'Scent lures' help researchers count Alberta's grizzly bears

A research study underway on grizzly bears should give officials a handle on the number of bears in Alberta and whether they still need to be classified as a threatened species.

Ongoing project will help wildlife officials determine if ‘threatened species’ status warranted

Three areas in the province are being surveyed as part of a research study to determine the population of grizzly bears throughout Alberta. (fRI Research)

An ongoing research study will give wildlife officials a handle on the number of grizzly bears in Alberta and whether they still need to be classified as a threatened species.

The provincial government classified grizzly bears as a threatened species under Alberta's Wildlife Act in 2010.

Government officials used the best information they had available at the time, said Gord Stenhouse with fRI Research. The not-for-profit research institute is doing the study with Stenhouse as the project lead.

"Now we are going to be in a position where we have much more, and more complete information, to redo that status assessment," Stenhouse said Wednesday.

The research project began in 1998. By the end of the project, there will actual numbers of grizzly populations throughout the province, said Stenhouse.

It will then be up to provincial government officials to do a status re-assessment. Officials will consider population numbers, habitat and mortality, he said.

A report on the findings should be ready by early 2019. The status re-assessment by the province will happen sometime that year, or in 2020, Stenhouse said.

An fRI Research study is underway to determine the number of grizzly bears throughout Alberta. (fRI Research)

This summer, researchers are gathering grizzly DNA by setting up "scent lures" surrounded by a strand of barbed wire.

When curious bears investigate the smell, they rub against the wire and leave tufts of hair.

The hair is sent to a lab in Nelson, B.C. for DNA analysis.

The analysis identifies individual bears and helps estimate the population size, said Stenhouse.

Three bear management areas are being surveyed this year: the foothills east of Jasper National Park, the foothills east of Banff National Park, and the Swan Hills area from Slave Lake to Whitecourt.

The Slave Lake and Whitecourt areas have never been surveyed for grizzly bears before, said Stenhouse.

"Everybody says there's lots of bears there," he said. "We'll find out.

"The Swan Hills area, there's a fairly large corridor of forestry, oil and gas activity and we're going see how bears are doing there and understand their distribution over that fairly large area."

The research includes gathering tufts of hair left behind when curious grizzly bears investigate "scent lures" surrounded by a strand of barbed wire. (fRI Research)

This year's research started on the May long weekend and will continue until the end of July.

There are some positive signs about grizzly bear numbers in Alberta, Stenhouse said.

The northern half of Jasper National Park was surveyed for grizzly bears in 2004 and again in 2014. The grizzly population more than doubled between 2004 and 2014, Stenhouse said.

"That doesn't mean that's happened everywhere," he said. "With new information that we're collecting this year we'll be able to determine how other areas are doing and all those things get combined."