There are nearly three times as many grizzly bears frequenting the eastern slopes of southern Alberta as the province estimated only six years ago.
That’s a “bare minimum” says Andrea Morehouse, a University of Alberta wildlife doctoral student in a recent talk at Beauvais Lake Provincial Park, near the heart of the study area that extends from the Montana border to Highway No. 3, a distance of only 50 air miles.
Morehouse and a team of wildlife technicians have been monitoring “bear rubs” and taking hair samples for genetic analysis for the past three years.
The first year’s results (2011) identified only 51 individual grizzlies using Alberta provincial forests. But when the study was expanded last summer to deeded ranch and agricultural lands east of the Rockies, 122 individuals were identified by Wildlife Genetics International of Nelson, B.C from 4,200 submitted hair samples.
Morehouse says it is likely some grizzlies in the region never used the study’s rub objects, which often include trees strung with barbed wire snags.
The Alberta Government in 2007 estimated there were roughly 50 grizzly bears roaming the same region, and 700 across the entire province. Some consulting biologists argued there were even fewer.
BEAR POPULATIONS INCREASING
Morehouse says her work, which continues through 2015, is already more complex than the province’s assessment in 2007, and added Alberta grizzly populations are likely increasing, just as they are in Northwest Montana.
She relied on hair samples collected on 831 natural and artificial rub objects that are monitored and cleared two to eight times a year. Still-cams and videos are also used at some rub sites for additional identification.
The study is somewhat biased in favour of male grizzlies since they tend to rub more frequently than females, Morehouse says. Her findings showed 72 individual males and 50 females took part in back-scratching activities. Of the hair samples taken only 36 per cent came from black bears, which may suggest the smaller, less aggressive bears are moving out of the area.
Highway No. 3 is used as the northern boundary for the study because it’s believed grizzlies south of the highway come from a different gene pool than those to the north of the artificial barrier. It’s believed many of Morehouse’s study bears regularly move between Canada and the U.S.
BEARS MOVING EAST
Her study also shows Alberta grizzlies, like their Montana counterparts are moving increasingly eastward onto their historic prairie habitat. They are moving “way far east,” she said, and onto prairie habitats were residents seldom see any type of bear.
As such they are also creating some new challenges for ranchers and farmers. Livestock depredation and granary and chicken co-op raids are common lifestyle habits among some grizzlies, and Morehouse says her study may help determine if “problem bears” are genetically linked.
Morehouse and her crew of wildlife technicians are in the midst of collecting this year’s hair samples, the results of which will be known a year from now. †