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B.C. home to 15,000 grizzly bears

Eleven years of research, study and modelling leads to numbers for areas where data doesn't exist



Government scientists estimate the B.C. grizzly bear population is at about 15,000 bears. The number is based on a grizzly bear population-estimating model for B.C., which scientists have been working on for the last 11 years.

Titled Predicting grizzly bear density in western North America, the study was released earlier this month and contains information on grizzly bear densities from Wyoming to Alaska.

The goal of the study was to build a model that would predict grizzly bear numbers where data didn't exist.

To reach its conclusions the researchers relied on field inventory work using DNA sampling. Most of the samples used to generate the DNA information came from hair gathered at bait sites in known grizzly bear habitat.

Lead researcher and study spokesman Garth Mowat said the information generated through the multi-year study, and the resulting model is going to be used in what is termed the "harvest management system" for setting hunting limits in areas where grizzly bear hunting is allowed.

About 35 per cent of B.C. is closed to grizzly hunting. The Sea to Sky area is one of the closed areas, along with the Stein-Nahatlatch region and seven other grizzly bear regions across the province. According to provincial government numbers, licensed grizzly bear hunters successfully take about 300 grizzly bears a year. Those hunters enter a lottery system to get their licenses. Each year, hunters harvest only two per cent of the total B.C. grizzly bear population.

"We track mortality and try to track causes of mortalities so we can target those causes and try to reduce them," said Mowat in a phone interview from his office in Nelson where he is the head of the province's Natural Resource Science and Stewardship Section in the Kootenay-Boundary region.

In addition to the risk of being killed by a hunter, the two next most likely human-caused grizzly bear deaths are collision with vehicles or trains. From 2004 to 2009, a total of 358 grizzly bears were killed in vehicle collisions, railway crashes, illegal kills and through animal control measures.

A grizzly bear study conducted by the province in 2004-2005 concluded the Stein-Nahatlatch area is home to 24 grizzlies. The study, which was separate from Mowat's work, concluded the Stein-Nahatlatch population has experienced a very rapid loss of genetic variation over the last few generations because it has become isolated from other grizzly populations.

The suspected poaching death of Jewel, a mature Texas Creek female grizzly, combined with the illegal fatal shooting of a dominant male grizzly in November of 2011 in the Pemberton Meadows near the turnoff to the Hurley River Road caused concerns for grizzly bear protectors in southwestern B.C.

Wildlife experts described both animals as key reproductive members of their habitat groups. Jewel was part of the Stein-Nahatlatch group and the 20-year-old male was in the Squamish-Lillooet grizzly population grouping in the Sea to Sky corridor.

The long-term viability of the province's southern-most grizzly bears is at risk due to the small population size and disruptions to connecting corridors between regions.

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