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A bear on the land

Some 30 years after it began, radio-collaring continues to teach us much about grizzly bears in Canada's national parks—and beyond.

In the early hours of 11 July, 2014, a month after being fitted with a GPS collar that recorded her position every two hours, a young female grizzly bear tagged F148 lay down on the outskirts of the Banff townsite for a few hours' rest.

Earlier F148 had spent time foraging grasses and protein-rich (wildflowers) near horse corrals at the town's main ingress from the Trans-Canada Highway. Observed here often by both park staff and the public, she was tolerant enough of humans to be permitted these gustatory pursuits. And now, said her collar, she was sleeping even closer to human facilities — not for the first or last time in a pattern that those tracking her had come to understand in a novel context: as a security measure.

The penchant for bedding down near buildings, roadways and other infrastructure is one of the more recent pieces in the puzzle of grizzly biology and behaviour revealed over some 30 years of tagging studies in Alberta's Bow River corridor. It's also emblematic of the double-edged sword that coexistence with grizzlies represents: just as bears are part of life for the people of Banff, humans are part of life for F148, who has never known different. With bears as adept as humans at identifying and exploiting opportunities and benefits in our shared environment, where do we draw the line between co-dependence and conservation?

It's a question that Steve Michel, Human/Wildlife Conflict Specialist at Parks Canada in Banff, is intimately familiar with. With campgrounds, trails, golf courses, railroads, highways and even backyard fruit trees under his aegis, Michel is charged with ascertaining when a bear can legitimately remain where it is and when it might need persuasion — or genuine aversion — to move along. The information and lessons required to make such decisions don't all come as easily as the data being beamed to headquarters from F148.

In a 2013 TEDx talk in nearby Canmore on "Living with Wildlife," Michel confesses to an affair with a good-looking female in her mid-20s, joking that although he doesn't know her name, he can always "track her down — because I've got her number." In typical small-town fashion, the audience was already aware of this dalliance, laughing at the obvious reference to Banff's most famous grizzly, F64 — coincidentally F148's mother.

Years before, on a popular trail, Michel had encountered F64 in "a worst-case scenario" — surprising her as she fed on an elk carcass with her cubs, furthering the provocation by making eye contact at close range. But after a few frozen seconds, the bear simply looked back down and continued eating. Heart in throat, Michel backed away. In his talk, Michel shares the conclusion he reached after reflecting on such experiences and the wealth of data from ongoing studies in places like Banff and Lake Louise: "One of (our) big insights... is that grizzly bears often like to come close to us; they do that on purpose and they do it for their own safety... And you might be thinking, well, what does a grizzly bear have to fear?... the reality is they have to fear other, bigger grizzly bears; so for young (grizzlies) or particularly females with cubs, if they come close to human facilities... they can keep their cubs safe... We can all relate to this idea: Who wouldn't want to keep your kids safe? And I think if we understand why they're doing that we can go a long way to putting fear aside and replacing it with respect."

Respect is something F64 would earn from staff and visitors alike; perhaps because, unlike many bears, she'd dodged an all-too-common highway or railway death to carve out a difficult living on an increasingly busy landscape. Despite the harassments of overeager wildlife photographers or naïve tourists tossing sandwich meat from a van, she'd exhibited both restraint and tolerance of the odd anthropoids with whom she shared the land.

First tagged during a research project in 1999, F64 would later produce two known litters. In 2006, she'd emerged from hibernation with two female cubs, turning them out on their own in 2009. (In a sadly typical story, both were subsequently killed, one on the rail in 2010, the other a year later on the Trans-Canada.) Freed of the travails of motherhood, F64 spent summer 2010 in the company of several male grizzlies. Not surprisingly, spring 2011 found her with three gamboling furballs in tow — a critical mass of camera-ready cute symbolizing the very wilderness-evoking, charismatic megafauna people flocked to Banff to see.

After years as a virtual attraction, however, F64 disappeared in October 2013, age 24. Though her trio of offspring — including yet-to-be-tagged F148 — lingered around town, there was no sign of the famous matriarch. Nor would there be in 2014. Tongues wagged: where was she? Although possible she'd had new cubs and was hunkered down in a remote area to avoid male bears, her age — at the upper end for wild grizzlies — suggested she'd more likely died of natural causes or by another bear while defending her cubs.

F64's legacy included increased public awareness of the challenges facing Banff's bears, plus an unprecedented contribution to the knowledge of how a female with cubs uses both natural and man-made elements of the landscape throughout the year. A more important legacy, perhaps, was the lifetime's worth of knowledge F64 passed to her scions. When F148 was eventually tagged in June, 2014 (see sidebar: Collared), the information she began generating not only provided insight into the life of a young female grizzly, but it could be paired with that of her mother for a multigenerational picture.

Leaving the townsite at first light, F148 crossed the CP rail line and headed west along Sundance Canyon/Healy Creek trails, high-human-use thoroughfares that also link bear foraging opportunities. With a habit of travelling within 100 metres of the public, she was often spotted in this corridor. Crossing the Trans-Canada at Healy Underpass, she entered Healy Pits, a reclaimed gravel excavation that offers both decent feeding and good sightlines from which to monitor the approach of males. It was an area F148 knew well: she'd spent much time here with her mother.

