Year two of grizzly bear behaviour monitoring in the Atnarko Corridor, Nuxalk Territory

Living and working in the Atnarko exposes us to dynamic and rich knowledge sharing from people who live and work among bears.

Patience, attention to detail, and the ability to adapt are a few human qualities that many strive to attain. Grizzly bear field research here on the Atnarko River, Nuxalk Territory, affords our crew the opportunity to develop those traits and put them to the test. 

Enduring a rainy, eight-hour behaviour-monitoring shift with no bears? Patience. 

Carefully sampling a silvery strand of fine, grizzled fur dangling on a hair snag? Detail. 

Planning for a scientific monitoring program during a pandemic? Ability to adapt (facemasks, as it turns out, tend to fog up binoculars). 

With COVID-safe procedures in place, we have embarked on a second year of Nan (grizzly bear in Nuxalk language) behaviour monitoring in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. The Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab has partnered with Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife (Nuxalk Nation) and BC Parks to study how varying human activity may affect grizzly bear behaviour. For example, our research aims to develop a greater understanding of how a non-consumptive industry like ecotourism can be sustainable, educational, and have conservation benefits. 

Bear viewing, an activity that has occurred here for decades, occurs in the lower reaches of the Atnarko River. The data we collect will be used to test hypotheses that are guided by theory, results from which may inform our real-world understanding of how grizzly bears and ecotourism can coexist, taking into account human behaviour. 

Earlier in the season, as salmon pulsed upward towards their life’s end, the river’s surface was sliced by the humped backs of male pink salmon. White bellies of the fish flickered upward as females prepared their redds – the gravelled area in which they lay their eggs. While all five salmon species spawn in the Atnarko, pinks were the most abundant in the river this field season, which spans July to October.  

As bears roam, pursue, and eat, we observe and record behaviour. Each behaviour I assign to a grizzly bear I meticulously code in a table of operational definitions (refining of which served as an excellent pandemic-pastime earlier this year). We film behaviour so that our scorings can be error-checked and re-coded to test for accuracy and precision.

Several datasets, derived from non-invasive hair snags, trail camera footage, and direct behavioural observation, will undergo analysis at the University of Victoria this winter. Analysis of genetic data will glean when, where, and how many individual bears we detect, and whether certain individuals stay put in one area of the Atnarko corridor, or are occupying many areas throughout. 

Trail camera footage will allow us to analyze how bears of different age and sex classes might vary in their behaviour across space and time. Most cameras are set to take videos. We are specifically interested in when (e.g., nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular) activity occurs and how such patterns might be influenced by human presence. Finally, direct behavioural observations will allow us to measure time-budgets of grizzly bear foraging across a spatial gradient of human activity, accounting for availability of not only salmon, but also fruiting shrubs, both of which rise and fall in their abundance in different areas and times.  

We must practice safe decision-making not only while working alongside grizzly bears, but also as we encounter obstacles to site access. Last week we encountered a rockslide, which blocked access to about half of our study area. We weren’t discouraged by this for long. Safe conditions allowed for an impressive response to the slide by Jason Moody (Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife Program Coordinator) and Peter Woods (BC Parks), which resulted in several barriers being towed out of the way safely with the aid of cables and 4x4s. After a few days of work the road is now passable, allowing us to see our sampling efforts through until the end of October. 

This field work is as social as it is ecological. Living and working in the Atnarko exposes us to dynamic and rich knowledge sharing from people who live and work among bears, including commercial operators and members from the Commercial Bear Viewing Association. Our research program also benefits from having Nuxalk youth on our crew this year, newly graduated from the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards program, and now employed by Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife Department. While I am guided by scientific inquiry, I carry out this work by operating in ways I have learned from people who live and work here. I practice carrying myself slowly, thoughtfully, respectfully, and with gratitude while working alongside grizzlies and people who call this place home. 

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