Lab Blogs

An Atnarko autumn: piloting grizzly bear behavioural research with BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation

View of the Atnarko River with snow covered mountains in the background, clouds in the sky and orange leaved trees in the background.

Above image: An Atnarko Autumn. At this time of year, when the sun makes brief appearances between coastal mountain peaks, its golden light on what is left of the cottonwood leaves provides a striking contrast against deep blue, frozen mountains.

The Atnarko River Corridor, located within Nuxalk Territory and Tweedsmuir Provincial Park (South), is an increasingly popular bear viewing destination due to ease of access along Highway 20 and seasonal concentrations of grizzly and black bears as they congregate to feed on spawning salmon. With increasing visitation rates to Bella Coola Valley during peak tourist season, this combination of easy access and high-quality bear viewing presents not only a conservation challenge, but also an opportunity for examining human-bear interactions and how they might affect bear behaviour.

In 2018, the ACS lab was awarded funding from the Ministry and Environment Climate Change Strategy to examine such interactions. Specifically, in collaboration with Lori Homstol and Steve Hodgson at BC Parks, as well as Jason Moody and Ron Schooner of the Nuxalk Nation Stewardship Department, we will investigate whether and how various methods of bear viewing (e.g., viewing bears from drift-boats, bear viewing stands, opportunistic viewing) might impact grizzly bear behaviour in the Atnarko Corridor. To complement ecological data, we also aim to seek insight from Nuxalk Knowledge Holders on traditional and contemporary cultural norms on how humans ought to interact with bears.

Peak bear viewing season coincides with spawning salmon during late summer and early autumn.

Our pilot season for this project took place last fall. Ron and I usually started our dim, frosty mornings tuned into Nuxalk Radio with hot coffee in hand—the ever-present life-line of long field days. We would spend our days designating experimental and control zones along the Atnarko, and scouting out sites with unobstructed views of the river within these zones. Other objectives of the pilot season included setting up remote cameras to collect preliminary data and testing different methods for assessing bear behaviour. This was also the first opportunity we had to use our lab research camper as a mobile field station!

Ron at Atnarko    Kate looking down Atnarko

The composition of partnerships in this project is unique to our lab: the relationship among Provincial, Indigenous, and academic partners represents a progressive avenue towards localized, data-driven bear viewing management that can be applied to Provincial- and First Nations-run ecotourism industries. This research will aim to inform evidence-based management policies to improve ecotourism’s contribution towards achieving conservation goals.

By Kate Field, MSc Student