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A photo of a grizzly bear eating sedge grass in British Columbia.

A grizzly bear snacks on sedge grass in British Columbia.

Photograph by Kyle Breckenridge, National Geographic Your Shot

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published July 22, 2014

Grizzly bears and aboriginal tribes in Canada have lived with each other for thousands of years. But one First Nation tribe, the Heiltsuk of British Columbia, was surprised to discover just how many bears a new study turned up in its backyard.

The Heiltsuk live near the Koeye watershed—69 square miles (179 square kilometers) of temperate forest on the central British Columbia coast—and they thought about a dozen grizzlies lived in their midst. But a scientific study, led by the Heiltsuk and published in late June in the journal Ecology and Society, found that the Koeye actually hosts at least 57. That's not your average bear density.

By comparison, Yellowstone National Park is about 3,472 square miles (8,992 square kilometers) and hosts only about 150 grizzly bears.

"It was a bit of a shock to me," says William Housty, lead author of the study and director of Coastwatch, the research arm of the Heiltsuk First Nation.

Not that it's surprising that grizzly bears are drawn to the area. The river that drains Koeye Lake has pink, chum, sockeye, and coho salmon, all tasty prey for bears. But neither Housty nor his colleagues expected to find nearly 60 grizzlies. (See: "Grizzly Bears Moving Into Canada's Polar Bear Capital.")

in-house map by Jamie Hawk (Maggie Smith)
NG STAFF, JAMIE HAWK. SOURCES: IUCN; HEILTSUK TRIBAL COUNCIL

Living With Bears

For the study, the team collected hair samples from Koeye grizzlies by using wire snares baited with enticing scents, though no food. When a grizzly came to investigate and rubbed against the wire, it left behind a tuft of hair.

The study authors collected the hair samples between 2006 and 2009, and sequenced the DNA to get a handle on how many individual bears they had and to determine their gender. (Watch a video of a grizzly mom teaching her cubs.)

They were also able to track some of those bears as they wandered out of the Koeye watershed. Some of the grizzlies ranged for hundreds of miles, crossing into the traditional territory of other First Nations.

Being able to obtain scientific data to back up Heiltsuk traditional knowledge about grizzly bears has been important, says Housty. The Heiltsuk have been trying to get more say in the management of their resources, including grizzly bears and salmon, and they've realized that science is one way to do that.

"Even though we're on the ground living with [grizzly bears and salmon]," explains Housty, "sometimes the final decision on their management comes from the government."

He adds, "We wanted to show that we're committed to dovetailing traditional knowledge and science to move toward managing our resources ourselves." (Read more about the First Nations in National Geographic's News Watch.)

What's even more exciting about this study, says study co-author Chris Filardi, an ecologist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is that scientists and the Heiltsuk were able to carry out their survey in accordance with the laws of the Heiltsuk First Nation. One of the most important of those mandates was to not handle the bears or subject them to invasive procedures.

"You Can't Ignore the People"

The scientific data have also been a boon to the Heiltsuk resource management department, Filardi says. "If they see their policies don't make sense, it changes right away."

And advances in extracting and analyzing DNA from animals are extremely important to conservation efforts.They help researchers figure out, for instance, how many animals are in a population, says Michael Sawaya, a carnivore ecologist with Sinopah Wildlife Research Associates in Missoula, Montana.

He also says that noninvasive methods like the hair sampling in the new study allow scientific studies to better align with cultural beliefs and practices of the local community.

"Oftentimes wildlife research focuses on the wildlife, which it should," says Sawaya, who was not involved in the new research. "But you can't ignore the people, especially in areas that are under threats or [are] on indigenous lands."

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

8 comments
debbie viess
debbie viess

I agree with the poster who mentioned the big difference between coastal salmon-eating brown bears and brown bears in the interior. Brown bear densities are much higher around salmon, since it is a bountiful resource that can easily be shared. Their defendable personal spaces (how close they allow other bears to get to them) are much lower in a salmon stream, and that also extends to humans as well as competing bears, although we would need to be a bit more careful. A casual swat by those bruins could take our fool heads off! Gore-tex coatings are no substitute for a thick hair coat! 


I'd much rather come across a salmon bear than a more competitive, aggressive interior bear. 


We are all a bit mellower when well-fed. ;)


How did this survey detect temporal spacing? In other words, how often were hair traps checked, and how did this get correlated with time spent in the area? Did the same bears pass by and rub on this trap multiply times? Just once? What are visitation norms for bears investigating novel objects in their environment?


I do love the fact that the local Native people demanded less invasive wildlife studies. Gosh, wouldn't it be nice to see that in the lower 48, too?! One of the reasons that I chose a Biology/Zoology degree over a Wildlife Management one, is that all too frequently, wildlife "managers" (just that term sets my teeth on edge) use "cowboy science" … net em, dart em, and collar 'em up! Yahooo! 


Please. Wild creatures have dignity, too. 


Cristina Oliveira
Cristina Oliveira

«Oftentimes wildlife research focuses on the wildlife, which it should (...) But you can't ignore the people»... well, isn't finding less invasive methods to study wildlife, also about wildlife? In this case, I think Heiltsuk's values are not that eccentric, but something we - who care for wildlife - should always aim at. 

Will Harmon
Will Harmon

Where did the author get her number for the grizzly population in Yellowstone? Most current sources say there are about 600 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (see: http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/grizzlyup.htm). It's not practical to count bears only within the park itself--the bears roam freely back and forth across park boundaries, so there are no firm estimates of the number of grizzlies residing only inside the park.


Also, comparing coastal vs. inland population densities is an apple/oranges mistake. These ecosystems have far different capacities for supporting bears dye to dissimilar habitats and density and quality of food sources. A more useful piece of information would be how grizzly density in the Koeye watershed compares to other coastal griz populations.

joseph yechout
joseph yechout

But the Left would like to, ignore the people. 

reva madison
reva madison

@joseph yechout Just have to get the political dig in huh?  Just once, forget your politics and be a human, interested in the science.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@joseph yechout - Just like a polarizing conserv-nothing-ative, attempting to read an article they have no interest in while not comprehending its subject matter.  The quote at the end was actually supporting even STRICTER environmental regulations while doing the research.  I'll never understand why people like Joseph, unless he's a troll, even attempt to read and appreciate NatGeo.  Shouldn't you be busy reading NRA magazine or training for the Apocalypse? 

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