Using GPS to learn more about bears

Can't see the bear for the grass - GPS can help that

Can’t see the bear for the grass – GPS can help that

The past few weeks I’ve been putting my energies in to learning ArcGIS, a computer program that analyses data coming from GPS (Global Positioning System) information.

Several grizzly bears in Banff National Park will be fitted with GPS collars this spring. I’ll use TrackSticks on hikers to gather GPS points of hiker movement. In my analysis, I’ll overlay these data sets and create a map of grizzly bears and hikers moving through the National Park.

GIS is a fascinating world of very specific spatial data. The collars worn by bears are able to tell Park Managers and researchers exactly where a bear was, and whether it was moving through or if it stayed for a while. GPS collars have changed the face of wildlife biology research. Data provided by GPS units has enabled researchers to more accurately determine an animal’s home range (the area it uses to access all of its food, mates, shelter etc), and what kinds of habitat it selects for or avoids. This information is crucial in wildlife management. For example, GPS data helps managers ensure not only that animals have enough space, but that it’s the right kind of space (high quality habitat).

GPS units generate a location every few hours (between 2 and 6 depending on the purpose of the study); these locations are accessible through a website with a secure log-in so managers can literally know where a bear is (approximately) throughout the day, week, or season.

This video from Montana Fish and Wildlife has some great footage of fitting bears with GPS collars and some maps of the resulting data.

Is it necessary?

But this makes me wonder – are we trying to know too much?

The value of GPS data cannot be understated, but is it necessary for us to know exactly where a bear is at all times? Doesn’t that take away some of the magic and unpredictability of the wilderness? (So scientific I know, but it’s the magic of the wilderness that attracts me).

We cannot collar every bear so we can never know exactly where every bear is. It’s important to remember that because if this information was misinterpreted, people could become complacent  – I know there isn’t a bear in this valley so I’ll slather myself in bacon grease for my hike today. That just wouldn’t be true. Also, research has shown that bears are very individual in their responses to people, other bears, and all other stimuli. Designing a study that takes this individual variation into account is essential to the study’s successful application to management action.

More importantly though, we have to consider the application of this research and data. Through decades of scientific research in Alberta and elsewhere, we already know exactly what we need to do to effectively recover grizzly bears in Alberta, we just aren’t really doing it. So will more GPS data get us closer to that objective or is it just more work to prove the same point? We know that grizzly bears need habitat security in order to proliferate and survive for generations, and we define habitat security as 68% of a bear’s home range being at least 500m from any trail or human access road. We already know that, but we aren’t necessarily managing grizzly bear habitat to meet that objective.

That’s just the truth. We keep expanding human influence and expecting bears to work around us, but if we were truly aiming for grizzly bear recovery, we’d be considering grizzly bear habitat use and their needs before we even headed out the door. approved the next development, or designed the industrial road network. In effect, we’d be prioritizing grizzly bears more than we are right now in all our land use plans.

It's a constant mental battle between cool research ideas and the usefulness of that data to answer the question.

It’s a constant mental battle between cool research ideas and the usefulness of that data to answer the question.

What about me?

I think about this in the context of my own research all the time. How will what I learn contribute to effective grizzly bear recovery in Alberta? Will it be meaningful, or will I just end up generating a bunch of data that reinforces what we already know? That is the essence of the hard questions in research for me. Ensuring my research leads to changes in grizzly bear management that meaningfully contribute to grizzly bear recovery is critical in my mind.

I love the GPS data. I think being able to generate a map of a bear’s movement across the landscape is amazing. But as with all research, you’ve got to know why you are doing it.

GPS data is hard to get, especially from the bear’s perspective

GPS collars are an invasive methodology and shouldn’t be taken lightly. In order to put a GPS collar on a bear, that bear has to be captured, tranquilized, and fitted with the collar. Imagine going through that when you were just checking out the sweet smell of rotting beaver in a culvert – then boom! You get shot with a tranq gun and things happen to you… when you wake up, you’ve got this weird necklace that won’t come off no matter how far or fast you run. Talk about alien abduction!

There isn’t a biologist alive that doesn’t think about that very carefully before subjecting an animal to that kind of invasive research. You never start planning a study by saying you want GPS units. You start planning a study around a question and then choose to use a GPS unit because it’s the best methodology to help answer that question.

I’m using GPS data generated from another series of studies happening in the Park, which is the other key thing about GPS data – mine that data for all its worth, it’s full of information applicable to multiple studies to get in there and play with it.

But GPS can’t do everything. For example, GPS can’t always tell you why a bear was somewhere and why it spent so much time there. It can’t tell you how that bear interacted with other bears as it went from berry patch to berry patch. My research has a large behavioural component, and that’s why I’m using a few different methodologies (remote cameras, people GPS units) to glean a better understanding of more factors impacting a bear’s day. I’m looking forward to making some maps of how our bears move across the landscape, but I’m also looking forward to combining that data with other data to generate information that will improve bear management and directly contribute to grizzly bear recovery in Alberta.

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