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The Bears Of Kluane

PhotoS: Parks Canada

PhotoS: Parks Canada

Park warden Kevin McLaughlin attaches a radio collar to an adult bear that has been darted; two grizzlies dine on park vegetation.

Nestled in the southwest corner of the Yukon, Kluane National Park and Reserve is largely a land of mountains, rock and icefields. But these splendid features are not ordinary landmarks. Everything about Kluane seems big. At 21,980 square kilometres, it is nearly four times larger than Banff National Park. It is home to the towering St. Elias Mountain Range, including Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada and the second highest peak on the continent.

Between the massive mountains lay the largest non-polar glacial icefields in the world, while below there are broad

U-shaped valleys that provide an essential homeland for the park’s wild creatures, including a rather unique grizzly bear. So impressive is the region that the United Nations has declared it a world heritage site.

In this remarkable land where everything seems big, Kluane bears are not. These Yukon grizzlies are about two-thirds the size of their cousins in the more productive southern and coastal regions of British Columbia and Alaska. Their size is a result of food supply. While southern grizzlies have access to salmon and other readily available sources of protein, the bears of Kluane—although still carnivorous—depend almost entirely on berries and other types of vegetation.

Biologists believe the grizzly’s ancestors migrated over the Bering land bridge from Asia about 50,000 years ago and gradually ranged over the entire western half of the North American continent all the way to Mexico. At one time there may have been a hundred thousand grizzlies in North America. However, human settlement in the west drove them to their mountain redoubts and triggered a dramatic drop in populations. By the mid-1970s, the bears had been added to the threatened species list in the United States.

In Canada, grizzlies are somewhat better off, but even so, they are extinct in a quarter of their original homeland and much of their remaining range is either threatened or vulnerable.

The Kluane region had long been considered a wilderness area with limited contact by humans. But during the late 1980s, there was increased public pressure to allow greater access into the park’s rugged interior. However, park officials at the time concluded that not enough was known about grizzly population numbers nor the type of habitat they needed to survive.

And so in 1990 Parks Canada launched a series of long-range studies to acquire a comprehensive picture of Kluane’s grizzly population.

As I bump and grind through a moss covered valley with park warden Kevin McLaughlin, I wonder what will give out first, his groaning four by four pickup truck or my aging lumbar region. I had asked my nephew who is one of a team of wardens and biologists engaged in grizzly research to show his tourist uncle a bear in its natural setting. There are no real roads into the park’s interior, though the paved Alaska Highway skirts its

eastern boundary for 100 miles. However, this rutted two-track trail is not for the feeble hearted or out of shape city dweller. “Grizzlies,” he says, “are difficult to study because they are usually single, solitary animals. They like forested, remote habitats which make them difficult to observe.”

Though only 18 per cent of the park is vegetated, there is a surprising amount of forest along with rolling green belts that provide food and shelter for the bears.

To properly understand the grizzlies, Kluane biologists need to get up close, a process that often involves rough wind-swept helicopter flights through the twisting valleys to locate, dart and evaluate individual bears.

A common method of observation is to fit bears with radio collars to track their movements and collect information on habitat use, food sources, denning areas, home ranges, reproduction, and mortality. However, collaring a grizzly in the mountainous back country is not easy. Wardens first have to identify the selected bear from the air. Safety is a key factor both for the people and the bear since the park is filled with obstacles such as steep cliffs, sudden valleys and dense bush.

Tracking the animals requires low-level flying in uneven terrain where unpredictable mountain-generated winds and air turbulence can complicate things. An experienced and skilled helicopter pilot is crucial because hazards for the bears also pose risks for the airborne researchers. Quite often, the helicopters have to fly 10 to 20 feet off the ground while in pursuit of an animal. And what makes it even more of a challenge is that individual bears react differently. Some will run away in a straight line while others dodge and weave like a running back.

Strict rules are followed to reduce the anxiety and potential risk to the bear. For example, researchers limit the chase time to 10 minutes to prevent overheating and stress. Once a bear is darted by a sharpshooter using a special capture rifle, it takes two to 10 minutes for the drug to take effect.

When the grizzly is unconscious, body temperature, heart rate and respiration are monitored while other details, including weight, sex and the bear’s overall medical condition are noted. A blood sample is drawn for DNA analysis and a small pre-molar tooth is extracted to help determine the animal’s age.

The captured bear is finally fitted with a radio collar that provides information about the animal’s travels. This traditional type of collar gives off a signal that must be tracked and monitored from the air to locate the bear. It is usually an expensive and time-consuming exercise.

Park biologists are experimenting with collars uplinked to satellites through the global positioning system (GPS) that was originally developed by the U.S. military for defence purposes. Transmitters on these collars send signals to a system of 24 satellites and can be used to record the bear’s location several times a day.

In Kluane, scientists use two types of GPS collars. One is called “store on board.” With this technology, information is gathered from the satellite and stored in the collar until it is recovered and the data is downloaded. The other GPS collar sends data directly to a satellite and is programmed to record information every 13 hours.

GPS can aid biologists by demonstrating where bears go, what they feed on, whom they mate with and where they die. The steady stream of statistics from a GPS collar gives a much more detailed picture of the bear’s habits and has helped researchers discover, for example, that the home ranges of two female bears were much larger than had been predicted. One was more than double the area estimated by conventional radio collars.

