In their search for safe habitat, some grizzly bears in the foothills west of Edmonton have moved into former open-pit mine sites, according to a new study done by researchers at the University of Alberta.

The study, recently published in Nature Scientific Reports, tracked 18 grizzly bears wearing GPS collars in the foothills near Hinton.

The researchers concluded that mining has not been a deterrent to bears, and that in some instances the animals actually sought out the sites as places of protection.

"This study, done by some colleagues of mine, suggests that grizzly bears might be a little more adaptable than people have assumed in the kinds of habitat they can occupy," said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological science at the U of A.

The nine-year study looked at two closed mine sites near Hinton. Researchers found that mother bears were more likely to spend time at the mines than were lone females or males.

One reason for that, said Cassady St. Clair, may be that female bears may seek out mines as safe places, hoping to keep away from male bears, which have been known to kill cubs.

It could be that female bears are being pushed out of undisturbed habitat by male bears. Or the bears who frequent the mine sites may have learned there are good food sources to be found there, such as dandelions, clover and alfalfa.

Bears may also have learned that there are no hunters near the closed mines, said Cassady St. Clair.

Protecting grizzly bears

Grizzly bears were declared a threatened species in Alberta in 2010. Though they cannot be legally hunted, the bears fall victim to road traffic or poachers, or can be killed when they come in close contact with humans who are forced to shoot them in self-protection.

Whatever the case, Cassady St. Clair said the best way to protect grizzly bears would be to limit their opportunities to come in contact with people.

"Getting used to hanging around with people, generally that is not a good situation for bears," she said. "Especially grizzly bears. It doesn't tend to end well for the bear."