February 14th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 7
Black bear population study in SW Alberta suggests healthy numbers
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Christine Misseghers Photo
Annie Loosen collecting hair samples at Blakiston Creek in Waterton Lakes National Park in summer 2014. “I'm using a little butane torch to burn bear hair off the tree. This ensures that all the hair that is deposited on the tree is from a certain time period. This is essential for our mark-recapture model,” she says.
Pass Herald Reporter
Residents living in Southwest Alberta know that we share our landscape with black bears but until now, there have been no studies conducted to actually estimate or calculate population densities and numbers.

University of Alberta graduate student researcher Annie Loosen has been working on a study to establish “baseline density estimates” of black bears in a multi-use landscape and in a shared grizzly landscape.

Her area of study includes 3,600 sq km spanning from the United States border north to Highway 3 and from the border with British Columbia east to Highway 2. The study area incorporates a wide range of topography - from mountainous zones to prairies – and different types of land ownership - from national and provincial parks to public land, leased land, grazing co-ops, private land and First Nations’ land.

The study used hair samples collected from trees bears had rubbed against between June and November over a two-year period from 2013 to 2014. Certain trees were outfitted with metal wire and every three weeks, volunteers visited the sites to collect the samples.

Approximately 8,000 hair samples were sent to Wildlife Genetics International in Nelson, British Columbia over the course of the study for genetic testing, and the results identified a total of 347 black bear individuals.
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“This is the minimum number, it’s not an estimate. It’s a count of the number of individuals we detected,” says Loosen, who presented her findings at the 93rd annual Hillcrest Fish and Game Trophy Day on February 3.

With the rub method, researchers are able to get information on the number of individual bears, sex and species, which provides valuable insight into an area that previously had little to no information. Loosen admits, however, that the rub method may not capture all individuals in an area.

“There are lots of things that could influence whether a black bear rubs,” says Loosen. “We don’t fully understand that. We don’t know exactly why bears rub, so that makes it a little hard to understand and could bias our results.”

Loosen is currently working on determining a population estimate, as opposed to just a count, which would be able to provide a more accurate representation in terms of total bear numbers in Southwest Alberta.

“A population estimate takes into account how often we detected bears and the areas that we think we missed bears. More than likely, your estimate is going to be higher than your count,” she says.

A notable trend from the study indicated a high density of bears, particularly females, on private land and a low overall density on Crowd land, which Loosen says is surprising.

“The province assumes that Crown land is prime for black bears, but perhaps this shows that there is room for habitat improvement or enhancement,” says Loosen.
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One theory for higher black bear populations on private land could be due to habitat. Black bears enjoy patchy environments and right now, says Loosen, with limited access management occurring on Crown land, black bears may tend to gravitate towards private land.

As for particularly high number of females, Loosen speculates that it may be due to their movement out of Waterton Lakes National Park, which has a high density of males. Females can be displaced by the males and select habitats that are less risky for them and their cubs.

Loosen suggests that another driving factor of finding more black bears on private land is due to the higher harvest rates on surrounding public land. This may be because landowner permission is not required on public land, whereas hunters need landowner permission to shoot a black bear on private property.

She stresses that this is speculation, as provincial regulation does not require mandatory reporting for licensed hunts or hunting on private land through an unlicensed hunt, so we don’t actually have accurate data on the number of bears killed during hunting season.

In fact, Loosen says that black bears are the only large carnivore that doesn’t require mandatory reporting. This limits knowledge in terms of how many and what types of individuals are being harvested.

Loosen says it would also be insightful to obtain information such as age, which would provide a more accurate picture of what’s going on in terms of a population dynamics standpoint and would have the ability to signal over or under harvesting.

The Voluntary Black Bear Tooth Submission Program is a new pilot project in central Alberta is a low-cost way of doing that. Hunters are encouraged to submit a premolar tooth to the program, which will determine black bear age and reproductive statistics, and better inform black bear management.

Taking the results of the study into consideration, does this mean that Southwest Alberta has healthy black bear numbers?

Although Loosen was hesitant to confirm with a confident ‘yes’, she said that based on this study, population numbers are on par with those found in nearby national parks, which does suggest a healthy black bear population. Areas of low density are cause for concern because they conflict with provincial management expectations and assumptions.

Population studies on black bears are sparse throughout the entire province, so Loosen’s research gives researchers and residents a snapshot into the black bear population of our community and backcountry.
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February 14th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 7
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