Splitrock, Se'k'welwas launch new grizzly research

Splitrock Environmental, in collaboration with Se’k’welwas, is reaching out to St’at’imc communities, stakeholders and partners, to introduce them to a newly funded research and management project focusing on grizzly bear forage habitat in the Sekw’el’was Area of Responsibility (AOR).

Extensive previous research indicates that the Stein-Nahaltlatch grizzly population is threatened due to scarcity of food and barriers to dispersal.

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Grizzly bears have a widely varied diet, explained biologist and project manager Alicia Krupek, adding that certain foods accessed at key times during the bears’ foraging season become particularly important.

“These target foods tend to be those in high quantity and with high quality of calories and/or fat content,” Krupek said.

“Black huckleberries and whitebark pine nuts are two of these target food sources. These two resources help to fatten up the bears before they go into hibernation. Whitebark pine nuts in particular is thought to have a high influence on the numbers and health of new cubs in the following spring.”

Krupek said it’s not yet known if there is a particular food source that is scarce in the study area or if there is general scarcity of target foods across the population unit.

Michelle McLellan, MS, and PhD candidate for her research with the Southwest BC Grizzly Bear Project, who carried out or contributed to much of the earlier research on grizzly populations, noted that the information above is largely based on work done in Yellowstone National Park and that the results are not clear because population density is also a factor there.

“The relationship with huckleberries has been shown in other populations in B.C.,” McLellan added.

Krupek explained the barriers to dispersal which could also be threatening the Stein-Nahaltlatch grizzlies refers to natural geographical or human-created features that limit grizzly bear movement.

“Barriers are a concern because this could limit movement between neighbouring populations and lead to inbreeding within a population, which has been seen in the Stein-Nahaltlatch population.”

McLellan elaborated.

“The major barrier to dispersal in here has been the historic mortality from humans in the valley bottoms (in towns). There are two population fractures (movement pathways) in this population; one along the Seton Anderson Lakes, Gates and Birken, across which only males have recently been moving; the other is the Duffy Lake Road,” she said.

“No females have been documented, either through collaring or genetic tagging, to have crossed either fracture.”

This year’s research, with funding from the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk (AFSAR) and the Real Estate Foundation of BC, will continue to assess key grizzly foraging habits for overall health and connectivity.

That will include assessing black huckleberry patches, whitebark pine cone availability and recreational impacts on the spring habitat.

Connectivity, Krupek explained, refers to how well different foraging areas in the area are connected to one another and how easily the bears are able to move from one food source to another.

More generally, McLellan added, the word can also refer to the connectivity between populations as described above.

“Both of these are often limited by human use that can be a cause of increased human-caused mortality in these areas,” McLellan said.

 The outreach component of the project goes beyond simply informing stakeholders and community members, and will also seek to foster collaboration between entities committed to grizzly bears in the Stein-Nahaltlatch population.

“We need a collaborative approach to really do what is best for the bears. The collaboration that we are hoping to establish has begun with an email forum to support communication around the project activities and open the door for input and ideas. Other plans that we have include hosting at least two workshops before March 2020 to present project methods and some of the findings,” Krupek said.

“We are also open to visiting communities as requested to give presentations on the projects; this gives the opportunity for the larger community base to become involved as not everyone can make it out to workshops. Community visits will likely be done in collaboration with St’at’imc Government Services as they are busy presenting the grizzly population monitoring project they are leading.”

The Splitrock, Sekw’el’was research will include methods developed by whitebark pine specialist Randy Moody and concurrent camera work spearheaded by Cheryl Blair.

The project will take place in the northern half of the Stein-Nahaltlatch Grizzly Bear Population Unit, where the population is judged to be critically endangered based on research McLellan took part in in 2016.

The Sekw’el’was Land Use Advisors will document traditional knowledge and information about wildlife populations, movement corridors, habitat features, bedding and denning sites and forage habitat.

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