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Bears in a hair snag lure site

Stinky Bait and Barbed Wire: Inside Alberta’s Grizzly Bear DNA Project

By snagging grizzly bear hair on barbed wire, researchers can analyze DNA to understand bear populations and trends

There’s nothing like rancid fish or cow blood to get a grizzly bear’s attention. 

That’s why scientists in Alberta use this stinky stuff, fresh berries, and molasses to attract grizzlies and snag a sample of their hair on barbed wire.

It’s a sneaky—and messy—way to obtain grizzly bear DNA, which can be analyzed to understand populations and trends better.

Darío Fernández-Bellon is a wildlife biologist with fRI Research. This not-for-profit organization uses science to guide resource development and land use.

Fernández-Bellon heads up fRI’s Grizzly Bear Monitoring project and a field team that monitors up to 100 remote hair snag sites every summer. 

“When they cross the barbed wire, they leave a little tuft of hair. That’s what we’re looking to collect,” Fernández-Bellon told CBC.” They often enjoy themselves and have a little rub or a roll. Everybody wins. We get our hair, and the bears get a little bit of enjoyment out of it as well.” 

The Story That Hair Tells

DNA and hormones in the hair provide valuable information about bear survival, reproduction, and health. Scientists can create a genetic profile for individual bears and build family trees. 

The Alberta government banned the sport hunting of grizzlies in 2006 and declared them a threatened species in 2010. At the time, the provincial grizzly population was estimated to be 700.

As part of the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, the province divided bear habitat into seven Bear Management Areas stretching from the Rockies and foothills of the far north to Waterton Lakes National Park in the south.

The hair snag study builds on two decades of fRI Research work on grizzlies. It included a multi-year that finished in 2018, putting the total population at around 900.

That’s up to 200 animals over the last 15 years.

The province says it’s proof that the recovery plan is working.”We can proudly say Alberta’s grizzly bear recovery plan is working successfully over the last few years,”  Ryan Fournier, an Alberta Environment spokesperson, told CBC in an emailed statement. “Today, we estimate there are 1,000-1,100, if not more.”

A grizzly at a hair snag lure site
A grizzly at a hair snag lure site | fRI Research

Monitoring Needs to Continue

However, bear biologist Gordon Stenhouse, who started the hair snag study, says we must monitor grizzly populations to ensure they don’t slip again under the pressures of resource extraction.

fRI began its Grizzly Bear Program in 1998 to study the potential impacts of the Cheviot Coal Mine south of Hinton. 

In its 2000 decision to approve the mine with conditions, a Joint Review Panel of the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said “that without mitigation, the Cheviot Coal Project will result in significant adverse effects on grizzly bears.”   

Resource extraction pressures haven’t gone away since then. 

The Alberta government is now considering a controversial coal development, the Grassy Mountain Mine, in the Old Man River headwaters, one of the southern grizzly bear management areas.

The outrage against this mine has been widespread among Albertans, and yet the UCP government is still considering approval of the mine.

“We need to monitor because we continue to see the landscape change through not only industrial development, forest harvesting and oil and gas but also with major forest-fire events and climate change,”  Stenhouse said in an interview with the CBC. “If we stop, in 10 or 15 years, we’ll return to Square 1, and no one wants that.”

With tourism pressure negatively impacting grizzly populations in the national parks, the bears need as much help as possible to recover population numbers.

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