Major grizzly study in the Swan Hills

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

BMA 7 is what the Swan Hills area is called. It stands for ‘Bear Management Area,’ and for the next few weeks 150 sites will be set up in it, collecting information on grizzly bears.

“It’s quite intensive,” says Ben Williamson of fRI Research, the outfit doing the study. “BMA 7 has never been sampled comprehensively before.”

At each of the 150 sites, scent lures will be set up, in the hope of attracting the big bears. Along with the scent will be barbed wire. While checking out the smell, the bears rub against the barbed wire, leaving hair samples. This is then subjected to DNA analysis.

“Because they don’t get any food from the scent lure,” says a May 15 public notice on the project, “the bears are not likely to remain in the area.”

They are likely to respond to the scent, though. Williamson says the method is deemed to be quite reliable, and researchers are confident it will result in a fairly accurate picture of the grizzly population.

“This is the gold standard,” for such research, he says.

Researcher Karine Pigeon agrees, saying she’s “110 per cent” confident in the method.

“We will be able to tell if the population is increasing or decreasing.”

Similar research is going on in all the province’s BMAs. The idea is that once an area’s numbers have been reliably recorded, the population count can be done every few years to see what the trends are.

It will be quite some time before those comparable figures exist for BMA 7, but in the area south of Hinton, the study has been done twice – once in 2004 and again in 2014. It produced some perhaps surprising results.

“It (the grizzly population) increased quite a bit in those 10 years,” Pigeon says.

Setting up the 150 sites is a lot of work, and the research team is not doing it from the comfort of hotel rooms in Slave Lake or Whitecourt. Williamson says they were out “setting camps,” last week, and would proceed from there to install “rotten cattle blood,” and the barbed wire in carefully chosen spots. These are to be “far from populated areas and at least 200 metres from roads and trails.”

Williamson adds that the sites will not be advertised and the hope is they will remain undisturbed by humans for the duration (May 22 – July 25).

Just in case, they will be flagged with caution tape and ‘area closure’ signs. The bears will presumably ignore these.

Results from this summer’s research likely won’t be released for about a year.

FRI Research is a non-profit organization, Williamson says. Funding for the grizzly study comes from the Government of Alberta and “industry partners.”

A grizzly bear checks out a scent lure in this trail cam photo supplied by fRI Research. One hundred –fifty such sites will be set up this summer in the Swan Hills.

The study area, shaded dark.


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