There are rare jewels. And there’s Jewel the rare grizzly bear.
Jewel, an adult female whose range is the Texas Creek area, is one of only nine remaining breeding females among the vulnerable population of 24 grizzlies that live in the mountain block surrounding Lillooet. The block extends down the Fraser River as far south as Hope and then west to Harrison, Anderson and Seton Lakes.
Many people are pulling for Jewel to have a long and productive life. Her supporters include BC Conservation Officer Bob Butcher, wildlife biologist Tony Hamilton, St’at’imc Government Services ecologist Sue Senger, Blackcomb Aviation pilot Scott Taylor and a number of Texas Creek Road residents.
Thanks to their efforts, Jewel was successfully located two weeks ago, tranquilized, fitted with a high-tech collar and flown to the top of her home range above Texas Creek.
All of that occurred after Jewel had a close encounter with a rancher working on irrigation pipes in the area.
“I think she was probably as surprised as he was,” Butcher told the News. “She stood up and he actually hit her with a wrench he threw. It put a scare in him and rightfully so, but she didn’t act aggressive. She didn’t run, but she walked off and there was no snapping or growling, which is a good sign.”
Although the experience was terrifying for the rancher, it was probably the best possible outcome because no one was hurt and Jewel did not react aggressively.
“He was busy doing his thing and he had his head down. She was either having a nap by a hay bale or she had her head down and was playing with dried out deer bones and an old hide she found,” said Butcher. “It was too close for comfort, but it wasn’t a hostile situation.’
Hamilton said Jewel is a rare bear for another reason.
“She’s also a high value bear because of her adaptation to these really dry habitats. It’s astonishing she’s eating desert parsley. She’s doing a lot of digging and she’s well adapted to what’s available lower down in the area. She knows how to find natural foods. The ridges and knolls there are really pitted where she’s been digging.”
Texas Creek Road residents have been very helpful in trying to track Jewel. Prior to her capture, Butcher received numerous calls updating her location.
“Folks have been pretty good out there – there have been no attractants,” added Hamilton.
“She’s only in the area for those six weeks during May and June,” said Senger. “If we can keep her away from people and food attractants during that time she shouldn’t be a problem the rest of the year.
“We don’t want her to stay longer, so our job is to try and shorten that window by making her uncomfortable and making her move away from people.” Senger continued. “She’s not aggressive, she’s eating all the right foods – her scat is 100 per cent vegetarian. Fingers crossed, we can get through May and June. Out of an entire year, we’re only dealing with her one and a half months, compared to cougars year round and black bears in the fall. There’s not a huge window of time where we have to manage her.”
Managing her should be easier now that Jewel’s been fitted with a high-tech collar
Manufactured by Tellus satellite, the Followit Lindesberg radio collar can track Jewel and transmit to a second satellite, allowing Senger to monitor the bear’s movements to within metres and hours.
We used to have to fly to where the bears were to get the data from them,” explained Senger. “Now I can sit at a computer and track her. I was in Ottawa last week and from Ottawa, I was texting Tony and Bob about where she is.”
Senger gave the News a demonstration. Seated at the editor’s computer, she linked in to the satellite tracker and there was Jewel, a purple indicator on a Google map showing she’d been on a knoll near Steve Hall’s place hours earlier. Blue dots on the map indicated her rambles of the previous day – a 14-kilometre “walkabout” above Phair Lake.
The collar is so high-tech, it has geo-fence capability. “We have this ability to draw a line and when she crosses the line, we’ll get a notification call,” Senger said. “Next spring, we should be able to get phone calls saying she’s in the zone or when she leaves the zone. Either way, we should know.”
The study of Jewel and other Lillooet-area grizzlies is being conducted in partnership with Alberta’s Foothills Research Institute, which loaned the tracking equipment to the Lillooet project.
What if Jewel ventures too close to people, structures or fruit trees as she transits an area in search of food?
“She’s going to be taught that’s human space and she should stay away,” said Senger, who said rubber bullets will be used to haze the grizzly, who’s approximately nine years old.
“The critical time is first contact and if we can continue in this vein of scaring her away, chasing her away, then she’ll go back up the mountain.
“It involves really simple stuff – picking up your garbage and putting up an electric fence if you’ve got attractants. That’s the lesson we learned from Homer (a grizzly shot in Bralorne in April) – prevention, prevention, prevention,” explained Senger. “Once she gets into something, it’s too late. If she gets into the first garbage can, it’s too late. We can’t undo the lunch you threw out your car window.
“When we lose them out of an area, reintroduction is incredibly hard. She’s a tiny little bear, about 200 to 225 pounds. Of the four cubs that we know were born in this area last year, three died. We can’t afford to lose any more breeding females,” Senger concluded.