March 17, 2013

Grizzly Bears and the Wonders of GPS

The middle of March hardly seems like the time to talk bears, especially as it snows and blows among the high peaks of Lake Louise, but the first of Banff's grizzly bears will be awakening any day now.

And for some of those bears, Parks Canada will know the exact moment they emerge from their dens, courtesy of some high tech jewelry.  No, it's not Piaget, it's GPS.

Last summer, Steve Michel, Banff National Park's lead grizzly bear researcher, fitted eleven of the park's grizzlies with GPS collars.  This is the first time this technology has been used systematically in the park, and already, it is revealing more about how bears use the landscape than any past studies.

In 2012, those collars beamed up over 19,000 locations, showing where the bears are spending their time.  Among their favourite places were parts of Banff and Kootenay that burned in wildfires in 2001 and 2003.  These spots have rich berry crops in mid-summer.  Another hotspot was the headwaters of the Cascade River in the heart of Banff's backcountry, which offers secure habitat away from people.

Crossing the Wapta
The most surprising finding from the study was one male grizzly bear who crossed the Wapta Icefield three times!  Steve Michel thinks the bear found it the most direct route from Banff National Park to the Blaeberry Valley in British Columbia.  We've skied up on the Icefield ourselves, and it is the last place we'd expect to see a bear.

By summer's end the GPS collars had revealed the size of each bear's range, how often each bear had crossed the railway (a major risk for bears), and last but not least, when and where the bears went into hibernation in the fall.  The earliest of the bunch went to bed on October 12, and the last of the eleven to den up hit the hay on December 3.

We'll look forward to what the GPS collars reveal this summer.  Watch for an update in the fall.