Tracking Grizzly Bears With a Smartphone App in Northern Alberta

Grizz Tracker is helping scientists collect data on Alberta’s grizzly bears.

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Nov 23 2016, 2:00pm

Image: National Park Service

As grizzly bears are retreating into their winter dens in the Peace Country of northwestern Alberta, local biologists are wrapping up the beta-testing phase of Grizz Tracker, a citizen science project that allows the public to track sightings of grizzly bears using smartphones and, in turn, contribute to critical research on this threatened species.

Launched in April through a collaboration between Alberta Environment and Parks biologists and a team of natural resource companies in the Peace Country, Grizz Tracker enables people to pinpoint GPS locations of where they see and encounter grizzly bears on the landscape. The app is linked to a website with educational resources on how to identify grizzlies (and distinguish them from the more commonly sighted American black bears) and stay safe in bear habitat.

Both species of bears can take on an array of colours, including black, brown, blonde, and cinnamon, yet the grizzlies have longer claws than black bears, are often larger in size, and sport large humps on their shoulders.

Biologist Courtney Hughes spends days out in the forests of Northern Alberta, setting hair-collection traps in an effort to collect enough DNA to help improve our knowledge of this distinct and little-researched resident of the North. Image: KJ Dakin

"The Grizz Tracker interface is really easy to use," said Courtney Hughes, one of the biologists leading the project. "It asks users to identify, 'Are you seeing a male? Are you seeing a sow [female] with cubs? If you're within a safe distance, take a photograph."

Data collected through Grizz Tracker will help Hughes and her team better understand the population size, movement, and behaviours of grizzly bears in the north. Currently, there's a major knowledge gap in the Peace Country, a vast topography saturated with boggy terrain and densely packed coniferous and deciduous forest cover.

Of the seven government-designated Bear Management Areas in Alberta, the Peace Country is the second-largest in size, and is considered one of the most under-studied grizzly habitats in the province.

"We want to know—how often are they seeing, or not seeing, a bear? The information helps us gain an indication of distribution of grizzlies."

According to the most recent phase of Alberta's Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, released in June, there are only an estimated 700 grizzly bears left in the province. Since 2010, grizzlies have been listed as a threatened species under Alberta's Wildlife Act. The report acknowledges the need to better understand grizzly bears in the Peace Country, in order to recover populations there and elsewhere.

Hughes said the unique topography of the high boreal habitat presents challenges to carrying out population inventories and research on grizzly bears. The omnivore is believed to have an enormous home range, foraging for roots, berries, plants, and hunting ungulates (deer, moose, and elk) and smaller mammals over distances of upwards of 70 square kilometers. Biologists have to rely on off-road vehicles and helicopters to penetrate parts of the remote region.

Image: Government of Alberta

"It's a huge landscape up here," said Hughes. "It's wet and mucky, hard to reach, and tough to navigate. You need a lot of people to work on a research project."

Given these geographical barriers, Hughes and her team decided to put Grizz Tracker in the hands of people who are already living and working in remote parts of the Peace Country.

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In the beta-testing phase, 100 people, including oil and gas workers, foresters, wildland firefighters, ranchers and farmers, landowners, and government employees, downloaded Grizz Tracker and carried the app with them in forested areas and farmland that border forests.

From April to November, biologists collected GPS data on where users encountered and reported grizzlies, and—equally as important—where they didn't see any.

The landscape of Alberta's northern Grizzly bears is a collection of dense boreal forests, and muskeg or swampland populated by scraggly spruce trees and an abundance of autumn berries. Image: KJ Dakin

"If a person is in the field for ten hours a day, every day for two weeks, we want to know—how often are they seeing, or not seeing, a bear?" explained Hughes. "The information helps us gain an indication of distribution of grizzlies on the landscape."

Jim Witiw works at a forestry products company that operates a pulp mill in the Peace Country. He participated directly in the development of Grizz Tracker, along with the beta-testing phase of the app. Daishowa-Marubeni International Ltd. (DMI), where he's a senior forester, manages 2.7 million hectares of public forest in northwestern Alberta, and he says the company has an important role to play in contributing to grizzly bear research and conservation efforts.

"If you teach people about grizzly bears, and train and motivate them to participate in research, that will generate an interest in collaborative stewardship," said Witiw.

"The biggest threat to grizzly bears and their mortality is related to conflict with humans"

Since the 1980s, DMI has provided bear safety education to their forest technicians and employees, many of whom have come face-to-face with bears while working in the Peace Country. In the past, Witiw and other DMI employees would report sightings of grizzly bears through phone calls, emails, or "handwritten notes" to local biologists. He hopes Grizz Tracker will help to inform best-practices in sustainable forest management.

"We want to know where the grizzly bear hotspots exist on the landscape," said Witiw. "Are they alongside creeks? Near lakes? If we knew locations, we could provide extra caution in these areas by leaving buffers of trees, or blocking line of sight."

Environmental groups, including Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), say it's imperative to address the impact by industrial development practices on grizzly bear habitat in northern Alberta— specifically the clearing of forest to build highways, seismic lines, access roads, paths and trails into wildlife habitat.

Courtney Hughes and fellow biologist Lyle Fullerton search for and collect evidence of grizzly bears while trekking through the flat, brushy landscape of the Boreal forest of northern Alberta. Image: KJ Dakin

"The biggest threat to grizzly bears and their mortality is related to conflict with humans," said Tara Russell, a conservation assistant with CPAWS Northern Chapter. She points to research demonstrating that road access into grizzly habitat that exceeds 0.6 kilometers squared threshold can lead to increased opportunities for human and bear encounters, and therefore, an increased number of grizzly bear deaths.

Nonetheless, Russell is encouraged by Grizz Tracker's collaborative approach. "If humans are the main cause of grizzly bear mortality, having designated support for public engagement is certainly going to be a key part of their conservation and recovery."

Despite a few technological "quirks" with the smartphone app, Hughes reports that most of the initial feedback has been positive. The Peace River biologists are hoping to eventually make the app available to the wider public, so all citizens in the Peace Country can download the app and report grizzly bear sightings.

"Through word of mouth, Grizz Tracker is catching like wildfire," said Hughes. "We've had calls from other provinces to inquire how the app works, how it can contribute to science and management decisions, and how it engages the public in positive ways. People are really excited."

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