Collecting bear hair: more than a field season

The Bear Project is a long-term, Indigenous-led bear monitoring program on the Central Coast.

It’s the end of April and we’re pulling into Bella Bella to join our Heiltsuk colleagues for two months on the 2022 Bear Project. The ferry docks at 1:00am, and I don’t know what to expect. At this point, I’ve never been this far up the coast, and I can’t believe how beautiful it is. Steep peaks, lush watersheds, and stunning ocean everywhere… and not to mention all the species and people that call Heiltsuk Territory home. After a hiatus in 2020, a modified season in 2021, and many Covid-19 tests later, we are grateful to be safely welcomed back to Bella Bella for another year.

Helicopter in an estuary with two people.
Field technicians Elhe Black and Walter Campbell prepare to board the helicopter after sampling. Photo by Persia Khan.

History of the Bear Project

The Bear Project, originally started in 2006 by William Housty and his team at QQS (Eyes) Projects Society, focuses on gaining a greater understanding of bears in Heiltsuk territory. This is done by collecting genetic information through non-invasive hair snags. The success of this project is the result of Indigenous science, values and place-based conservation, as well as the amazing partnerships.

The Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab became involved with the project in 2009, and contributed to research priorities identified by the Central Coast Bear Working Group. What started as a fine-scale and detailed project in the Koeye watershed has grown into a landscape-scale sampling array, and the project has been adopted by several Central Coast Nations over the many years, including the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Gitga’at First Nations. Several research and management questions have been examined through this work, and include questions related to bear movement, resource availability, genetic population structure, and habitat use.

Three people smiling with greenery in the background.
Walter Campbell, Ilona Mihalik, and Persia Khan smiling after a morning of Spring showers.
Research boat in the ocean with mountains in the background.
The Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab’s research vessel, Kwahnesum, waiting for the crew in Roscoe Inlet. Photo by Persia Khan.

How we do the research

To collect hair, barbed wire is strung around several trees to form a corral at long-term monitoring sites and re-visited twice a season, after they are established, for sampling in early spring. The sites attract bears through the application of a novel scent and non-reward bait, located in the centre of the barbed wire. This combination lures bears past the wire, leaving clumps of their hair as they enter and exit (on average a couple minutes later).

The work is simple. The research team travels to the sites, collects samples, and enters the data. The data are then harnessed into a suite of powerful analyses that monitor the use of habitat and foods over time. This data set is important for gaining a deeper understanding of how land use and salmon management decisions can impact bears, as well as tracking changes in bear populations.

Woman looking out a helicopter over a coastal scene.
Field technician Chelsea Walkus overlooking Bella Bella from the air en route to our first sampling sites of the day. Photo by Persia Khan.
Hand with a blue glove on showing a pillow of bear hair.
A “pillow” of bear hair captured on our barbed wire corral, containing both under and guard hairs, which will later be processed for genetic and isotope analyses. Photo by Persia Khan.

This work goes beyond the science

What isn’t captured in scientific figures or complicated statistics is the sense of community. I’m thinking about the ear-to-ear smiles as the sun sets behind the boat, the laughs as your friends trudge through thigh-deep rising tides, or the excitement of walking into a site and encountering fresh scat. Simply, the Bear Project was much more than a field season.

As a settler, I’m struck by what a privilege it is to see so much of Heiltsuk territory in one season. One of the most special aspects of the project was being accompanied by community members, heading out to the far reaches of the Spiller Channel or Roscoe Inlet. As a long-term project, the field season can be a yearly community event, signifying opportunities for adventure, friendships, and, of course, wildlife sightings.

Now that we’re back in the lab entering the final pieces of data and prepping our samples for analyses, I find myself reminiscing throughout the day. I miss many things about the field season, but mostly the kindness and generosity of all those who contribute to the project. Over more than a decade so many people have given their time, knowledge, and passion to this research and it’s demonstrated by the love people have for their work.

As another season of the Bear Project closes, I look forward to future years of working together to steward the Central Coast.

The Bear Project Infographic. Designed by Sonya Borisova.

For more information about the graphic designer who designed our infographic, please visit her LinkedIn or Dribbble.

You can help

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.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

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