Thursday, May 9, 2024

Grizzly Bear Research Project on Orphaned Cubs

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Wildlife, Nature, Global Change, Sustainability,  Biodiversity, Science & Society, Data Science

Ed Hessler

--You can't manage out of ignorance. You have to know what species do, whom they eat, what role these prey species play. When you know that, you can make some intelligent decisions.--Robert T. Paine, quoted in an essay about Paine by Katherine Long in The Seattle Times (August 2, 2023 and also from an essay by Lesley Evans Ogden in Quanta Magazine in which ecologist Ann Salomon, a former Paine Ph.D student told Ogden she tells her students this quote.

A friend of mine handed me a copy of ScienceTimes from the New York Times published July 27, 2023 saying that I might like it, knowing my interest in wildlife management.. I liked it and am going to highlight this major story by Canadian science writer and dramatist, Alanna Mitchell. In my newspaper copy it is titled "Rescuing Orphans" ; online it is titled "It's a Grizzly Survival Program. For Grizzly Bears."  The online version is behind a paywall.

The article extends Paine's quote to include other factors, including a field experiment to test an idea before making an intelligent decision about a full-time intervention. 

--Grizzly bear cubs need their mothers for about two years if they are to learn the life skills if they are to survive. Orphaned grizzlies are not unusual, e.g., a result of hunting or other human-grizzly bear interactions.

--Mitchell focuses on the work of researchers and gamekeepers and organizations. They include Lana CiarnielloAngelika LangenNorthern Lights Wildlife ShelterGrizzly Bear Foundation, the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group and  Expert Leadership Team.  That list must include a place: the Great Bear Rainforest located near Bella Coola. For information about the IUCN see the IUCN Red List.

--Dr. Ciarniello "began her study two years ago (2021) was contracted by the Grizzly Bear Foundation to answer the question, whether raising orphaned grizzlies for return to the wild make sense?" These bears are referred to as "'rewilded'." (John Beecham, below, noted that "rewilding grizzlies "s controversial among biologists.") Ciarnello wondered "'Are we doing it just because it makes us feel good?"' She also wants to know whether this intervention is actually contributing to the population.'"

--Ciarniello is following what happened to "the seven cubs that have been released" (two last year (2022) and five this year (2023 - four are females.""

--The orphans are taken from the field (Great Bear Rainforest) then transported by helicopter to the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter.   The shelter, supported "exclusively by donations," is "set on 220 acres of aspen quivering wilderness." A "pilot project was approved by British Columbia officials in 2007. The shelter "has reared 33 grizzly cubs."

--The teaching program for these cubs "is based on pioneering work conducted with black bears in the 1970s by John Beecham, an Idaho-based biologist" ( for a bio of Dr. Beecham see link above IUCN SCC Bear Group). Beecham also advised the Langens in setting up their program.).  One  ingredient was missing: data about the fate of the rewilded grizzlies. What was missing in this effort is data about the fate of rewilded grizzlies.  The Grizzly Bear Foundation decided to contract with Dr. Ciarniello.

--The shelter environment limits human bear interactions to "a single caregiver (and) provides only natural materials for them to play with. (There are viewing platforms which allow researchers to observe their behavior.) It also limits their diet of protein to non-domesticated animals." 

It is important that the cubs be as big as possible before they are returned to their natural environment, ""so they are kept out of hibernation by feeding them items such as wild vegetables, berries, even dandelions, and  fish, moose and deer.Upon release they "roughly twice the size of ones reared in the wild.".

--Alaska Fish and Game wildlife biologist i "noted that half the grizzly cubs raised in the wild perish." This was mentioned in a discussion of the difficulty of finding homes for orphaned cubs to zoos (in the U.S. including Alaska, a handful each year). Mitchell noted that Laurine A. Wolf, Montana Bureau Chief of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told her that in "captivity they can live for decades and need a lot of care."

--Before release "they have been implanted with a microchip (nose), a tattoo (upper lip), ear tags (both ears) and fitted with. a radio collar for use in GPS tracking" (paraphrased).

--Dr. Ciarniello referred to female-male group as the "Fab Five." They were taken first by truck - a 16-hour drive by truck to Bella Coola, then airlifted by two helicopters to the release site. All "were in excellent health." One of the helicopters returned with a bear in the carrying net. Ciarniello had to tune into the bear's collar to find out who it was. It was missing. That bear had died during the flight when one of the two sisters, the heavier one "lurched on top of her sister, killing her."

--Field work can have its own disappointments and setbacks. One cub's transmitter failed. A long search to find him failed but then Ciarniello received an alert in the middle of the night (the collar is programmed to text her if a bear fails to move for 12 hours. It is called the "mortality mode."). Moritz was found near a winter den he was preparing. The collar was found first followed "by a lower jaw, shards of leg bone and a food cache." 

The cache was "most likely made by a big male grizzly near the site Moritz ws preparing as a winter den.. The salmon runs had failed (climate change or overfishing or both). Moritz had not learned to stay away from such caches. As grizzly bear research scientist Gordon B. Stenhouse put it, according to Mitchell, "his studies showed that translocated bears often make poor decisions." Research paper here. It is definitely worth a look. And about fRI, the group he works with see here. Stenhouse et. al., provide another method of collecting data on this question.

--Mitchell has a great section on changes in numbers and distribution of grizzly bears in the continental United States 1850. Their distribution in the continental United States was in what are now four states: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington. Because they were "seen as a threat to humans and livestock" grizzly bears were systematically eradicated in the United States and parts of Canada. Current numbers and endangerment status  may be found in the I.U.C.N, redbook, Canadian wildlife records and also in  records from British Columbia and Alberta. 

--Dr. Beecham mentioned a phrase I'd never heard: "gun chosen." He was referring to European grizzlies, about which Mitchell writes "so many of which have been killed over the centuries that the species has become shy rather than controversial."

--And what happened to the four survivors of the "Fab Five?" Mitchell reports that three remain together  in the lowlands of an estuary, close to their release area. (One) has found good grizzly habitat in the subalpine and alpine areas of the forest. She roams widely. It is possible, Dr. Ciarniello said, that she is looking for her lost sister."
--While this report from CBC news is also a year old it includes a video of Ciarniello inside a den built by the three orphaned cubs. A CBC Gem production titled Grizzly Rewild about the Fab Five is highlighted at the end. Access requires a subscription and I didn't look into those details.

The Grizzly Bear Foundation has a report on Ciarniello's research

Alanna Mitchell reported a complex story, one I enjoyed and appreciated. I hope the NYT will do a follow up when the project is over on findings and recommendations for management of grizzly bears.

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