Tracking grizzlies

(Edmonton) Reeking piles of goo and clumps of hair sound like a bathroom nightmare, but University of Alberta master’s student Sarah Rovang is mixing both into a research project to help Alberta’s grizzly bears.

Using bait piles of rancid beef blood mixed with canola oil, logs and moss, Rovang has been luring grizzly bears into barbed-wire corrals in the Rocky Mountain foothills in the Hinton area, to snag hair samples that can be analyzed for DNA.

All in all, it’s nose-wrinkling work but very worthwhile, Rovang says. “We got used to it, though it was entertaining when we told other people what we were doing.”

This fixed method of gathering DNA samples is not only less invasive than capturing and collaring the lumbering animals, but Rovang, a graduate student in the Department of Renewable Resources is researching whether it is also a less costly monitoring method for conservation groups and government.

“It is important to find more cost-effective ways for long-term monitoring, and a network of fixed sample plots could be one way to do that,” Rovang said.

Listed by the province in 2010 as a threatened species, there are thought to be fewer than 700 grizzlies left in Alberta. Rovang’s research will help determine whether the number of bears in the province is rising, dropping or staying constant.

The one-strand wire corrals in her project are spread over 1,500 square kilometres in the Hinton, Cadomin and Robb areas, on the fringes of Jasper National Park. Over four months of field work beginning in spring of 2011, 664 tufts of bear hair were gathered for lab analysis from 60 different snag sites.

The DNA harvested from both the coarse guard hair and soft undercoat of the grizzlies will provide clues as to gender, identify individual bears and ultimately reveal population trends.

“We get an idea of which bears are on the landscape and where they are, so we can create a database of the population and monitor trends with time and responses to conservation actions,” said Rovang, whose work is based out of the U of A’s Applied Conservation Ecology Lab. Rovang’s work is funded by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Alberta Conservation Association and by the Foothills Research Institute.

She’s also been field-testing other hands-off methods of DNA sampling�swabbing piles of bear scat to collect cells and gathering hair from rub trees to supplement the hair specimens collected from the wire corrals.
Rovang, who grew up in Edson, earned an undergraduate degree in conservation biology from the U of A. Being raised in the shadow of the Rockies, she has a natural love of wildlife and hopes her research will result in more data-rich conservation efforts for the grizzly population.

“When you have a species that is listed as threatened, you want to begin monitoring as quickly as possible, before it is too late.”