The Bear Truth: Grizzlies’ hair reveals dependence on salmon

Scientific American

By Anne Casselman

HEILTSUK TRADITIONAL TERRITORY, British Columbia—”Remember, if she charges, don’t run,” Doug Brown, researcher and field station manager for Raincoast Conservation Foundation and member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who tells me as we climb out of the boat at the head of one of the countless inlets found in the of the Heiltsuk Traditional Territory along British Columbia’s central coast.

It’s June and the early morning summer sun rapidly scales over the steep slopes flanking the inlet. Several hundred meters away a grizzly mother is grazing along the edge of the estuary with her two and a half-year old cubs. “Cub,” however, is a misnomer in this instance. These are three-year-olds, large beasts in their own right. Through my binoculars I see the mother lift her broad head to sniff the wind. The muscles powering her lumbering 135-kilogram-plus body ripples still. “So how far away does the bear need to be for the bear spray to work?” I ask Doug. “Ten feet,” he replies. I picture just how large this grizzly would be that close—and how fast she would close that distance. “Wow,” I mutter. Doug replies: “Yeah, that’s why I carry two canisters.”

This mother’s triplets are likely the fruit of a banner salmon run four years ago, a rarity, given the poor runs seen here since 2003. Like so many marine and terrestrial animals of the Great Bear Rainforest—roughly defined as the north-central coast of British Columbia—the grizzlies here rely on salmon in their diet to sustain their life cycles, which may be a problem because the salmon aren’t doing so well. “All of us are governed by the same ecological currencies, and the currency here is salmon,” Chris Darimont, chief scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation (RCF) and conservation ecologist at University of California, Santa Cruz, says. “When the wealth of salmon goes away there’s poverty for the people here, and also ecological poverty.”

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