Update on Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative

Update on Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative

Conservation Northwest / Mar 12, 2020 / British Columbia, Coast to Cascades, Grizzly Bears

The C2C team has made important progress toward grizzly bear recovery in southwest British Columbia by promoting coexistence with local communities.

By Joe Scott, International Programs Director

The Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative (C2C) is a collaborative effort to stem the ongoing loss of grizzly bear range and promote grizzly recovery in the transboundary ecosystems of southwest British Columbia (B.C.) and northwest Washington state.

Conservation Northwest in cooperation with Canadian partners on the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative is working with indigenous and non-indigenous communities, farmers, ranchers, conservation and civic groups, and provincial and local governments throughout a large geographic area to prevent human-related grizzly bear mortality and to link grizzly habitats and populations.

A grizzly bear in central British Columbia. Photo: Jeremy Williams

Southwest B.C.’s threatened grizzly populations are in trouble due to habitat fragmentation from roads, logging and other development, increasing human conflict, small numbers, and genetic isolation.

Fewer than 100 grizzly bears remain in four semi-isolated populations scattered across this sprawling area, including approximately:

  • 59 bears in the Squamish-Lillooet population northwest of the Sea-to-Sky Highway (99) and the towns of Lillooet, Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish.
  • 24 bears in the Stein-Nahatlatch population southeast of Pemberton, northeast of Harrison Lake and west of the Fraser River.
  • 2 bears in the Garibaldi-Pitt population east of the Squamish River, north of the city of Vancouver and west of Harrison Lake.
  • 6 or fewer bears in the transboundary North Cascades population south and east of the Fraser River, extending into Washington state including North Cascades National Park and adjacent wilderness areas.
Southwest B.C.’s threatened grizzly populations are in trouble due to habitat fragmentation from raods, logging and other development, increasing human conflict, small numbers and genetic isolation. Map: Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative

Another 200+ bears live in the South Chilcotin ranges at the north end of the program area, north of Anderson Lake and Lillooet. The Chilcotin population provides a bridge between healthy grizzly bear populations in northern B.C., and those struggling in the southwest part of the province. The British Columbia government classifies all five grizzly populations as threatened.

Less than ten grizzly bears also inhabit the Fountain Valley-Hat Creek area between the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, south of Pavilion and east of the Stein-Nahatlatch population. The population is very small and habitat in this area is relatively poor. There is currently no plan or conservation priority for grizzly bears in this area.

A grizzly bear takes a dip in Chilko Lake, central British Columbia, while searching for sockeye salmon. Photo: Jeremy Williams

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes the Stein-Nahatlatch and North Cascades sub-populations as “Critically Endangered” because they are isolated from grizzly populations to the north and west.

C2C staff are working with five First Nations including St’át’imc, Okanagan Nation Alliance, Stó:lō (People of the River), Nlaka’pamux and Secwepemc (Shuswap), organized by the Grizzly Bear Recovery Working Group that now includes multiple B.C. government ministry staff. More on this below. Learn more about the team here.

The Okanagan Nation Alliance, Squamish Nation and many local governments and municipalities in British Columbia have also passed resolutions supporting grizzly bear recovery (visit our webpage to read some of them).

In 2019, the C2C team advanced important efforts protecting habitat and working with communities to promote coexistence, including:

  1. Collaborative Grizzly Recovery Working Group

    In collaboration with the St’át’imc, Okanagan Nation Alliance, Stó:lō, Nlaka’pamux and Secwepemc (Shuswap) First Nations, C2C convened a Grizzly Bear Recovery Working Group (GBRWG) that includes government officials from relevant ministries and regions and is working toward grizzly recovery actions in the Stein/Nahatlatch and North Cascades systems.

    The group is charged with identifying, planning and facilitating actions to re-establish and recover grizzly bears in those units. GBRWG is unique for its makeup, function and progress to date, and could serve as a model for other areas and issues. And with First Nations’ leadership, the cultural significance of the grizzly is highlighted—elevating the importance of grizzly bear conservation.

  2. Habitat Connectivity

    In partnership with the Pemberton Wildlife Association (PWA), C2C contracted with research biologist Michelle McLellan to complete an analysis of habitat connectivity along the Portage Road corridor, which separates the highly-endangered Stein/Nahatlatch grizzly bears from more numerous grizzly populations to the north and west.