A 2013 study out of the University of Alberta highlighting the major role mother grizzlies play in teaching cubs about habitat was clearly reflected in F148's movements, a philopatry (the tendency to return or remain near a familiar area) even captured by remote camera when she crossed wildlife overpasses once plied with her mother.

In the afternoon F148 crossed the highway for a second time at Wolverine Overpass, and by 5 p.m. was ascending into the alpine. After travelling 18.2 kilometres she'd eventually stop for the night. Resuming her wanderings the next day, July 12, she climbed 2,473-metre Harvey Pass and spent the next two days in a remote alpine basin to the northwest of the Sunshine Village Ski Area. Here she could grub up Glacier Lily and Spring Beauty bulbs, or the roots of alpine sweetvetch, a flowering legume with a circumpolar distribution endorsed by bruins the world over. She may also have tried digging up ground squirrels.

Once again, it may have been an environment familiar from childhood. "It's typical for sows with young-of-year cubs to hunker down in high-elevation bowls and get out of the main traffic areas during breeding season," says Mike Gibeau, a conservation coordinator with the Nature Conservancy of Canada and former carnivore specialist with Parks Canada. "Especially with big males around."

On the other hand, once snow has retreated, most grizzly home ranges include varied habitat that extends from valley bottom to alpine. "Her movements were pretty representative," notes Michel of F148, "though she has the smallest range of all the bears we monitored. Home ranges for males are three to four times as large."

The great distances covered by some males is another revelation delivered by radio-collar studies.

"It's only been 40 years since we realized bears use the landscape at a greater scale than previously thought, and that a healthy, sustainable population requires hundreds of individuals interacting over tens of thousands of square kilometres. Territories like that require both large park set-asides and management of the remaining landscape. Facilitating genetic diversity is the ultimate goal — genetic resilience is key in adapting to things like climate change," says Wendy Francis, Program Director at Yellowstone to Yukon, a conservation group that seeks to restore landscape connectivity for wildlife over that vast region.

Radio-collar data are particularly useful for garnering buy-in for such wide-ranging conservation efforts. "You can show ranchers in southwest Alberta — where the number of grizzlies on the prairie is actually increasing — that the bear on their land was captured 150 kilometres away in Banff a month earlier," says Gibeau. "Conversely, you're able to tell them that the five bears they saw one week were actually the same bear. Radio collaring is like a fingerprint — it puts a particular individual at a particular place at a particular time."

Gibeau should know, having logged some 1,000 hours in a small plane tracking bears by VHF antennae in the early days. "GPS technology has revolutionized everything. Now a satellite system tracks the bear and you sit in front of a computer and wait for the data to roll in. It also makes the data much less biased: we couldn't track by night, and only found bears where we looked; if they were hiding somewhere we didn't fly we were out of luck."

Gibeau's many studies delivered information on everything from grizzly reproductive rate (three to four times over a lifetime) to lifespan (20 to 25 years) and the predilections of various ages and sex with respect to transportation infrastructure (e.g., being closer to roads regardless of time of day predisposed subadults to greater encounter rates with humans, and thus a greater chance of being killed). To prevent loss of habitat connectivity, mitigations that included maintaining high-quality habitat adjacent to roads, installing continuous highway fencing, and creating wildlife passages were variously recommended.

Beginning in 1981, the 83 km of the Trans-Canada Highway passing through Banff were upgraded from a two- to a four-lane divided highway, with fencing subsequently added to reduce collisions between vehicles and wildlife. In 1996, during a 30-km upgrade from Banff to Castle Junction, Parks began building wildlife crossings; today these total 38 underpasses and six overpasses. Although reducing wildlife collisions by some 80 per cent, grizzlies took about five years to get used to them, and it remained unclear whether they used crossings to find mates. A 2014 genetic analysis by Montana State University researchers, however, shows bears are indeed crossing the highway to seek mates, restoring the gene flow seen as critical to conserving the species.

By the evening of July 14 Bear 148 was again on the move, descending from her alpine sanctuary; she would make it only as far as an adjacent bowl before bedding down. On the 15th, utilizing terrain adjacent to Sunshine's access road, she resumed her journey to the valley, crossing the highway back into the familiar environs of Healy Pits and sleeping that night in nearby forest. About 5 p.m. on July 16 she reversed course through the Healy Underpass only to then re-cross both highway and CPR line at Five Mile Underpass, ending up on the 1A secondary road. Steadily moving east, she'd cross the highway one last time before spending the night near the Legacy Trail.

No conversation about grizzlies in Banff can avoid the fact that train collision has surpassed highway collision as the primary cause of mortality, and that Five Mile Bridge, where F148 often crossed, has proven exceptionally deadly. While sporadic bear deaths have always occurred on the tracks, numbers shot up beginning in 1999. Speculation over cause zeroed in on the potential effects of highway mitigation: Bears losing access to prime grazing habitat or road-killed carcasses — and the grain spilled along the tracks from up to 30 trains each day. Though CP spent heavily on educating grain handlers and refitting rail cars to cut down on spillage, the deaths continued. A difficult landscape had somehow become more so, a situation documented hauntingly well in Canmore filmmaker Leanne Allison's Bear 71, which adeptly explores the delicate relationship between humans, animals and technology. With Alberta's 700ish remaining grizzlies officially declared threatened, and only 60 to 70 resident or transient in Banff National Park, immediate action to ensure their survival was critical.

