Grizzly experts disturbed by photos of emaciated bears in Knight Inlet are calling for research to determine why they are so thin.
Photos of a sow and two cubs taken by Port McNeill wildlife photographer and tour guide Rolf Hicker raised alarms for some scientists, who said the bears were likely suffering due to an abysmal Pacific salmon return this year.
Federal fisheries experts have pointed to climate change as the main reason for the poor return, and salmon are crucial to coastal grizzly bears’ diets.
Longtime grizzly researchers say a salmon shortage is the most obvious explanation for the bears’ condition, but there could be other factors.
Dr. Ken Macquisten, a wildlife veterinarian and managing director for the Grouse Mountain wildlife refuge, said he was shocked by the photos. Had only a single bear been affected, he would have questioned whether it had broken teeth or an intestinal blockage.
“But multiple bears would tend to point to some common reason, and a lack of food would be top of the suspect list, in my mind,” said Macquisten, a director for the Grizzly Bear Foundation.
Macquisten said grizzly bear researchers are concerned about B.C.’s salmon supply. The fish are crucial to West Coast bears during their hyperphagic stage before hibernation, when an adult will eat 50,000 to 60,000 calories of food and gain three to four pounds each day. They are omnivores and also typically eat whitebark pine nuts, insects and berries.
But if they don’t eat enough before hibernation, they will wake up early and be forced to search for food during winter when it is scarce, he said. They could die of starvation.
“Because they can range over large areas, typically the bears will be able to go to somewhere else where the food is, so it’s a bit surprising why these [photographed] bears are in such a state,” he said. “Either they haven’t been able to find food over a wide area or they haven’t been moving.”
But Macquisten urged caution before drawing the conclusion that a salmon shortage is to blame, and said he hopes someone will locate one of the bears to determine the cause.
The Ministry of Forests said provincial biologists can’t confirm why the sow in Hicker’s photo appears to be in such poor shape.
The biologists don’t know its history and whether age, dental issues, injuries or providing for cubs contributed to its state, the ministry said in an emailed reply to questions.
“The number of bears on the coast [is] stable to increasing and this often means more competition for resources,” the ministry said. “If salmon runs in the area are lower than expected, this will have an added effect and bears may have to travel further to find food.”
Government representatives are working with the Mamalilikulla First Nation to monitor the welfare of wildlife in the area.
The B.C. government has estimated 15,000 grizzly bears are in the province and said about 340 die each year of human-related causes. Of the 56 grizzly populations in B.C., nine are classified as threatened.
Dr. Cole Burton, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management at the University of B.C., also called for research into whether a poor salmon return and climate change are affecting the well being of some bear populations.
“If we’re concerned about grizzly bears and how they might be responding to these changes, then we should try and support some more study on that, some more monitoring that’s tied to our management actions,” Burton said.
He wouldn’t jump to the conclusion, from the photos, that the grizzly bears represent more widespread suffering, he said.
“It’s certainly consistent with these ideas around a reduction in salmon,” said Burton, the Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Mammal Conservation. “But on its own, I don’t think it provides much evidence of the bigger-picture trends.”
Burton said that grizzly bear populations in B.C. are generally doing OK, but not thriving, mainly due to habitat loss caused by development and roadbuilding.
The government’s ban on grizzly bear trophy hunting in 2017 might have increased the number of bears competing for food, Burton said. Prior to the ban, an average of 297 grizzly bears were legally killed by hunters annually, according to provincial data.
“I’m not saying that that’s what we’re seeing here, but certainly we would want to know about the population,” Burton said.
Clayton Lamb, a PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar at the University of Alberta, has been working with grizzly bears for six years and is researching their population dynamics.
A poor salmon run is a “reasonable” explanation for the sow being malnourished, Lamb said. But when salmon populations are low, grizzlies tend to move elsewhere in search of berries, and he wondered whether the bears in the photographs have that option.
“I think a couple of pictures don’t give us that larger population context,” he said.
Lamb said climate models for grizzly populations in B.C.’s Interior suggest that berries and other diet staples could, in fact, become more abundant as the climate changes.
“As far as food and climate change for bears, it’s not immediately concerning,” he said. “There’s undoubtedly going to be winners and losers in climate change, and I think it just so happens that some of those key berry species are going to be winners.”
Bryce Casavant, a former conservation officer who is now conservation policy analyst with non-profit conservation organization Pacific Wild, said Hicker’s photos serve as a reminder that human behaviour can have an impact on wildlife.
“What we do know is there is food scarcity, currently, within the Great Bear Rainforest and coastal regions of B.C., which is causing problems for grizzly bears,” said Casavant, a PhD candidate at Royal Roads University.
“Salmon runs have declined, their ability to access natural food sources has declined. Habitat loss is a serious contributing factor to grizzly bear population recovery and stability.”