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Getting to the Root of Grizzly Behaviours

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The grizzly bear is synonymous with Canada’s Rocky Mountains and national parks. Unfortunately, this population resides in some of the most challenging habitat in North America and contends with meagre natural food sources and substantial human influence.

Consequently, this population has some of the lowest reproduction rates. In Banff and Yoho national parks, the grizzly bear population is estimated to be as low as 75, yet the overall population in the province of British Columbia is up to 16,000.

After a dramatic increase in grizzly bear mortality on railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in the early 2000s, CP joined forces with Parks Canada, the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to investigate these grizzly bear strikes and research practicable mitigation measures. CP functioned as an arms-length advisor, allowing researchers to direct their efforts to the science.

The focus of their investigation revolved around the increase in grizzly bear mortality and what could be done to reduce the risk of future mortalities. They questioned what was attracting grizzly bears to the tracks in the first place, and why certain locations reported multiple mortalities yet other locations showed high use by grizzlies and few deaths.

Not your average bears

While there were a variety of individual research components involved, the satellite telemetry collaring program (resulting in 26 grizzlies [12 male, 14 female] being affixed with GPS radio collars during the five-year, $1 million study) served as the backbone.

A grizzly bear walking along the train tracks.

“Understanding habitat use and movement patterns of the bears was key to many of the research projects conducted throughout this program,” said Bill Hunt, Resource Conservation Manager, Banff Field Unit, Parks Canada.

Bears were captured in live traps or darted while roaming by teams of Parks Canada wildlife specialists, using the highest standards of animal care. Various measurements (mass, girth, body fat) and samples (hair, blood, tissue) were taken after each bear was tranquilized. An ear tag and GPS collar was attached and the animal was monitored until it awoke.

Parks Canada specialists taking measurements from a grizzly bear

“The work was completed without a single serious animal care or human safety incident,” said Hunt. “This success is unprecedented for an effort of this scale and speaks to the skill and expertise of the Parks Canada team who undertook this work.”

The research showed there is no simple solution to this issue and that grizzly bear behaviours are highly individualistic.

“We found that the majority of bears make very little use of the rails,” said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, University of Alberta Biological Sciences Professor and Chair of Research for the study. “GPS collars made it possible to identify places that attracted multiple bears on multiple occasions, some of which could easily be associated with known attractants and some that were quite surprising, like old parking lots or dump sites.”

Bringing it all together

At the end of January, the findings of the joint grizzly bear research initiative were presented to community members at a three-day symposium in Banff. The data analysis has only just begun, but researchers are seeing very clear patterns of bears frequenting areas of burned forest, including areas of adjacent Kootenay National Park, which experienced a wildfire in 2003.

“Understanding habitat use and movement patterns of the bears was key to many of the research projects conducted throughout this program.”

“The work was accomplished in a relatively short time period and would not have been possible without the collaboration and cooperation of these three teams,” said Hunt. CP will continue to work closely with Parks Canada to implement some of the identified trackside mitigations to reduce the likelihood of bear-train collisions.

“The results of this study will help CP and other stakeholders make decisions that ensure the ongoing health of the grizzly bear population, while continuing to meet the needs of the North American economy,” said Glen Wilson, CP’s Assistant Vice-President, Environmental Risk.

In 2016, CP train crews reported 171 wildlife strikes across our network. The top three animals struck by a freight train were deer (68), elk (60) and black bear (19). Between 2006 and 2011 there were 10 confirmed rail-related grizzly bear deaths in Banff and Yoho national parks. There have been no confirmed rail-related grizzly bear mortalities in either park since 2012.

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