Our grizzly bear field crew canoed leisurely down the winding Koeye River, in search of not only the elusive bear itself, but all the evidence it had left behind. Our paddling became soft and rhythmic, yet our eyes scanned each shadow beneath every cedar, and our ears were tuned to any wrestling of leaves or snapping of twigs.
The background noise of traffic, telephones, television and crowds, of which I had become so familiar with in the city, had disappeared, and was replaced with the songs of sparrows and the washing of waves on the sand and rocks. Towering cedars made up the skyline, the air devoid of smog and pollution. Traffic was Canada Geese coming in for a landing, the dippers dipping up and down in the shallows, and mergansers, mallards and loons parked at the intertidal supermarket.
The morning was still early when we spotted our first grizzly. He was a not quite an adult, freshly freed from his motherÅfs care. He gazed down at us from his perch on the driftwood and barnacles with long green blades of sedge hanging from his mouth, too intent on watching us than to finish his breakfast. Uncharacteristically, he decided to hang around for a while and remained with us for over an hour. At one point, he even took a nap while we snapped our pictures. Cocky? Lonely? Or perhaps he was just comfortable, feeling no threat from this strange contraption full of wimpy-looking animals. Whatever the reason, we were thrilled to get a little glimpse into the life of the great grizzly bear.
After he trotted off into the bush, we followed his steps looking for strands of hair like detectives. We scrutinized every branch and put our cheeks right down to the barnacles so we wouldnÅft miss anything. One strand of hair from this bear could unlock detailed information about his diet over the past year: did he eat vegetation in the spring or had he decided to concentrate on crabs? What proportion of pink, chum, coho or sockeye salmon did he consume during the previous fall salmon run? All of this would be discovered back home in the lab, using stable isotopic analysis.
Surprisingly, there is very little published information on the diet of the coastal grizzly bear. This information is vital not only to understanding this species in order to work towards its preservation, but also for documenting how bears in remote regions are affected by global pollution through their individual food choices. Contaminants, such as DDT and PCBs, have not been used in Canada for many decades, yet are still making their way to coastal watersheds and up the food chain to top predators.
Could these contaminants be considered an added conservation concern for the British Columbia coastal grizzly bear? Our research will help uncover these risks and lead the efforts to protect not only the great bear, but all other wildlife that call the same environment home.
PhD Candidate, Wildlife Toxicologist
Koeye River Valley, central coast of BC