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The ‘when’ of grizzly habitat


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By Caitlyn Spencer

David Laskin, a PhD student in geography, has won an NSERC Vanier award for his research on grizzly bear habitat and climate change in Alberta.

In collaboration with the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, and the Foothills Research Institute, Laskin is mapping out grizzly bear habitat using phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena.

“Currently, most habitat maps depict species’ ranges as static, unchanging blobs,” Laskin says. “Phenology allows a more dynamic approach. It’s not where grizzly habitat is, it’s when.”

Because grizzlies are predominantly herbivorous, the effects of climate change on the timing and availability of nutrition from plants can be severe. Grizzly bears must meet high fat and caloric intakes in order to successfully hibernate and reproduce. These stresses are exacerbated by resource extraction and other land-use practices within the province.

“A large male grizzly can eat up to 200,000 berries a day,” Laskin explains. “Bears have to eat a lot, but it’s not worthwhile unless a plant is at its most nutritious phenophase, or stage in its life cycle. The timing of this nutrition is a key factor in how grizzlies use their habitat.”

Laskin’s team is using satellite imagery and time-lapse camera networks to study when areas first begin to green up, and to monitor the cycles of key nutritional plants, such as alpine sweetvetch, Canada buffaloberry, and cow parsnip.

Laskin’s data will help not only those working toward grizzly conservation, but teams working with other species that also depend on seasonal vegetation. Studying plant growth in temperature-controlled laboratory settings, Laskin is also analyzing the predicted effects of climate change on plant phenology, and grizzly habitat.

The resulting phenology maps will help industry make environmentally informed decisions about when to take on development projects around the province.

“With our very active resource use in Alberta, we have to work with industry to inform them where and when areas are being used by bears,” says Laskin. “Using ecosystem phenology to understand how grizzlies use their environment allows us to better mitigate the impacts of land-use by industry.”