Researcher tracks grizzly behaviour with a little help from a can of WD-40

A wildlife biologist studied the impact of feeding roadkill to grizzly bears at 12 sites throughout southwest Alberta and whether it might prevent them from killing cattle during the spring calving season.

Wildlife biologist looks at the impact of roadkill on the bears' appetite for livestock

A study that involved feeding grizzlies roadkill in order to dissuade them from killing livestock didn't work, according to research expert Andrea Morehouse. (Andrea Morehouse)

Could roadkill stop the spring kill of cattle by Alberta's grizzly bear population?

That was the question behind an analysis of a 15-year provincial project, undertaken by Andrea Morehouse, a wildlife biologist with the University of Alberta.

The study, known as the intercept feeding program, ran from 1998 to 2013 in southwestern Alberta.

"The goal of the program was to reduce spring incidents of grizzly bears killing livestock," Morehouse said on the Calgary Eyeopener.

In an effort to alter the grizzlies' behaviour pattern, roadkill ungulates were collected during the winter, then dropped by a helicopter at a dozen remote sites.

A University of Alberta researcher found dropping roadkill onto mountainsides to encourage grizzly bears not to kill spring cattle didn't help at all. Andrea Morehouse monitored the results of the study, which lasted from 1998 to 2013. (Mark Boyce)

The thinking behind the provincial project was straightforward enough.

Morehouse said it was done "with the hope that when bears emerged from hibernation, they would feed on these piles of roadkill as opposed to going to lower elevation areas where vegetation was beginning to green up, but cattle were calving."

Grizzlies 'love to rub up against WD-40'

Morehouse devised a unique methodology in order to monitor the bears in her study

"We wanted to identify how many bears were actually using these sites and to do that we collected DNA samples from those bears," she said.

At each site, there would be a pile of roadkill and they would select "two trees that were near that site and we sprayed those trees with WD-40 and wrapped them in barbed wire.

"For whatever reason, that I don't know, WD-40 elicits a rub response from bears and so they would come into the sites, feed on the roadkill and then rub on these artificial rub trees that we had collected."

The team would then collect the hair samples and extract the DNA to identify how many bears were using the sites.

In addition to the greased up trees, the researchers worked with Fish and Wildlife officers and residents to collect hair samples from conflict sites to identify which bears were involved. 

The number of events and the costs were also tracked. 

The results? It turns out the grizzlies ate the roadkill. And then when spring calving season arrived, they ate cattle — just as many as they ever did.

As to reasons why, she can only speculate, including more bears.

She added that researchers are seeing these sorts of incidents happening farther and farther east, which would involve grizzlies with no access to the roadkill dropped at the sites in the southwest.

"There's of course, changes in natural food availability or natural food abundance and weather that could have also played a role in this, but we didn't monitor those things directly in this project," said Morehouse. 

After suspending the project for several years, the data has revealed no measurable change in the bears' behavior. At a cost of $44,000 a year, it's difficult to make a case to continue it, the biologist said.

"I can't speak for the province, but it's my understanding that it's unlikely that they will be re-instituting the program," she said.

With files from The CBC Eyeopener


  • In the original version of this story, there were quotes attributed to the wildlife biologist that came from paraphrased notes from a pre-interview. We've since added direct quotes.
    Aug 23, 2017 10:27 AM MT