The Grizzly Bear – A Key Species in the Great Bear Rainforest

Page - June 8, 2010
Of the many animals of the Great Bear Rainforest, the grizzly bear is one of the most iconic, evocative of the wildness and abundance of life found within this special place.

@Andrew S Wright

Grizzlies require a wide range of habitats, so by protecting grizzly bears an ‘umbrella of protection’ is provided to countless other species in the Great Bear Rainforest. The health and well-being of the Great Bear Rainforest is also intrinsically tied to this important key species – as goes the grizzly bear, so goes the rainforest.

The grizzly bear once inhabited a vast range running north-south along western North America, from Mexico to Alaska. However, it has disappeared from much of its range. The Great Bear Rainforest remains the stronghold for the southern range of the coastal grizzly. In fact, Canada’s largest and densest concentrations of grizzlies are found in the Great Bear Rainforest. 

Grizzly bears have differing staple foods depending on where they live. Coastal grizzly bears depend heavily on salmon for their survival. The fat-rich salmon provide enough sustenance for the grizzly to be able to survive a long cold winter in hibernation in the Great Bear Rainforest. And it is a relationship that has a major positive impact on the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Grizzly bears (as well as the black bear and its genetic variant, the white ‘spirit’ bear) drag salmon carcasses from rivers and streams into nearby forests. In so doing, they ‘fertilize’ the forest floor. This is because salmon are nitrogen- and phosphorous- rich, so as they are dragged across the forest floor as carcasses, the process ultimately results in highly productive and diverse forests. This intrinsic relationship helps the Great Bear Rainforest maintain its high level of biodiversity.

The relationship between salmon and grizzly bear is such that if there is a negative impact to salmon or the grizzly’s habitat, the numbers begin to significantly drop. In recent years, chum salmon returns have seriously decreased in the Great Bear Rainforest. In the fall of 2009, local people reported that a majority of bears did not return to fall fishing grounds. There is major concern that grizzly bears starved in their dens over the previous winter due to lack of salmon in the feeding season before that.

@Andrew S Wright

The characteristics of the grizzly bear as a top predator also make it highly vulnerable to threats. Although it is an omnivore, because it relies heavily on salmon to make it through the winter, it is vulnerable to anything that impacts on salmon runs. It needs wide-ranging habitat and is slow to reproduce. As such, grizzly bears are considered not just a key species but also an ‘umbrella species’ because the protection of their habitats will result in an ‘umbrella of protection’ for a wide range of other species. The protected areas that have been set aside in the Great Bear Rainforest are not enough to sustain healthy populations of grizzly bear so it requires additional habitat set aside from logging. Trophy hunting of grizzly bears also continues to place their population at risk.

In British Columbia, grizzly bears are listed as a species of special concern (blue-listed) by both the provincial and federal governments. 

SOME INTERESTING FACTS

> Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) once extended north-south from Alaska to Mexico, and east-west from British Columbia to Manitoba

> Grizzly bears are now limited mainly to Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia; much smaller populations exist in Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the upper northwest of the United States

> Almost half of the Canadian grizzly population and a quarter of the North American population is thought to be in British Columbia

> There is a higher density of grizzly bears on the coast of British Columbia than in the interior due to the historic natural abundance of salmon which are nutrient- and fat- rich.

> Over 30 per cent of remaining grizzly bear habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest is protected in conservancies, parks, and biodiversity areas

> Outside of protected areas) new, more stringent logging regulations require considerable protection for the highest quality grizzly bear habitat (which have not been mapped).

> The biggest threats to the health of the grizzly bear population in the Great Bear Rainforest are trophy hunting and the decline of salmon. 

> Grizzly bears are listed as of special concern in British Columbia and threatened in Alberta and the United States 

> Humans are not the only species who create trails in the forest. Countless generations of grizzly bears following in each others footsteps have created well-worn trails deep into the dense forests of the Great Bear Rainforest. 

SOURCES

Horn, P., Arcese, K. Brunt, A. E. Burger, H. Davis, F. Doyle, K. Dunsworth, P. Friele, S. Gordon,  A. N. Hamilton, S. Hazlitt, G. MacHutchon, T. Mahon, E. McClaren, V. Michelfelder, B. Pollard, S. Taylor, F.L. Waterhouse. 2009.  Part 1:  Assessment of Co-location Outcomes and Implications for Focal Species Management under EBM. Report 1 of the EBM Working Group Focal Species Project. Integrated Land Management Bureau, Nanaimo, www.gov.bc.ca/slrp/lrmp/nanaimo/cencoast/ebmwg_docs/ei02c_report_3.pdf 

Raincoast Conservation Society. 2009. Grizzly Bears: at the Heart of Terrestrial Conservation, www.raincoast.org/projects/grizzly-bears/