Notes from the Blood Shed

By Ian Jansma, Research Assistant

Denny Island Field Station

When I signed up as a volunteer on Raincoast’s salmon-carnivore study, I didn’t realize I’d be spending my days up to my armpits in blood. In the moist, pungent darkness of the ‘Blood Shed’, I mix fish oil and cow’s blood into a frothy cocktail with a stench so eye-wateringly acrid, yet so sickly sweet, that it will be irresistible to grizzly bears.Though distasteful to the vegetarians among us (and to the omnivores, for that matter), at least I’m making good use of fishing and beef industry byproducts. Better still, I’m helping with an important and unprecedented grizzly study in the Great Bear Rainforest. Alongside a companion project undertaken by our partner, Coast Watch (a Heiltsuk First Nation initiative from nearby Bella Bella), our studies are providing the first scientific analysis of grizzly bear numbers and distribution on the central coast.

Some of the other volunteers are on their way to remote estuaries, or hiking centuries old bear trails into the rugged coastal mountains. Meanwhile, this is my time to shine. I must act quickly – before the blood coagulates too much – and add the final ingredient: a splash of beaver castor oil.

The beaver oil is bottled for hunters, and we use it for much the same purpose as they do: to attract bears. But, while hunted bears may find themselves between a bait barrel and the barrel of a gun, the bears in our study area will find only an unsatisfying pile of bloody moss that smells strangely of fish and beavers. We don’t desire bear hides on our floor; we want only a few hairs. Our bears will investigate the bait, leave small tufts of hair on a strand of barbed wire that surrounds the site, and move on.

We have a hundred sites across a vast area, and we all work around the clock for six weeks each spring to bait them and collect the hair samples. The hair will go to laboratories where DNA, stable isotopes, and even hormones are extracted. DNA, along with GIS mapping, tell the tale of the coastal bears’ numbers and movement patterns. Stable isotopes are used to calculate the amount of salmon each bear has eaten. Collectively these data, taken over several seasons, will be vital in determining how bear birth and growth rates are affected by changes in salmon abundance. Overall, we will have a remarkably vibrant picture of bear health on our coast.

Having reliable information on the health of bear populations will help direct conservation efforts. It will also inform any debate in which bears are stakeholders, including the debate over trophy hunting. One thing is already clear: bears suffer an increasingly long list of abuses to their way of life, from decimation of their habitat by industrial forestry to depletion of their food source by chronic overfishing, fish farms and changing ocean conditions. Hunters’ bullets and arrows are not the only things killing bears. Still, I’m confident that one result of our work will be to help end the hugely unpopular trophy bear hunt in British Columbia.

While “bear baiting” is not a legal hunting method in BC, trophy hunting is permitted for big carnivores, including grizzly bears. The debate over trophy hunting in our province is unresolved and seems to be at a standstill. The political weight of overwhelming public opposition doesn’t quite outweigh the political clout of trophy hunting lobbies. What’s needed is a good dose of real science to tip the scales.

Meanwhile the bears try to go on as they have for millennia. For some bears we realize the science will not come soon enough. That’s why we also encourage everyone who cares about bears to take action and demand more from our government. After I scrub off the smell of stale blood and fish oil, I’m going to write my MLAs demanding they take the health of our bear populations seriously, for there is blood on their hands as well. After all, it’s an ethical issue as well as a scientific one, and a groundswell of public support increases the impact of our recommendations.

In the meantime, the lab technicians need not worry that they have the least glamorous part of the research. But if from the Blood Shed I can help inform better fisheries management, inspire people to share resources with bears, and of course end the bloodshed, then I do it gladly.

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Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.