Quirks and Quarks

How Canada's grizzlies would fare during Fat Bear week

Research shows that grizzlies have been adapting to human encroachment on their habitat — but they pay a heavy price.

Canadian grizzlies are healthy but have to work hard to coexist with humans in a crowded landscape

Bear 410, one of the biggest females in Katmai National Park and Preserve, sits near the Brooks River awaiting a meal. (U.S. National Park Service)

Originally published on October 3, 2020.

Every October, rotund bears seem to take over the internet.

That's because that's when Fat Bear week is celebrated at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. For over five years, this online bracket-style tournament has given the public a chance to vote for their favourite chunky champion in the park.

"Fat Bear Week is a celebration of the hard work that bears put into surviving hibernation," said Katmai park ranger Brooklyn White.

"By the end of the season, you have bears where their bellies are dragging the ground. You've got bears that have rolls upon rolls, almost like the Michelin Man. So these feats of nature, as they are putting on all this fat, truly are so impressive."

A male grizzly bear eating sockeye salmon caught in the Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. (U.S. National Park Service)

Katmai is home to some of the largest grizzly bears on the planet. After 2020's record-breaking salmon run brought 800,000 fish up the Brooks River, the park's 2,200 bears were able to bulk up quite easily, allowing competitors like the aptly-named Chunk and Grazer to tip the scales at well over 450 kilograms.

Canadian grizzlies would not win Fat Bear Week

Here in Canada, bears are also working hard to fatten up — but most don't have the unfettered access to calorie-rich salmon that the Katmai bears do.

"Our bears in Canada, and really actually most of the grizzly bears across North America, wouldn't even come close in weight to the bears at Katmai Falls," bear researcher Clayton Lamb told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

"I mean, those bears top 1,400 pounds [635 kilograms]. Just to put that in comparison, the absolute largest grizzly bear we catch in the Rockies as part of our work is about 600 pounds."

Lamb, a wildlife ecologist at the University of British Columbia, studies bears in his province, which is home to an estimated 15,000 grizzlies — more than half of Canada's grizzly bear population.

Brown bears gathering to feast on sockeye salmon on the Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. (U.S. National Park Service)

Without access to salmon, Canadian bears fatten up on everything from wild berries, to apples in domestic trees, to roadkill to get the 30,000 calories a day they need to prepare themselves for a winter in hibernation. And that quest for food often puts them in contact with humans — often with fatal results for the bears. 

"Of the bears that we collar basically all across British Columbia, less than 20 per cent of them end up dying a natural death. So over 80 per cent of the bears end up dying at the hand of people at some point," said Lamb.

That's why researchers like Lamb are trying to figure out how brown bears and humans can coexist peacefully. In his work, he regularly ventures out to put GPS tracking collars on brown bears, which allows him to keep track of where and when the bears are travelling.

The information from the collars also give him insight into how bears are dying. And he has found that many of the province's bears, particularly young bears, are dying in collisions with cars and trains. Some are also killed by rangers after getting too used to humans.

A collared grizzly bear crosses a busy highway in British Columbia. Of his collared bears, wildlife ecologist Clayton Lamb says over 80 per cent of them die from human-related causes, such as vehicle collisions. (Darryn Epp)

"We're really tracking in real time how these bears are using these pretty complex landscapes, and their fate, whether they live and die, how many cubs they have. We learn a lot from them," he said. 

Bears are 'doing the best they can' to avoid conflicts

In a recent study looking at tracking data for thousands of bears over decades, Lamb and his colleagues found that the region's grizzlies were becoming more nocturnal, so that they can get access to the food associated with humans, without the potentially costly interactions.

"That kind of had a two-fold benefit to bear populations in that it increased their survival. But it also reduced conflict with people, as you'd expect, because people are often sleeping," he said. "They're doing the best they can to not be in conflict with people."

Bears are doing essentially all that they can to coexist with people. And the rest really has to be made up by us.- Clayton Lamb, wildlife ecologist at the University of British Columbia

However, bear mortality rates are still unsustainably high in areas where they interact with humans. Nevertheless they persist in these areas because of an influx of bears from the wilderness, something that ecologists call a "source-sink dynamic."

"What we see is the bears near people are sustained due to bears actually moving in from adjacent wilderness areas to backfill. Those mortalities are vacancies. So it gives us an insight into just how connected and how large scale these processes actually unfold on the landscape," said Lamb.

Lamb, shown here with a tranquilized bear, has put collars on over 100 bears in his career, all to keep track of what B.C.'s grizzlies are doing and where they're going. (Bruce McLellan)

Overall, Lamb says, the conditions for bears in Canada are improving as social attitudes change toward the large carnivores. However, he still wants to see more done to help protect bears from human interactions.

"There's innovation that's available to us to help solve these problems," he said. "Fencing livestock, trying to fence highways, and build wildlife overpasses, which would help keep people and wildlife safe.

"I think it's not unreasonable to think that bears are doing essentially all that they can to coexist with people. And the rest really has to be made up by us." 

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz