A small army will soon begin a summer of scouring the woods of extreme Northwest Montana and northern Idaho, collecting grizzly bear hair for a genetics-based population study.
The project is being led by Kate Kendall, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher who pioneered a similar large landscape grizzly bear population study in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in 2004.
Kendall was recently on her way to lead 70 field workers in a nine-day training session at a Forest Service work station in the upper Yaak Valley not far from the Canadian border.
While the methods of the project will be similar to those used in 2004, it will be different because the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population is much smaller. Researchers believe there are at least 40 grizzly bears within the 2,600-mile recovery area.
“This is a much smaller population and it’s really difficult to get a precise estimate when you have a small population. You have to get your capture probability up to get a better estimate,” Kendall said.
For that reason, field crews will set up 800 scent-baited hair corrals surrounded by barbed wire within 5-by-5-kilometer grids. The earlier study involved 7-by-7-kilometer grids.
Hair will be collected from the hair corrals multiple times over a 12-week period starting June 7.
The hair will be processed at a genetics laboratory to identify individual bears and a “mark-recapture” statistical analysis will be conducted to produce a population estimate.
The Northern Continental Divide study ended up producing a “snapshot” population estimate of 752 bears for the summer of 2004 on a project area that covered 7.8 million acres in and around Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
A subsequent population trend study led by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks determined that the population has been growing by an annual average of 3 percent.
As with the previous study, the Cabinet-Yaak project will involve collecting hair samples from an estimated 1,500 bear rub trees. While the hair corrals will be taken down at the end of August, hair will be collected from rub trees into the third week of September.
Once the Cabinet-Yaak project gets under way, field crews will be deployed to eight base camps. “A lot of them will be camping out all summer,” Kendall said.
The project will cost about $1.7 million, provided by city, county, tribal, federal and state agencies, as well as partners in private industry and the nonprofit sector.
“Determining the size and distribution of bear populations with accuracy and precision requires a lot of resources because it involves intense sampling on a large scale,” Kendall said. “That the local community and agencies were able to pull together the funding for this effort is an indication of the importance to them of moving toward recovering this population.”
Kendall said she plans to have data processed and hair samples sent for laboratory analysis by the end of the year, and she hopes to have genetic results by the end of 2013 and a final report sometime in 2014.
For more information, visit the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Project website. http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/CYEbeardna_detail