In this picture, I’m face to face with an anaesthetized 250-kilogram male grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), which was caught near Sparwood and Elkford in Canada. With help from conservation inspector Joe Caravetta, who is sitting next to me, and my field technician Laura Smit, I’m putting a GPS-enabled collar on the bear so that we can track his movements.
The first time I worked with a bear this size, it was absolutely exhilarating, a real adrenaline rush. I thought, “My whole head could fit inside this animal’s jaws.” Over time, it has become fairly routine. I learnt to trust the anaesthetic — a mix of drugs given using an air-powered dart gun — and we constantly monitor the bears’ vital signs.
While I’m attaching the collar, Laura collects hair samples for genetic studies. We measure the bear’s temperature and oxygen levels, and take hair samples to get an idea of his diet. We weigh him, which is quite a challenge: we use a custom-made tarpaulin with handles to wrap him up like a bear taco. We attach the handles to a hanging scale and, with a rope over a tree branch, winch him up. This particular bear is eight years old and has 29% body fat, which is very healthy for spring.
Ultimately, the collars will help us to reduce conflict between bears and the people who live in the area — I’ve seen bears rip shed doors off to get to livestock, and peel open an outdoor freezer like a can of sardines.
At times, it’s chaos for both humans and bears, and people react by shooting the bear — the most common cause of death for younger ones. Tracking bears with collars will help us to find solutions.
From tracking the bears, we’ve learnt that they are adapting their habits to avoid people, and they become more nocturnal as they get older. We’ve helped local communities to adapt, too: we’ve launched cost-share initiatives for electrical fencing, which is a really effective bear deterrent.