First-ever ‘scientific’ count of Swan Hills grizzlies
Estimates of grizzly bear numbers in the Swan Hills area of Alberta have always involved a lot of guesswork. Now there’s a “first-ever scientific population estimate for this area,” says a March 31 news release from FRI Research. And the news is good!
Researchers, operating in an area described in the news release as, “between Whitecourt and Lesser Slave Lake,” identified 39 unique grizzly bears. Based on this evidence, the release says, it can be reasonably assumed for management purposes there are around 62 grizzlies in the area.
It’s worth noting the field research in the Swan Hills area was done nearly three years ago – in the summer of 2018. Asked why it took so long to get the results out, Gordon Stenhouse, the research project leader, says it had mainly to do with “funding challenges.”
The good news about Swan Hills bear numbers coincides with similar encouraging fairly recent results in a couple other management zones. One, east of Banff National Park, turned up double the number of grizzlies from 2005, when it was first surveyed. The good news continues: in the Yellowhead region, the grizzly population (estimated) had also doubled between 2004 and 2014.
The two most recent studies – including the Swan Hills one – were “enormous,” says the release, involving 23 grad students who spent their summer setting up and checking nearly 400 hair snag sites.
“These sites surrounded a scent lure of rotten cattle blood with a strand of barbed wire to collect tufts of grizzly bear hair,” says the FRI release. “We then used the DNA from the hair to identify individual bears and estimate the populations in each (bear management area).”
Stenhouse says it was a team effort, involving the field workers, pilots, lab personnel, analysts, statisticians and funding partners, two of which were Vanderwell Contractors and West Fraser. Those companies operate forest products mills in Slave Lake and High Prairie and have forest management obligations over large portions of the Swan Hills.
“These results are a testament to what can be achieved when industry, government, and research organizations work together,” says Alberta Forest Products Association President and CEO, Jason Krips. “The forest industry has been supporting grizzly bear research for decades and incorporating the results into our practices. We are pleased to see increasing populations of this iconic species.”
What the new numbers mean specifically for wildlife management in the Swan Hills – or for forest management generally – remains to be seen. Stenhouse told The Leader FRI’s part is gathering reliable data; that’s now been done for the entire grizzly bear habitat area of Alberta – something like 228,000 square kilometres.
“It’s the first time ever for all BMAs (bear management areas),” he said. “It’s the only jurisdiction in North America, that I’m aware of, that has done that.”
Stenhouse said previous estimates of grizzly numbers in the Swan Hills were “habitat-based,” rather than based on DNA samples. They were typically much lower than what the new data indicates.
Asked about grizzlies in the Marten Hills, Stenhouse said they likely visit that area, but he doubts if there are permanent residents.
Requests for comments from Alberta Environment and Parks had not produced any results by press time.