Jasper’s Tracy McKay is standing outside of a small shed at the Jasper Transfer Station. She has a firm grip on the door handle and her ear is pressed to the thin aluminum wall.
“They’re buzzing,” she says with a shudder.
The building is where McKay, a biologist with The Foothill Research Institute’s (fRi) Grizzly Bear Project, keeps the attractant which she uses to persuade bears to investigate her DNA-collection sites. Hundreds of litres of cows’ blood—procured from an Alberta cattle rendering plant—is contained in jerry cans and Nalgene bottles which are organized across the dirt floor. The buzzing—audible from 10 m away—is from the flies.
“Here we go,” she says, opening the door.
In 2004, the Province of Alberta commissioned a population study for grizzly bears in the Yellowhead Corridor. Provincial lands in historical ranges between Hinton, Edson, Nordegg and Grande Cache were rigged with DNA collection sites.
The province obtained valuable sets of base-line data for the threatened species, but there was a large part of the puzzle missing: namely, Jasper. Biologists know that bears in south Jasper National Park don’t live with the same human-caused threats that their counterparts across the park boundary do—well sites, pipelines and cutblocks create more roads, not to mention hunters, in Alberta’s traditional grizzly ranges—but they also know it’s harder for bears to earn a living in the mountains because there’s less available food.
“In the hills there’s less productive habitat,” said Wildlife Specialist Mark Bradley. “So if you have any small number of bears die because of human causes it can have a large effect.”
For decades, Jasper scientists have had only a vague idea of the bear population in the park, as their methodologies—wildlife monitoring cameras and reported cub sightings—couldn’t give them a truly accurate index. Now, thanks to the work of McKay’s team and a unique fRI/Parks Canada partnership, wildlife specialists will soon know how many bears live in JNP’s 10,800 square kilometres.
“This is important because it will be the first time this work has been done in south Jasper National Park ... this will tell us how many bears we have,” Bradley said.
To get those numbers, since May, McKay’s team of 15 people have been traipsing through the bush, hiking up to 20 kilometres a day with their bottled blood and their fencing tools, setting up data-collection sites.
Some sites are so remote they can only be accessed by helicopter; some are less than a kilometre from the road. In all cases, the crew sets up a barbed wire fence around a “bait pile,” which consists of a mound of sticks and moss, garnished with a healthy serving of cow’s blood. There’s no actual food in the study plot—that would constitute a reward, a no-no for keeping bears wild—but the rank smell of the attractant interests grizzlies enough that they’ll slide under the wire, leaving precious strands of their hair on the barbs.
“We want the follicles,” McKay explained. “That gives us a good DNA sample.”
On July 3, visiting a site 200 metres from the Overlander Trail, McKay and field research assistant TJ Gooliaff found what they were looking for. Peering at small snags of brown and blonde hair and entering data points into a portable computer, the duo tagged and bagged several samples of what looked to be prime evidence of grizzly activity.
“We’ve probably collected more than 300 samples already,” McKay said.
At the end of the summer, together with the provincial crews, fRI should have around 2,000 similar hair samples.
“This data will have implications for not only bears in Jasper but for thresholds in industrial areas [in the province],” said fRI’s Communications and Extension Program Lead, Sean Kinney.
In all, McKay’s team has set up 75 lure sites in the park, and strung a coil of barbed wire on approximately 50 “rub trees”—territorial claim trees frequented by male bears. The entire Yellowhead area, including Jasper, is sectioned off into 7x7km grids—with the goal of getting a population sample in as many squares as possible. Some of the sites will inevitably produce zero samples, while some of the squares are simply too far flung to get to—the project’s $90,000 budget only has so much earmarked for helicopter fuel.
For Gooliaf, a biology major from the University of the Fraser Valley, in Abbotsford, B.C., the research assistant post is a bit of a dream job. He and his colleagues beat out more than 100 other applicants to be part of this landmark study. As such, the 22-year-old is trying to make the most out of his time in Jasper. He’s checked a variety of front country trails, valleys and lakes off his bucket list, but it’s the opportunity to hike deep into the backcountry with work that gets him really excited.
“I’m not even looking at pictures of the Tonquin [Valley] before we go in there,” he said. “I want to save every view.”
McKay, meanwhile, wants to save every hair her team finds on their sites. It’s a huge task, she knows, but she’s got a keen staff. And the smell of rotten cows’ blood?
“You get used to it,” she laughs.