New study reveals complex relationships among grizzly bear activity, ecotourism, and salmon availability

The study shows the complex relationships among grizzly bear activity, ecotourism, and salmon availability.

Grizzly bear with a salmon in its mouth.
Photo by John Kelsey.

A new study “Ecology of fear alters behaviour of grizzly bears exposed to bear-viewing ecotourism” in the journal Ecology finds that bears will avoid ecotourists on multiple spatial and temporal scales, and can take multiple weeks after encounters to return to their undisturbed activity levels. The ‘ecology of fear’ concept allows an understanding of how an animal’s perception of risk may influence its behaviour and use of habitat. This perception of risk often relates to habitat structure, the types and intensity of risk cues, as well as an animal’s previous experiences. This study specifically examined how habitat structure and varied risk cues (in the form of human activity) influenced grizzly bear activity.

Given the increasing popularity of bear-viewing ecotourism, including their own Spirit Bear Lodge, the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation was interested in the potential effects of bear-viewing on the grizzly bears in their territory. The closure of ecotourism due to COVID-19 in 2020 in the K’ootz/Khutze Conservancy (“Khutze”) on the central coast of BC provided an unprecedented opportunity to monitor bear activity with remote cameras in the absence of humans, and compare it to human activity in 2021 when ecotourism resumed. Bear viewing in Khutze is primarily boat based, with two small land based interpretive sites in the estuary. 

The study revealed complex relationships among grizzly bear activity, ecotourism, and salmon availability. The researchers found that grizzly bear activity in Khutze was influenced by the amount of human activity, habitat structure and salmon availability. 

After accounting for salmon and other factors, the researchers detected a decrease in grizzly bear activity in 2021 across the remote camera array compared to the 2020 closure year. Within the 2021 ecotourism season bear activity also declined on days with more tourist activity. Bears were more likely to be detected at sheltered, forested camera sites compared to those more exposed, such as the open estuaries where bearviewing occurs. 

The variable that had the largest influence on bear detection rates was the number of days since people had last been in the Khutze bear viewing areas. The study found a strong temporal lag in terms of time required for bear activity levels to return to baseline following exposure to humans. It took 25 days with no people in the watershed for bears to return to their 2020 levels of activity, revealing that the effects of human presence extended beyond the time that ecotours occurred. This effect was ~7 times as important as variation in salmon biomass in predicting bear activity levels. 

“The closure in 2020 offered a really unique setting to observe bear activity when people weren’t present. It was really fascinating to see how sensitive these bears can be to our activity.”– Monica Short, study lead. “It was also inspiring to see the ecotourism operators collaborating with the Nation and BC Parks. It’s clear that all parties want what is best for the bears.”

Age-sex classes of bears were also influenced by the interaction of ecotourism and salmon biomass differently. When salmon levels were low, the number of people had little influence on the likelihood of a detection being an adult male, but when salmon biomass was high, increasing numbers of people was associated with a lower likelihood of a detection being an adult male. This suggests that perhaps when salmon availability is sufficient, adult males opt for alternate feeding areas outside of human activity. The opposite pattern was observed for females with young; when salmon levels were moderate or high, we observed a positive association between the number of people and the likelihood of a detection being a family group. Results from a complementary model suggest that females with young are not increasing their activity in response to ecotourism, however they may be the age-sex class that is least negatively influenced. In contrast to other bear-viewing studies, we did not find strong evidence of a benefit for females with young, however more work is needed to understand how fishing opportunities may be influenced.

This study provides valuable, site-specific information for managers within the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation, the province, and beyond to implement measures to best manage ecotourism to benefit both bears and people. 

“Our Nation has always had the right and responsibility to care for our territory, and today we are actively stewarding our lands, waters and resources. This includes conducting research that gives us a solid stance to develop a management direction for bears and bear viewing. This initiative, lead by our Nation in partnership with the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab at the University of Victoria and supported by BC Parks, is a great example of how we are working towards successfully protecting wildlife and operating a sustainable ecotourism business. This type of research is rooted in our traditional values of reciprocity and respect. It not only benefits the bears, but us as well, in ensuring that we are actively working on creating healthy relationships with them and respecting their needs as best we can.” – Sierra Hall, Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority.