Taking grizzly bear viewing to a whole new level

Fri, 2020-01-17

The Nanwakolas member First Nations and their research partners are giving a new meaning to the term "bear watching," using new data gathering and analysis methods to track the movements of grizzly bears in the territories.

If you're camping on northern Vancouver Island and a grizzly bear strolls into your campsite - as happened recently to a family at Naka Creek, near Telegraph Cove - you'll be too busy making yourself scarce to get a good look at its face. Anyway, one 200-kilogram apex predator looks pretty much identical to another in the adrenalin rush of sheer terror.

But in fact grizzlies (Ursus arctos ssp, also known as the North American brown bear) can - and do - have distinctive features that identify them as unique individuals, says Nanwakolas Council Forestry and Research Adviser Jordan Benner. The Nanwakolas member First Nations and their research partners are working on remote technology concepts to photograph, identify, and monitor specific animals as they move through the territories. "We have only been doing this for one year, but we have already started to identify some bears and follow their movements through the territories. That's pretty cool!" says Benner. Once your adrenalin rush has calmed down, you'll probably agree.

Twenty-first century tracking technology

In 2018, Nanwakolas and the member First Nations' Guardians began working with University of Victoria behavioural ecologist Dr. Melanie Clapham, whose research has focused on grizzly bear behaviour, to monitor the movements of these animals in their territories. Using twenty-four motion sensor-activated cameras set up in various locations across the territories, the team were able to collect data that will help identify important habitat and movement corridors for the bears. For the 2019 field season, the number of cameras deployed was expanded to fifty.

"The cameras are set to take 20-second videos when they are triggered," explains Benner. "If the bear is still there at the end of the 20 seconds, the camera will keep taking new videos until the bear moves away." The baseline data being collected will be used not only to track where and how the bears move around over different seasons, but to analyse the impacts on those movements of industrial activity like logging, changing water levels and temperatures, and human and environmental impacts on important food sources such as salmon. "Over a period of years we'll be able to use this baseline data to start to map changes that are occurring, and to plan better around things like forestry and salmon habitat restoration to sustain the bear population," says Benner. Combined with data currently being gathered on salmon, such as through the member Nation's various salmon enumeration programs or the Hakai Institute's eDNA monitoring program , he adds, "we'll hopefully be able to anticipate bear movement ahead of time, as we think that their movements are inherently tied to the presence and abundance of salmon populations."

The bears and us

"The reason we need to understand what's affecting these animals, why the bears are moving in certain ways to different places, is simple," says researcher Gina Thomas, a Tlowitsis Nation Guardian. "Whatever is affecting them is affecting us, so anything we do to protect them will help us as well."

Well before the current project began in 2018, Thomas says she and her fellow Guardians had already observed that more grizzly bears have been moving onto Vancouver Island. This is troublesome: "It's not good habitat for grizzlies. There is not enough space for such big animals. They will tolerate close proximity to other bears when there is plenty of food, but more typically they prefer to be well apart from each other. So what is driving them over here? How are they are interacting with each other when they are forced to be so close to each other?" The concern goes beyond conflict between grizzly bears. Forestry workers have told Thomas that they have seen the newcomer grizzlies chasing black bears away from their usual feeding grounds on Vancouver Island. That's also worrying: "Are the black bears being driven out of their territory? Where are they going, and what is the impact of that?" Finding out is key to understanding what can be done to help the bears, and other animals dependent on the confined habitat provided by northern Vancouver Island and its environs. When the opportunity to participate in the data gathering work with Mel Clapham was offered, says Thomas: "We said yes immediately."

First Nations Guardians like Thomas, and Harold Glendale, a Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala Guardian who has years of experience working with grizzly bear viewing guides and tourism operators, already knew a great deal about where bears typically travel and feed in the territories, and worked closely with Clapham to determine the right places to locate the cameras so as to capture the best data. "Because we are out there a lot, we have a pretty good idea where the bears go," says Thomas. "They are often around roads and trails to rivers, for example, because of course those are easy for them to move through." Glendale adds: "They also move seasonally to where the food is." He notes that human activity such as ecotourism has an impact on where the bears can be expected to hang out: "During the day, when they know people are around, they tend to hide but they will come out again in the evening." The banning of the trophy hunt has also had a positive impact, says Glendale: "We've seen increasing numbers of grizzlies at the head of Knight Inlet, and we are seeing them more often, including bears we haven't seen before."

Picture of Dr. Melanie Clapham and the Mamalilikulla Guardians setting up cameras.

Valuable data to support First Nations' priorities

The member First Nations, says Benner, are placing increasing importance on the land environment in their territories, as well as the marine environment. "They have told us that they want to know what is happening with the wildlife in the region."

An abundance of healthy wildlife offers opportunities for ecotourism and sustainable economic development tied to wildlife viewing and similar ventures, for example, an area in which Mel Clapham has focussed her work. "I am interested in how social and environmental factors influence bear behaviour, and the implications of this to their management and conservation," writes Clapham, who works closely with the commercial bear viewing industry in British Columbia researching bear populations in the province. "If we can better understand how and why bears move throughout this landscape," adds Clapham, "we can better assess their ecological needs and put management practices into place which are not only good for bears, but the ecosystem too."

That's of equal interest to Nanwakolas member First Nations, since they purchased the Knight Inlet Lodge in 2017 through a limited partnership. Operating in Glendale Cove since 1995, the internationally-renowned lodge now hosts one of the premium grizzly bear watching operations in Canada. Guardians like Harold Glendale, who in collaboration with Lodge management helps educate both tourists and guides about how to behave in grizzly bear country, play a key role in keeping the bears safe. The information they expect to obtain from the data gathering project will play an equally important role in understanding what that means, says Glendale, and how to ensure that bear viewing tourists can continue to enjoy the spectacular experience of seeing these animals in the wild without causing any harm to them - and perhaps even contribute to increasing their wellbeing.

