by Chris Darimont
Early last May in the heart of coastal British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, an area that safeguards one of the planet’s last grizzly bear-salmon strongholds, my team from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation set out to tackle a pivotal conservation problem with applied science, ethics and something we call “informed advocacy.”
Against a backdrop of the lowest salmon returns in recorded history, human predators, via sport and commercial fisheries, usurp up to an astonishing 80 percent of the salmon destined for spawning gravels. Potential consequences for bears, who rely on this essential food source, are serious and motivate our work. Hair derived from noninvasive hair-snagging stations provides bear DNA, allowing us to track bear numbers over time and sound early warning bells of decline. Isotope analyses on the same hair estimates how much salmon each bear has consumed, which is critical in linking food use to population and individual health. And finally, hormonal assays, also conducted on hair, provide insight into stress levels, reproductive activity and potential starvation. With an eye toward informed advocacy, these findings are shared with wildlife and fisheries managers as well as the public.
Rare among conservation scientists, our messages transcend concerns about bear populations. We consider not only bear populations that decline in tandem with limited salmon, but also the individuals within populations that fall victim along the way. Malnourished females can lose their offspring. Larger males, in desperate attempts to prepare for winter sleep, will brave visits to human food sources, often with lethal consequences. A low salmon year might mean financial or recreational hardship for fishermen, but for bears in the wild, it could mean prolonged physical distress.
Enduring our own suffering by inching our way up a mountain that May day, we paused to install a hair-snagging station in an ideal place: plenty of bear food around, and situated in good travel terrain. We could envision a bear or two lumbering down to meet us.
As it turned out, 50 metres above, a female bear raised her nose for a sniff. Her cub, blissfully unaware, skidded into her, nearly knocking her down the steep grade upon us. Her powerful shoulders and robust claws prevented what would have surely been the mishap of the season. Oddly enough, they sat and observed us going about our work. Out of respect for the bears and their undisturbed environment, we worked at a frenetic pace to finish quickly and move on. These great bears deserve to live a healthy, natural life despite an increasingly uncertain future.
Chris Darimont is an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Director of Science at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Bella Bella, British Columbia. He believes that, alone, even the best science cannot help animals and the planet. “Engaging the public with moral persuasion,” he says, “provides a critical complement.” Accordingly, he engages in activities many other scientists shun: grassroots activism, media outreach and compassion towards animals.
Chris' research was made possible through a Christine Stevens Wildlife Award from the Animal Welfare Institute