Our Stories

Tracking Grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest

"In the spring, mother grizzlies spend most of their day feeding, while their young ones play close by.”

— Phil Charles, local guide and SEAS coordinator

When people think about bears in coastal British Columbia, they tend to imagine grizzlies feasting during the great salmon run in the fall—and for good reason, as it truly is one of nature’s most spectacular events. But people often overlook the beauty of spring. The salmon are still far, far away—it will be many months before they make their way back through the ocean to the coast, back to their birth rivers. But the estuaries are alive. Sedge is tall and lush, slowly swaying in the breeze, the morning dew weighing it down, forcing it to curl at the tips. Purple lupines dance with hummingbirds. As bears emerge from their winter slumbers, it is crucial that they begin to feed, having lost up to 30 percent of their body fat during hibernation. At this time of year, their dietary focus is sedge, an essential source of sustenance that contains 20 percent protein in its tips. 

Because sedge is a lower quality food than salmon, spring grizzlies spend much more time feeding. So, while it can be more difficult to find bears during this time of year, when you do find one, you’re more likely to spend more time with it. During the fall salmon run, bears will spend 10 to 20 minutes feeding in a river before returning to the forest. In the spring, you can spend hours quietly watching a single bear. This is especially true of sows with cubs, since her energy demands are so high. Mother grizzlies spend most of their day feeding, while their young ones play close by, allowing for some of the most beautiful and intimate bear-viewing any time of year. 

— Phil Charles, a local guide and SEAS coordinator in Klemtu, BC

On the British Columbia coast, the First Nations we work with are tracking grizzly bears and their food sources so we can protect these mighty animals, which are vital to the Great Bear ecosystem and local cultures. Below is a snapshot of their research over the last year:

AERIAL VIEW

It turns out that the best way to watch grizzlies is from the sky—at least, for science. This year, the Kitasoo Xai’Xais Nation used a helicopter to track bears for the first time ever, doubling their study areas and reaching remote places like alpine meadows. The researchers recorded the habits of more individual bears than ever before—very important for conservation planning in their traditional territory. And their work force was local: Their bear project hired nine community members as skippers and research technicians, including a youth intern—a social investment that they say could benefit resource stewardship in their traditional territory for generations.


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A common sight in the spring: Inquisitive bear cubs often have to stand on their hind legs to get a better look over the tall grasses. © Phillip Charles


COUNTING FISH

Qqs Project Society, a Heiltsuk-led community organization, tagged 561 adult sockeyes and 1,423 sockeye smolts this season—a critical food source for grizzlies in the fall and an integral part of the Great Bear ecosystem. The smolts (juvenile salmon) will eventually be detected as returning adults, resulting in the first-ever estimate of marine survival for sockeye on BC’s Central Coast. This month, researchers will deploy 32 trap cameras across eight streams to monitor bear activity during the fall salmon run. This research will further reveal the critical links between grizzlies and salmon, which will guide First Nations in managing the lands and waters in their territories.


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Entering its third year of operation, this salmon weir, modeled on traditional construction, located in Heiltsuk territory is providing rigorous estimates of adult sockeye returns to the watershed. © Qqs Project Society


PASS IT ON

Communities in the Great Bear Rainforest are exactly as they appear on a map—tiny dots surrounded by millions of acres of forests, rivers and mountains. But sharing lessons across this vast landscape is important to local people, especially when it comes to resource management and cultural knowledge. So this year, we facilitated several cross-community exchanges. The Kitasoo-Xai’Xais Nation travelled to Heiltsuk territory to learn about salmon monitoring, grizzly camera traps and much more. And later this summer, Heiltsuk youth will travel to Marven Island, a traditional harvest camp for the Kitasoo-Xai/Xais in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.


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A camera trap captures a grizzly in Heiltsuk territory. The researchers called the camera study, “a tremendous success, producing thousands of images and without losing a single camera to curious or aggressive bears.” © Qqs Project Society


Thank you to Earth Rangers across Canada for their generous support of this work—you are making a difference for grizzly bears and for nature in Canada.