Picture of grizzly bear viewing stand at Knight Inlet Lodge.

Facing facts

One of the interesting aspects of the project, states Clapham in a report on the 2018 results of the monitoring program, "involves the identification of individual bears and tracking them through time and space."

Guardians like Glendale and Thomas, who are out in the territories on a regular basis, get to know certain bears. "It helped that Melanie and people like Gina and Harold already knew some of these bears from having spent so much time studying them already," agrees Benner. But they can't recognize all of them, or of course follow them twenty-four hours a day into remote locations to observe everything they are doing. While you can tell some bears apart, says Glendale, it can be tricky to deal with creatures that change appearance seasonally the way bears do. "They put on fat, their coats change, and they can look quite different in different seasons," adds Benner.

Being able to track the movements of a specific bear remotely using the cameras, explains Clapham, allows the scientists to fill that knowledge gap by observing patterns of travel by the same and different animals, analysing trends in distinct behaviour, such as the time it takes an animal to travel from one feeding ground to the next, and record their presence in different watersheds at different times of year. Clapham has also been developing automated technologies that will allow the teams to monitor individual bears within the study area with more accuracy in the future.

Using the cameras and the identification techniques under development, in 2018 the team were able to track several individual bears moving throughout the territories. Grizzly bear M018 - fondly nicknamed "Das Auto" - had been documented in Glendale Cove in Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala territory in 2016. The cameras caught him on video in Glendale cove again in 2018, but also at Heydon Bay in We Wai Kum territory and two weeks later a considerable distance away in territory. In the following two weeks he moved between the Glendale watershed and Heydon Bay, where he was last spotted in mid-September. Bear M010 ("Simoom") was also seen in all three territories. Topaz - bear F034 - was initially identified with three spring cubs in Tlowitsis territory, to everyone's delight. Sadly, all three cubs subsequently disappeared, presumed lost. Topaz was spotted several times more, however, up until as late in the season as November 4, 2018.

"We're still trying to understand if this technology can provide us with all of the data we need. If we can use it to support the program, it could be very efficient and useful, and we could deploy a huge number of cameras," says Benner. The cameras, which are easily installed in areas in which the Guardians are usually present in the course of their regular reconnaissance activities, are far less invasive than sending in human observers or tranquilizing bears to attach radio tracking collars. The time saving is also, naturally, significant. The cameras hold memory cards capable of storing large amounts of video data, and the batteries required to operate them last for the entire field season.

Each of the five member First Nations has selected ten key sites in their territories to install the cameras. "Typically, they can swap out the memory cards for all ten cameras in a day, about once a month. Some of the sites are only accessible by boat, but others are quite near roads," says Benner. The cameras are housed in sturdy steel frames which are screwed into trees securely and locked to prevent easy removal, either by humans or bears. Their placement is discreet, so as not to attract attention. All the same, says Glendale with a sigh, they do get footage of some unusual human activities: "Forestry workers, for example, who don't seem to realize a lot of people will be looking at these videos, doing silly dances in front of the cameras." At least people don't touch the cameras. The bears are another matter: "There's a small red blinking light that comes on when the video starts recording, so the bears do occasionally glance at the cameras, and one did actually try to eat the equipment at one point!"

Picture of grizzly bear F034 Topaz with three cubs.

The future is (bear) friendly

With just one year of data under their belt so far, Benner estimates it may take as many as ten years' worth of analysis to support land use planning measures over the long term. But even the data acquired to date is valuable.

"The Guardians already have really old knowledge of how bears move and behave," points out Benner. "What's happening now is that they are able to get further out into the territories and use this new technology to gather contemporary data to match up to that existing, longstanding knowledge. That's really exciting." All of this baseline information will inform the work of the research team over the next few years as it gathers more and more data. "The analysis of course takes much longer than downloading the videos," acknowledges Benner. Part of the work is building the Guardians' and First Nations capacity to manage the data, and undertake their own analysis of the information emerging from the videos. In the meantime, he observes, "we've already captured some really good information on the corridors the bears are using to move from place to place, and that will help us start to think about the ways in which those corridors are affected by human activity, for example. We can get more strategic about where we place the cameras, and when. For instance, we can use the technology to track activity prior to logging activity in an area, and afterwards, to assess the impact. This work is going to be really useful for planning in the future."

It can't be too much of a hardship spending days at a time watching videos of bears. "It's incredible!" enthuses Harold Glendale. "Seeing a mama bear with three cubs, and other animals. The wolves are pretty neat. We saw a pregnant wolf, with her puppies later on." These are animals the Guardians simply would not get close to in person: "It's really great to have these eyes out there in places we can't get to, or shouldn't be. The animals don't want us there, close up. But through this we get to be close, we get to see the bears growing up, and living their lives." That can be a little nerve-wracking at the same time, laughs Gina Thomas. "You see these images of these massive animals and then realize that they were in front of the cameras only hours after you had been out there - it does up the fear factor a little bit!" The overwhelming sensation, however, is one of awe: "Absolute amazement! When you see the images of these huge bears and bull elk, cougar, wolves - these are all in our back yard. It's incredible."

Most importantly, concludes Thomas, the data being captured is already expanding the understanding of the pressures on the animals and the environment they are in. "It's so important to do this work," says Thomas. "We know the bears are having to move into new habitat, and that there is intense pressure on them and their food supply. If we are seeing so much stress on their ecosystems, what does it mean for us?"

Enjoy watching the magnificent great bears for yourself, from the comfort of your armchair, at: https://www.grizzlytours.com/video-gallery/forest.