Grizzly bears are being trapped and fitted with GPS collars again this spring as part of a study to try to prevent the threatened animals from being killed on the railway tracks in the mountain national parks.
Some of the grizzlies captured last year for the joint Parks Canada-Canadian Pacific Railway project were caught again in the past few weeks because some of the collars malfunctioned for varying reasons.
Steve Michel, human-wildlife conflict specialist, said the anticipated lifespan of the collars was two full seasons, but six of the 13 collars deployed had various glitches and problems, including battery lifespan.
“We expected some collar failure, and when you talk with other biologists in other studies, we think we’re actually doing fairly well,” he said.
“We still have some collars that are working perfectly and we anticipate we’re going to get full battery life out of them and continue to get phenomenally valuable GPS data.”
Eleven grizzly bears — five males and six females — were captured and fitted with high-tech GPS tracking devices in spring 2012. Two bears were captured again last year when their collars failed.
The original plan for the four-year study was to maintain a target of 10 to 12 functioning GPS collars at any given time. The hope is the data collected will lead to solutions to stop bears dying on the tracks.
Canadian Pacific Railway is the single biggest killer of grizzly bears in Banff National Park, killing an average of one to two grizzlies each year. Thirteen have died on the tracks in Banff and Yoho since 2000.
There are an estimated 60 grizzly bears in Banff National Park. The icons of the Canadian wilderness are listed as threatened in the province of Alberta.
A recent study using bear DNA collected from rub tree hair traps suggested the Bow Valley’s grizzly bear population may be in decline. That same study suggested, though did not confirm, that the Bow Valley may act as an attractive sink for grizzly bears in the Central Canadian Rockies Mountains.
GPS data from last summer shows grizzly bears crossed the railway tracks 553 times, and there were 354 total locations of grizzly bears on the train tracks.
“We’re collecting really valuable fine-scale data on how bears are using this landscape,” said Michel.
So far this spring, seven grizzly bears have been captured and five new GPS collars have been deployed. Two animals were not fitted with new collars — one had a functioning collar and the other was too small.
Bear 72, a 24-year-old celebrity grizzly in the Lake Louise area with three two-year-old cubs in tow, was one of the grizzlies to have her collar replaced. It failed this spring after almost a year of doing well.
Another bear recaptured was female bear 130, whose two yearlings were killed on the railway tracks last October. Her collar was problematic all last summer.
Female bear 133 has also been fitted with a new tracking device. Her collar functioned well all last year, but when she came out of the den this spring, there was no signal at all.
A large male bear seen breeding with 72, known as 124, also has a new collar after his failed last fall. He’s now in the 520-pound range, up 100 pounds from this time last year.
A three-year-old grizzly bear left orphaned when a train killed his mother in 2011 was fitted with an ear transmitter last year, but he has also now been fitted with a small GPS collar.
In recent weeks, the young bruin referred to as bear 128 has been feeding on grain on the train tracks and also got access to human garbage from the Lake Louise campground.
“Our recapture efforts this year have targeted high priority animals,” said Michel.
As part of the four-year GPS collaring study, Michel said the general guidelines allowed for the capture of grizzly bears a maximum of two times.
“Ideally you would capture at the start of the study and two years later capture them again and replace the collars,” he said.
“Because they’ve been captured and handled a second time, they won’t be captured again even if their collars fail — unless there’s some exceptional circumstances.”
Parks Canada is still hoping to recapture bear 122 — a large male grizzly who made headlines when he feasted on steaks bones and cobs of corn at the Castle Mountain landfill last year.
The 550-pound bruin was caught twice last year as part of the GPS study after his initial collar fell off, not long after an intensive fight with another grizzly bear.
“We will handle him a third time — he’s the one exception,” said Michel.
Bear 122 is a prime breeding male, covering a very large territory, and the data collected from his GPS collar has proven extremely valuable, particularly along the railway tracks.
“He is a classic bear in terms of providing the ideal kind of data we need for this research, so we want to get another opportunity to get another year or two worth of data,” said Michel.
“That’s, of course, assuming we can reconnect with him at some time. It’s pretty much random chance because we haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks.”
Parks Canada initially went with three different manufacturers to hedge their bets on the success of different GPS collars, but quickly ruled out one of the tracking devices early in 2012.
Parks Canada is not disclosing the names of the collar manufacturers, but Michel said they are continuing to talk to the two other companies to help them improve their product.
The collars being put on the bears now have a remote blow-off mechanism as part of the collar design, which allows wildlife officials to remotely remove the collar at any time from a distance.
“We’re certainly favouring one of two right now in terms of future collar deployment,” said Michel. “It’s the better product tested so far, but it’s not perfect.”
As of press time, there were functioning collars on 10 different grizzly bears.
“I’d like to finish off with 12 again,” said Michel. “I would be satisfied from a research perspective if we got another two or three collars in the next three or four weeks.”
Michel said the plan all along was to do another capture season, though the focus geographically would have shifted further west into Yoho National Park.
“The intent was to look at the transportation corridor from the east gate of Banff to the west end of Yoho, not just the Bow Valley, but into Kicking Horse Valley,” he said.
“We wanted to push quite a bit further west, and we’ve just started doing that. We’ve set traps out further into Yoho in the last few days and scaled back on trapping in the Banff area.”
The issue of railway-related wildlife mortality is complex.
It can include the presence of grain, bear behaviour, using the tracks as a travel route, and conditions adjacent to the railway such as seasonal bear foods, habitat quality, carcasses, terrain, travel conditions and snow conditions.
Other projects underway as part of the Parks Canada-CPR joint action plan include vegetation clearing, investigation of off-site enhancements like fire to draw bears away from tracks, grain taste aversion trial and the use of video to determine bear behaviour ahead of oncoming trains.
The plan also speaks to the development of test fences at certain hot spots.