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Bear hair links less salmon with more stress

Heather Bryan, a PhD student studying how grizzlies might respond to a decline in salmon stocks, received an award for her presentation at an international meeting in July. Photo by Padraig DuignanHeather Bryan, a PhD student studying how grizzlies might respond to a decline in salmon stocks, received an award for her presentation at an international meeting in July. Photo by Padraig DuignanHeather Bryan, a PhD student in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, has won an award at an international meeting of the Wildlife Disease Association (WDA) for her presentation of research into how the decline in salmon in coastal B.C. might affect grizzly bears.

Working with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a not-for-profit research and public education organization in B.C., Bryan and her supervisor, Judit Smits, are part of a research team analyzing hair from grizzlies to see how they are responding to the decline in salmon stocks.

“The hair tells us about the genetics, the diet, and the hormones of the bear. When we piece that together, we see that over time, bears that are eating less salmon show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” says Bryan.

The research team collected hair left behind by both grizzly and black bears at barb-wired snagging stations set up along 5,000 square kilometres of the central coast of B.C. between 2009 and 2011.

“We can get all of our data from just taking a few of little strands of hair,” Bryan says. “Instead of capturing and handling the bears, we use these barb-wired fences to collect little tufts of hair, and that’s where we do all of our analysis.”

Bryan presented her work at the 61st International Conference of the WDA at the end of July in Lyon, France, where she received the Terry Amundson Presentation Award. She says she is thrilled to have won, and honoured to be chosen over 20 student presenters at the conference, which had about 550 registrants from 60 different countries.

She also presented her research at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, Ore. in early August. Bryan says long-term monitoring of grizzlies will be important to fully examine their response.

"Potentially, if salmon declines continue, we may see higher stress in bear populations. Stress has been linked with a number of long-term health consequences," Bryan says. "Salmon are very important to bears and it's possible in the future that increased stress will have implications not only for individual bear health but also population health."