New research reveals spatial alignment between grizzly bear genetic groups and Indigenous language families in coastal British Columbia

A grizzly bear walks through the short grass beside the ocean on a misty day in the mountains of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Photo by Michelle Valberg.

People from Gitga’at, Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk), Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk, and Kitasoo/Xai’xais territories have long been connected culturally to grizzly bears. New research from a collaboration among these First Nations and scientists from the University of Victoria and Raincoast Conservation Foundation has revealed a newly identified link in this long-established relationship. 

In the landscape on the central coast of what is now known as British Columbia, genetic analyses have identified three distinct genetic groups of grizzly bears. The spatial areas of these groups align strikingly well with the geographies of three Indigenous language families (Tsimshian, Northern Wakashan, Salishan Nuxalk). The explanation the partnership favours is that the landscape has shaped bears and humans in similar ways.

How exactly the three areas differ, likely in constraints and opportunities in foods and movement, remains a mystery. However, we do know that bears and people have shared resources and space on this landscape for millennia, emphasizing the potential for a parallel response to variation in these resources that reflects this long-term relationship.

This striking finding was unexpected. “The study was originally motivated towards understanding if genetic discontinuity might exist across the landscape, an important consideration in management,” offered Lauren Henson, Raincoast Fellow and PhD student at UVic. The geographic configuration of the genetic groups does not align with how grizzlies are currently spatially managed by the provincial government.

For William Housty, of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department and co-author, results like these highlight the importance of locally-led monitoring for management. He states Our investments in research across our territories allow us to make informed management decisions that draw not only from our own knowledge, but also new scientific evidence like this.” 

This study was published in the peer-reviewed, open access journal Ecology and Society.