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Crews patrol for highway bears
Survey teams counting grizzlies and educating hunters about gut piles

Shawn Giilck
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, September 5, 2013

Crews are patrolling highways, counting grizzlies and educating hunters about leaving behind the remains of kills and survey forms are being sent in.

NNSL photo/graphic

Alicia McRae, a technician with the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board, has been on the lookout for grizzlies all summer. - photo courtesy of Kristen Callaghan

The pilot project sponsored by the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board has been going well this summer, said co-ordinator Kristen Callaghan in Inuvik.

The project is the result of a request made by the Gwich'in Tribal Council to monitor how much of a problem grizzlies are for hunters and tourists along the Dempster Highway.

The program was put in place following increasing anecdotal evidence that grizzlies were becoming habituated to feeding off the remains of caribou left behind by hunters on the Dempster.

The bears were particularly being drawn to "gut piles" left behind by the hunters, the information suggested.

Callaghan said she had also heard rumours of bears trying to snatch caribou kills from hunters. In some cases, there were allegations that the grizzlies were following the sound of gunfire to the site of the kill.

In response to the bear problems, hunters have increasingly been butchering their kills near their vehicles on the highway as a way to protect themselves from bears.

The gut piles, Callaghan said, are helping entice the bears to the roadside, where they can be a major distraction for tourists.

All in all, if the anecdotes were accurate, it had the makings of a considerable problem, she said. Human-near interactions tend to end badly for the bears, particularly if they become too accustomed to people and see human presence as a source of food. Wildlife specialists use the term "a fed bear is a dead bear."

"It's been going great," she said. "We've been going out nearly every week and doing surveys on the highway."

Two crews have been monitoring the highway, Callaghan said. One is based in Inuvik, while another is working out of Dawson City in the Yukon, with funding from that territorial government.

They're interacting with hunters, seeking to educate them on better ways to handle the remains of kills, Callaghan said. The crews are also recording sighting of bears.

A second part of the program involves people filling out survey forms when they see bears, and describing where they were seen and what they were doing.

"We've been getting a lot of response from the survey forms," she said. "Many of the people participating that way are tourists, but we have had some local people as well."

Between the two approaches, the program is developing a baseline or benchmark on the bears that future surveys can be compared to.

"We're starting to be able to identify some of the individual bears," Callaghan said. "We haven't got the count of how many there are at all yet, but it gives us an idea of relative distribution."

A few bears are being seen regularly enough to allow the researchers to start pinning down their territories.

"That's been helpful," she said. "We have another staff member whose job is to talk to the caribou harvesters and to move gut piles. He's been out there seeing what's really going on."

Some of the hunters are starting to remove their scraps and gut piles from the area around the highway, Callaghan said, so she's pleased with that success.

"So it's going really well," she said. "I think the bears have been opportunistically coming to the gut piles," she said.

The caribou migration has been early this year, Callaghan said, with the first bulls showing up in early July. There have been intermittent groups seen since that time.

She has hopes the project will continue in future years with some continuing assistance from both the NWT and the Yukon governments.

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