Bear biologist Rob McCann headed a six-year study to document the complete life history of Kluane bears, which involved the capture, and collaring of 61 grizzlies. The information is being overlaid onto detailed Landsat maps to show what areas the bears use most often, and what territory is important for them.

As useful as they are, McCann says GPS and traditional radio collars will never be the only means of studying wildlife. “GPS can give information on home ranges and travel corridors, but if you want information on population dynamics, such as the size of litters and how many cubs are surviving, you need to go out there and take a look.”

Sometimes taking that closer look can yield unpleasant surprises. Bears have been known to wake up after being darted. Not too long ago in Kluane, a darting team came face to face with a young grizzly that suddenly stood up. The animal had been darted from the air, but came to when the team was within 20 feet. Surprised team members stopped dead in their tracks and then backed away, slowly. When the pilot saw what was going on, he hit the starter on the helicopter, a move that caused the bear to turn and run away.

Yukon government biologist Ramona Maraj has been using Landsat images to develop a model to help park managers predict the impact humans are having on grizzlies, including regions outside the park boundaries where nearly half of the Kluane bears are known to roam and thus are most susceptible to human activity. Among other things, her study will determine the Kluane’s ability to support bears by identifying vegetation and other features that are beneficial to the bears.

Biologists like McCann and Maraj and the park wardens are discovering some fascinating facts about the life history and probable future of Kluane grizzlies. DNA analysis indicates the bears might be among the most genetically diverse in North America. For scientists, it means these grizzlies are well suited to adapt to changing environmental conditions provided their habitat remains intact.

The home range of adult males can be as large as 1,600 square kilometres while females roam less than 300 square kilometres. Still, it is a lot of territory and requires an abundance of bear food.

On a diet consisting mainly of vegetation, including such fancy named foods as horsetails, hedyrarum roots, and oxytropis flowers, along with grasses, bearberry and crowberry, the average male gained 37 kilograms in a summer for a 26 per cent increase in weight. Adult females gained on average 40 kilograms or almost 40 per cent of their total body weight.

However, the bears don’t need to worry about going on a diet since they normally spend six to seven months—October through April—sleeping in their den. In my brief visit to the park on a warm June day, I’m shown evidence of bears in the form of scats on the ground and fresh grizzly hair on a dead tree used recently as a scratching post. But the elusive bears remain well hidden.

At a spot on a distant snow-capped mountain close to the treeline, there is a traditional grizzly den that is accessible only by helicopter or to researchers with better hiking boots and more stamina than I possess. A female grizzly will spend about seven months inside the den in the mountain where her cubs will be born in February.

Life for a first-year cub in Kluane is risky business. The survival rate may be as low as 40 per cent compared with Kananaskis Park in Alberta where cubs have about an 80 per cent chance of making it through the first year of life. However, there is a dramatic improvement in the second year for Kluane cubs when the survival rate soars to 76 per cent. The high cub mortality is not well understood, but it is known that adult males will kill cubs. The cubs stay with their mother for two or three years, denning with her each winter. The female will not breed again until the family has broken up.

The various studies are designed to provide the estimated 250 Kluane grizzlies with the kind of homeland they need to survive and that means keeping bears and humans apart both for bear and human safety.

Kluane wardens practice a well-established philosophy. It is easier, they say, to manage people than to manage bears. And so the studies will also help determine where new trails and overnight campsites can be established.

Biologists are recommending closing certain areas of the park crucial to bear survival while in other areas, a variety of educational messaging techniques are used such as signage, bear pamphlets, and safety videos to increase visitor awareness.

There has been one death resulting from a bear attack since Kluane was proclaimed a national park and reserve in 1972. In 1996, a young woman was killed by a young grizzly. It was the first fatality in over 300,000 registered park visits.

Kluane personnel work closely with aboriginal groups and others who live near the park since bears don’t recognize park boundaries but rather consider the entire region their home.

As many as 50 per cent of the bears that call Kluane Park their home will stray outside the park’s boundaries onto highways or even occasionally into backyards. This can sometimes result in conflict between landowners and the bears.

McCann in his Kluane Grizzly bear study commended park officials and local communities outside the park boundaries for taking steps that will help insure the long-range viability of the bears, but he noted that grizzly mortality rates outside the park have clearly not been addressed. “There is an image of the mythical unexplored back country that doesn’t exist,” he says. “It is unlikely that there is a bear in remote Kluane who has not encountered humans.”

And although their diet is primarily vegetation, it should be remembered that Kluane bears—like other grizzlies—are carnivorous, and they remain the supreme wilderness predator. They have no natural enemies except humans. How to give them the space they need to survive is the challenge to insure the best of both worlds, namely human accessibility to the park and the continued existence of Kluane bears.

Kluane’s Human History

The cultural history in Kluane National Park and Reserve dates back at least 10,000 years. Parks Canada notes that the parklands are the traditional territories of the Southern Tutchone people. The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations and the Kluane First Nation continue to carry out their traditional activities, including hunting and trapping in the region.

Over thousands of years, native peoples have developed effective methods for surviving on this land of extremes, and they have done an excellent job of passing their knowledge—especially of plants and animals—on to the next generation.

The word Kluane is pronounced Kloo-wah-nee. It is derived from Lu’An Mun, a Southern Tutchone word meaning ‘lake with many fish’, a reference to one of the territory’s lakes.


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