    This analysis has helped focus strategies and actions toward securing habitat important for connectivity, preventing human-bear conflict, and supporting the recovery of the Stein/Nahatlatch grizzly population. It’s also a great outreach tool for building public awareness of the grizzly’s plight in this critical C2C project area.

    Data from the analysis identified a linkage zone across Highway 99, near Cayoosh Creek, leading the B.C. government to abandon a proposal to expand overflow parking for the popular Joffre Lakes Park into this critical corridor.

  3. Human-Bear Conflict Prevention

    An initial step to conserving at-risk grizzly bear populations and promoting coexistence with communities is conducting a Bear Hazard Assessment (BHA)—an inventory of human attractants or landscape features that may bring bears into contact and conflict with people. Attractants are generally food-based items such as fruit orchards, chicken coops, pet foods, garbage etc., that left unsecured can lure bears into human communities and residences.

    Both grizzly bears and black bears are easily attracted to unsecured food attractants like bird seeds, garbage cans and chicken coops.

    C2C and grizzly bear biologist Grant MacHutchon produced a BHA for the communities of Goldbridge, Bralorne and Gun Lake. In partnership with the Grizzly Bear Foundation, C2C also hired IUCN bear conflict expert Lana Ciarniello to produce a BHA for the communities of Mt. Currie, D’Arcy and Seton Portage, as well as a BHA for the Pemberton Meadows area of the upper Lillooet valley. These areas are important for grizzly bear connectivity and human-conflict prevention.

    C2C staff are working with leaders of those primarily indigenous communities to hire coordinators and mobilize volunteers to implement the recommendations of each BHA. In addition, both Grant and Lana gave presentations to these communities to explain the process, needs and threats to bears. This is promising work, and we appreciate the support and leadership of local First Nations as it moves forward.

  1. Recreation Planning in Grizzly Country

    Recreation planning that avoids critical habitat for threatened grizzly bears is an important step toward recovery.

    Trails planning: The Whistler Council commissioned C2C’s Lana Ciarniello to review their reports on human-grizzly bear conflict management strategies and bear risk assessments to determine whether planned recreation infrastructure in a large area east of Whistler would further threats to grizzly bears and lead to human-bear conflict. Her findings revealed a lack of grizzly bear science and the potential for increased recreational use to displace bears, leading the Whistler Council to commission a new analysis to correct those flaws.

    Mountain Biking: Lana also presented to 300 mountain biking interests in Whistler including government, trail advocacy groups and commercial operators on the status of grizzly bears in southwest B.C., and best practices for planning trails in grizzly bear country. Additionally, she was on a panel for the Sensitive Ecosystems Symposium, where she focused on why it is important to avoid certain types of recreational activities, such as heli-biking, in critical grizzly bear habitat, and how to reduce the negative impacts of recreational activities on bears.

    Helicopter-assisted Recreation: C2C and PWA mobilized opposition to proposed heli-biking operation in a significant part of critical grizzly bear habitat northwest of Pemberton. Comment letters from the groups and supporters led Blackcomb Helicopters to revise their project application to avoid those bear habitats of concern.

  1. Stein/Nahatlatch Grizzly Bear DNA Project

    “Hair snare” stations collect genetic information on grizzly bear populations that can help facilitate recovery. Photo: Kalispel Tribe Wildlife

    C2C staff worked with the St’at’imc and Nlaka’pamux Nations and local grizzly bear biologists to help fund and coordinate a DNA hair snag grid for the Stein/Nahatlatch grizzly bear population unit. The field crews were mainly staffed by First Nations members in the first project of its kind. This five-year survey, funded by the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, will provide current genetic information on the status of this critically-endangered grizzly population that can be used to facilitate their recovery.

    Outreach and Education: C2C staff coordinated presentations with IUCN bear expert and well-known research biologist Michael Proctor to the Portage Road St’at’imc communities. He discussed the impacts of backcountry roads on grizzly bear ecology, and how road closures and conflict prevention can help restore and reconnect at-risk grizzly bear populations.

  1. Forest Roads Use Verification

    C2C staff Johnny Mikes and Allen McEwan conducted field visits to and deployed remote sensing cameras on a cluster of roads north of Stein Heritage Park. These roads have the potential to adversely affect breeding grizzly bear females and conflict with people, so they documented the condition of the roads to get a sense of typical use patterns. First Nations and the B.C. government are currently reviewing these roads for motorized access management actions under B.C.’s wildlife law for grizzly bear habitat security.