In 2010, CP and Parks Canada signed a five-year joint plan aimed at reducing grizzly mortality on the rail line. A $1-million grant from CP now supports research into everything from geology and geography, to vegetation, prescribed fire and land-clearing, electric fencing, grain aversion, and aspects of basic biology and behaviour that might make bears more vulnerable to rail strikes.

While tracking has proven integral to such studies, not everyone in the corridor is supportive. The animal-rights/welfare camp is a vocal pocket of anti-collaring sentiment, regardless of what information might be gleaned. Because everyone from Gibeau to Michel acknowledge that collaring is costly, traumatic and dangerous for bears and wildlife managers alike, looking for other monitoring methods is very much part of the Parks-CP joint effort. In a 2014 analysis of hair samples, differing signatures of nitrogen and sulfur isotopes allowed researchers to distinguish bears that foraged along the railway from those that didn't, suggesting a non-invasive, affordable, and efficient technique to identify rail-associated bears. Regardless of their broad utility in segmenting a population, however, such studies don't deliver the temporal or spatial resolution of collars, which in turn can't provide the momentary resolution of cameras. "Pooling all data sources gives you a much more detailed picture of the mechanisms driving bear movements," says University of Alberta professor and study lead Colleen Cassady St. Clair. "It's both more comprehensive and more accurate, with one data set informing how you interpret the information from another — a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts."

Cassady St. Clair's team is also investigating sensory ecology: the difference in being down or up-wind of a train — or down- or up-sound. As any hiker knows, valley soundscapes vary depending on physiography, echo potential, wind, and other factors that can be exacerbated by, for instance, long curves on a rail line. Studying curves, in fact, recently uncovered another potential issue: a magnetic anomaly that affects compass behaviour in the vicinity of Five Mile Bridge. Is it a natural geologic phenomenon or related to the vast ballast material required to support tracks on long curves? Bears may be capable of learning about such anomalies over time but be direction-confused in the short term, making them more vulnerable. Regardless, Cassady St. Clair feels that no single factor, but rather the compounding interaction of several, will prove responsible for the uptick in collisions.

"The glass half-empty look is that this is getting complicated," she notes, "but the glass half-full look is that it's also getting more interesting."

On July 17, Bear 148 continued back towards town along the Vermillion Lakes Road, whose picturesque nature and abundant wildlife make it popular with tourists, and whose buffalo berries made it a route her mother also frequented. Skirting the perimeter of the townsite, she crossed the TCH at Buffalo Underpass, remaining on the side of the highway below Mt. Cascade and sleeping near Cascade Ponds, a popular swimming and picnicking site directly north of the horse paddocks where she began her circuit a week before. In that time she'd travelled a total of 60.8 km, about seven per cent of the 831.8 km she'd cover from the day she was collared to Nov. 6, 2014. F148's movements very much echoed those of F64: of 1,750 GPS fixes, 661 were within two kilometres of the townsite, making for some 38 per cent of her time spent near people. It's the very kind of data needed to fit Banff's bears into the bigger picture of human-bear conflict in the corridor being looked at by everyone, regardless of jurisdiction.

"The uniqueness of Banff and the immediate Bow Valley area is that folks move there to coexist with nature — elk, moose, bears — and they're keen to adopt mitigation measures so the species can persist. From (tracking) work we know more about seasonal movement patterns and food searches etc.," says Courtney Hughes, a doctoral candidate in social sciences at the University of Alberta studying contextual and situational aspects of social tolerance for grizzlies. "Such positive attitudes toward grizzles can be used as a case study, but on the cusp of that region — to the north and south — it's a different attitude and value system; people living outside protected areas may 'like' grizzlies, but they have to deal with the problems bears might create in their lives."

When it comes to mitigating human-bear conflict, Gibeau points to some amazing work being done by ranchers in southern Alberta (subject of Sharing the Range, a new film by Allison) and Wendy Francis allows that although it's still a work in progress, efforts in the Bow Valley remains a leader in the grand Y2Y picture. "Canmore residents created designated wildlife corridors so animals can continue to move through the town; there's a garbage management regimen; the WildSmart program teaches people everything from kinds of plants they should have on their property to how to use bear spray to how to travel with dogs to reducing attractants. It's a good example of a community in a critical wildlife corridor trying to do the right thing," she says.

Ultimately, the utility of advances in technology are less about individual disposition of bears than their bigger ecological role.

"Grizzlies are an indicator species that tell you how healthy an ecosystem is. If grizzlies aren't doing well the environment is likely compromised, and there's a good chance it will eventually impact people," Michel says.

"But grizzly bears are also one of the most difficult species for us to get along with, and that's why I think if we can learn to get along with them, we can learn to get along with any wildlife species."