Bear Poo and You: learning about Yukon Bears with the OURS research project
Lucile Fressigné is leading an on-going study that seeks to fill in this gap in bear population knowledge. Starting in 2020, she started a community-based project to survey the Yukon’s bear populations in a creative way that also doesn’t bother the local bears: by collecting their scat! That’s right, Operation Ursus Research using Scat (OURS) is aimed at updating and providing a scientifically reliable estimate of the population size of Yukon bear species using a non-invasive DNA-based method that relies on scat samples. Last year, the study focused on collecting samples in the Mount Lorne, Marsh Lake, Tagish, and Fish Lake areas of the territory. Fressigné offers Yukon residents the opportunity to be part of this project and help build this sample collection by offering free collection kits that can be dropped off at community centres in the study areas. Yes, you too can take part in bear science!
OURS aims to get an estimate on both grizzly (Ursus arctos) and black bear (Ursus americanus) populations. These bears tend to be especially difficult to inventory and monitor as a low number of bears will occur over a large home range and they tend to be avoidant by nature. Grizzlies are the largest of the two and are very distinctive with their dished face profile and defined shoulder hump. They are often referred to as “brown bears” but their colours can range from white to almost black. They most commonly have “grizzled fur”: a deep brown with lighter ends. Apparently, no one told them that frosted tips went out of style in the early 2000s.
Hair snags are another non-invasive method for population estimations. This is the most common method of population analysis and it’s done by placing a tantalizing lure near a string of barbed wire. When an animal comes for the lure, they leave a cheeky tuft of hair behind. However, scat analysis doesn’t need a lure/barbed wire setup, you can find it everywhere bears dwell, and it is very easy to identify whereas hair tufts can be tricky to spot. Odds are, if you spend some time in the woods, you’ve come across them before. And believe it or not, there is a ton of information to be gained from analysing bear body waste!
We are generally aware of what bears are eating but scat analysis can give us specific statistics regarding how often and how much bears are consuming of different foods. It also helps chart changes in diet. If one food is present one year and absent the next, this might indicate environmental changes that made this food source inaccessible. OURS can also see how bears are affecting their food sources in turn. As part of this project, Fressigné is partnered with the Kwanlin Dün First Nation who are interested in how or if bear predation is affecting the declining moose population in the Fish Lake area.
The OURS project is primarily about providing a population estimate but it’s more than just a bear abacus. Studying the genetic markers in bear scat reveals information about the genetic diversity in bear populations. This work also helps emphasise how important it is to maintain this diversity in order to keep these vulnerable apex species healthy and stable. The groovy analysis from these scat samples will also provide tons of info about bear stress levels, parentage, and the trends and impacts of bear predation. Who knew poo could be so educational?
As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to the non-invasive, cost effective, kind of smelly, and highly informative research method of scat sampling. This method will hopefully allow the OURS project to collate an estimate of our Yukon bear populations and improve the scope of our bear-related knowledge. If you want to learn more about the project, check out the OURS Facebook and iNaturalist page and consider, come this spring, being part of the bear bowel movement collection crew!
OURS Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OURS.lf
OURS iNaturalist: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/operation-ursus-research-using-scat
Human of Many Talents
Joelle is a former archaeologist, former wildlife interpreter, and a full-time random fact enthusiast. She received her master’s degree in anthropology from McMaster University. One of the four people who read her thesis gave it the glowing review “It’s a paper that would appeal to very specific group of people,” which is probably why only four people have read it. Her favourite land mammal is a muskox, her favourite aquatic mammal is a narwhal. She thinks it’s important that you know that.