  2. Upper Lillooet Access Management Plan

    On the heels of the successful efforts to seasonally close the main road in the upper Lillooet valley to motor vehicle traffic, C2C continues to work with the Lil’wat First Nation and the B.C. government to review compliance with the closures and assist with more effective signage. The B.C. government is highlighting the access management planning process as a model collaborative effort.

Human conflict prevention as a tool for grizzly bear conservation and restoration

Grizzly bears need connected habitats to recover their populations in southwest B.C. Photo: Jeremy Williams
“We explored the temporal and spatial patterns of conflict mortality and found that human-bear conflict contributed significantly to the threatened status of these (grizzly bear) populations by causing decline, fragmentation, and decreased habitat effectiveness.” Proctor, et al. 2018

Translation: One of the biggest causes of premature grizzly bear mortality and subsequent bear population declines is conflict with people—such deadly interactions kill bears directly (with guns) and indirectly by rendering their habitats more fragmented and less secure.

“Ongoing monitoring has demonstrated that our comprehensive human-bear conflict program has resulted in a significant reduction in human-caused mortality, increased inter-population connectivity, and improved habitat effectiveness.”  Proctor, et al. 2018

Translation: Programs to remove the root causes of human-bear conflict, mainly by educating people and closing select forest roads, can prevent bear deaths caused by people, and reconnect and secure bear habitats so that the animals can find food and mates and raise young.

In other words the bears live longer, reproduce, and move more freely. Conflict prevention + road closures = habitat connectivity in grizzly bear country.

One of the most significant conservation challenges for grizzly bears is habitat fragmentation. Increasingly, lands in between protected areas are becoming human dominated, such that grizzly bears (and other species) are separated into smaller groups that have less and less interaction with each other.

A sign educating recreationists not to feed or shoot threatened grizzly bears near Pemberton, British Columbia. Photo: Joe Scott

Habitat fragmentation often results in female grizzlies with cubs avoiding critical habitats, and therefore lethal conflict with people—with the bears usually getting the short end of the stick.

There are three basic solutions to the problems of habitat fragmentation: creating more high-level protected areas like national parks, restoring impacted habitats and habitat fractures (e.g. closing unnecessary roads, planting native vegetation, and prescribed burning), and educating people and managing their behaviors to avoid conflict in the first place. Often it’s a combination of the three.

In some cases, where bears must move through an area to intermingle with an isolated and hence threatened grizzly bear subpopulation, the first two scenarios may not be viable options because of existing development. In that case, the third option—changing human behavior to accommodate and secure some sporadic bear movement—may be the only antidote to isolation and eventual extirpation of grizzlies in the area.

In that example, preventing and managing human-bear conflict becomes a necessary but effective tool for restoring habitat connectivity and regional grizzly bear populations.

This is the case in southwest British Columbia, which is the southern-most extent of grizzly bear occurrence west of the Rocky Mountains. Habitat fragmentation has led to the isolation and near disappearance of grizzlies despite the presence of good habitat, like the North Cascades and the Stein/Nahatlatch systems. Both are classified as Highly Endangered by the IUCN.

The Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative has prioritized human-bear conflict prevention in 2019-2020, made possible with a grant from the Disney Conservation Fund. The two-year Disney grant is funding research that will allow scientists to pinpoint areas of potential human-bear conflict, as well as education and outreach to help communities prevent conflict, property destruction, bear mortality and possible human injury.

Recreationists should take certain measures to keep themselves and grizzly bears safe while in their habitat. Click for a larger version!

Human-bear conflict can result from food attractants (unsecured garbage or untended fruit orchards, for example) that lure bears into human communities. Too much human activity, especially involving motor vehicle use, can also prevent bears from using habitats with critical food sources, particularly females with cubs.

It’s a shrinking world. And with climate change upon us, maintaining and restoring habitat connectivity is paramount for grizzly bear recovery in the Coast to Cascades region. This is not to say that people must vacate rural areas or stop recreating in the backcountry.

It only means that where large tracts of productive, wild habitats still exist, small tweaks in human behavior and a little knowledge will allow grizzlies to access good habitats, and bears to be bears—not threats, pests or fugitives. Coexisting with grizzlies doesn’t mean having them in our backyards—to the contrary. It does mean acting intelligently, respectfully and with tolerance when we’re in their backyards.

Grizzly in Chilko Lake, BC. Photo Jeremy Williams for Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative