort of ongoing monitoring keeps that information current.

“Over time, you can see when bears sort of drop out and you know longer get them and they’re gone. And you get new ones coming in and you know that they’re babies. So, you end up being able to piece the population together, the trend, the numbers of bears, and who’s related to who. A lot of information comes from a hair.”

Jolene Patrick, who works in community conflict prevention and education with the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative commented on the wealth of information the project produced in addition to the DNA data and on the potential it represents.

“To be able to use the footage to see creatures up in the middle of nowhere making themselves at home, seeing the different varieties of animals that we actually have evidence of now, on these cameras, definitely suggests, in future, how many different projects?” Patrick said.

“The sky the limit as far as what we would want to use this for but of course funding is always keeping us down. There’s so much potential and so much great data that has come from this and I’m hoping it will be used somehow at a St’at’imc level.”

Splitrock Sekw’el’was senior biologist Cheryl Blair, whose has been researching wildlife habitat and conservation across Sekw’el’was territory since November of 2018, deploying cameras and collecting scat samples for analysis, as well as using tracking surveys and documenting human incursions into the territory with a focus on habitat fragmentation and mortality risk, also homed in on the potential for collaboration.

“We have 55 cameras running across the landscape we’ve done a lot of tracking through that area. All of our cameras, we’ve got the roads covered up there so we’re getting tons of information on recreational impacts, who’s coming up, what’s coming up, how far they’re going up, it’s kind of going to this higher-level, nation potential for collaboration,” Blair said, noting that her research began with a focus on wolves.

“Coincidentally we started tracking grizzly bears as soon as they started getting up last spring and started targeting cameras to see where they were moving across the landscape and also collecting their scat,” she said.

“It’s kind of developed into this multi-faceted thing where the potential for large scale across the nations, from the data we’re already getting and starting to talk about pooling together,” she said.

“Ideally we’d like to start sharing the information at a nation level because these critters, they’re not really thinking about these human territories, politics, hopefully we’ll be able to move forward in that direction”

John had some thoughts on a different direction such collaborations could take in future, specifically about planning ahead with regard to food sustainability.

“I would like that to be mule deer. With the trouble that the fish are in right now, mule deer have always been our second wild protein, and right now with the fish dropping, mule deer might be jumping to the top.”

The Hair Snag Project was begun in 2005 by McLellan, with the hope that the effort would continue spearheaded by the St’at’imc. That has come to fruition with a partnership between St’at’imc and the Boothroyd First Nation, with involvement by Splitrock and the Coast the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative. Field crews have been in the field every month from June to October, accessing the sites in trucks, ATVs, helicopters and on foot to collect samples and check camera footage.

Funding is from the Habitat and Conservation Trust Foundation. The project will continue for the next five years with sampling continuing every other year.

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