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Study shows bears adapting to human use

A study aimed at assessing the effects of human recreation on grizzly bears in busy front country areas of Kananaskis Country shows bears are likely trying to avoid people to reduce risks of a negative encounter.
Bear 104, one of the bears studied by researcher Cheryl Hojnowski, has been observed to actively avoid human interactions.
Bear 104, one of the bears studied by researcher Cheryl Hojnowski, has been observed to actively avoid human interactions.

A study aimed at assessing the effects of human recreation on grizzly bears in busy front country areas of Kananaskis Country shows bears are likely trying to avoid people to reduce risks of a negative encounter.

For the past three years, researcher Cheryl Hojnowski has been tracking the movements of six collared female grizzly bears as well as counting people and vehicles on several trails and roads in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and the Kananaskis Valley.

As more and more people visit K-Country, Hojnowski’s research suggests bears are using different strategies to avoid bumping into people on trails and roads and in day use areas and campgrounds.

“Maybe those adjustments that bears are making are part of the reason that they can survive and share this landscape with people down in Peter Lougheed and Kananaskis Valley,” said Hojnowski, a PhD student at Berkeley, University of California.

“I think there’s a philosophical question we can ask … are we creating the grizzly bear of the future in the front country? Because if you’re a bear in the front country, then success for you probably depends on adjusting your behaviour around people, being aware of people and being a bit wary of people.”

Hojnowski’s research accepts as a basic premise that the study animals need to be in the front country for a significant period of time in order to get the necessary foods they need, such as berries.

Her research and results are based on bear locations within 500 metres of a road, trail, campground or other human use area in the front country. It did not cover the entirety of the bear’s home range.

The Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project concluded that adult grizzlies need 69 per cent of their home range secure from people to survive and reproduce, but Hojnowski said some bears in K-Country didn’t seem to be meeting that threshold.

“But these bears have seemed to do OK. They’ve survived, they’ve showed up year after year, they’re very tolerant and they’re not aggressive to people and they’re even raising cubs,” she said.

“We might think they shouldn’t be able to do that because there’s too many people here, but they are doing it, and so a goal was to ask if these front country bears are changing their behaviour in response to people, and if so how are they changing their behaviour?”

What Hojnowski found was bears appear to modify their behaviour on trails in response to variations in human use over the course of the week, while on roads, they may change their behaviour based on the number of vehicles over the course of the day.

At campgrounds and day use areas, results indicate bears may alter their behaviour in response to changes in human use on a seasonal scale.

“It does speak to the fact that bears are employing some strategies in order to avoid people and those strategies are nuanced,” Hojnowski said. “But with those high human use areas, I think there’s a big food factor going on there, too.”

Specific to trails, the risk for bears was not significantly different on weekdays than weekends in summer and shoulder seasons, despite the fact that human use was significantly higher on weekends and during summer.

“Risky bear locations were not really any different between weekends and weekdays in summer, or between weekdays and weekends in fall and spring – but it should have been because there was always significantly higher human use on the weekends,” Hojnowski said.

“That suggests bears employed some kind of strategy to lower their risk on the weekends, and that means they probably stayed further away from high use trails to try to avoid us.”

Based on thousands of locations downloaded from GPS collars, research found bears tended to spend more time by roads at night when there were fewer vehicles, but kept away in the daytime when vehicle counts were highest.

For example, a 25-year-old wary female grizzly, seldom seen by people, spends about 30 per cent of her time living within 500 metres of a road or trails. Data from bear 39’s GPS collar shows she tends not to go near roads in the daytime, but does at night.

“She uses roads at night, and as soon as daytime hits, she hops off and settles down further away from people,” Hojnowski said. “She’s a smart bear.”

Grizzly bears were also showing levels of avoidance at campground and day use areas.

Hojnowski said the risk for bears at campgrounds in spring and fall, based on bear locations, was actually always higher than it was in summer, even though summer is by far the busiest.

“This is the opposite of what we’d expect. It might just be that bears got the heck out of dodge in the summer when campgrounds and day use areas were really busy,” she said.

For example, Bear 104, a 13-year-old female who spends about 60 per cent of her time in the front country, especially when she has cubs, appears to avoid people as best she can on busier weekends.

Like other front country bears in Peter Lougheed and along Highway 40, wildlife managers also use aversive conditioning on 104 to try to teach her to stay away from people and human development.

This bruin loves to hang out near the Lower Lake campground and the meadow between the campground and the lake. GPS data from 104’s collar showed she spent 19 days in that area last summer, but never on weekends.

“If you were to select 19 days randomly, the chances that they would all be weekdays are 0.1 per cent,” said Hojnowski. “She’s avoiding a huge part of her home range on the weekends and that might be because human use is so high.”

Wildlife managers at Alberta Parks asked Hojnowski to conduct this research in order for them to have more concrete data to help inform them when making decisions.

There is extensive literature that has examined grizzly bear response to human use at the scale of a bear’s entire home range, but Hojnowski said she’s zooming in on a front country scale that may be more relevant to managers – or at least provide some new insights or new ways of thinking about bear habitat use and people.

She said she believes the results of her research point to the need to maintain quieter times and quieter places on the landscape for grizzly bears.

“Bears seem to recognize those quieter times and quieter places,” Hojnowski said. “I think there’s also kind of evidence that we should be thinking about thresholds of human use as well.”

There’s good reason for bears to hang out in the busier front country, noting food resources such as buffalo berries in the valley bottoms are a big driver. Females with cubs, in particular, also try to keep away from large male grizzlies that kill cubs and younger bears.

But there are also risks for bears living in the front country such as being run over and killed on roads or negative encounters with people.

“For grizzly bears, just like for most wildlife, life is all about balancing these risks and rewards,” Hojnowski said. “It seems like, at least for some grizzly bears in Kananaskis, the rewards of being in the front country definitely outweigh the risks.”

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