A recently released study from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) details a new method using “detection dogs,” genetic analysis, and scientific models to assess habitat suitability for bears in an area linking the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) to the northern U.S. Rockies.
The method, according to the authors, offers an effective, non-invasive approach to the collection of data that could play a vital role in the further recovery of grizzly bears during the coming decades.
“The use of detection dogs allowed us to quantify and map key areas of habitat for black bears in the Centennial Mountains located along the Idaho-Montana border west of Yellowstone National Park,” said Jon Beckmann, WCS Scientist and lead author of the study. “Black bears are a proxy species useful for predicting likely grizzly bear habitat. With recovery, a larger grizzly bear population needs room to roam and to reconnect with other populations. The Centennial Mountains region of the U.S. northern Rockies can provide room and safe linkages— critical to connecting the bear population in the GYE area to others further north and west”.
During the study, two Labrador retrievers and two German shepherds owned and trained by Working Dogs for Conservation, located 616 scat samples of black bears and 24 of grizzly bears (identified by DNA extraction and analysis) in the 2500 square kilometer (965 square mile) study area.
“Dogs excel at searching for multiple scents at once, even if one is far more common than the other,” according to Aimee Hurt, Working Dogs for Conservation co-founder. “In this case, the dogs easily alerted us to a multitude of black bear scat, while also readily locating the rare grizzly bear scat, resulting in a multitude of data points and a robust model.”
“We recognize that black bears do not always utilize the landscape in precisely the same manner as grizzly bears,” said Beckmann. “But given the paucity of grizzly bears in the study area—especially during the years of our study—our approach, data, and model have value to grizzly bear conservation and management. This is especially true given that black bears and grizzly bears in the GYE are known to utilize very similar habitats spatially, but at different times.”
Plugging the scat sample location data into their scientific model, the scientists examined the landscape with respect to habitat parameters, private lands, public land management and human activity in the area. Results of modeling provided insight into bear habitat use and resource selection patterns.
Among the findings it was determined that distance to roads matters; bears use habitat that is farther from roads, and when road density increased within 4 kilometers of a location bears used that habitat less. Bears also used a habitat less if it were high elevation, or privately owned. With this information land managers, land trusts, and others will be better informed to make bear habitat management and conservation decisions. This study may also inform human-bear conflict avoidance, and so help people and bears better co-exist.
“Using Detection Dogs and RSPF Models to Assess Habitat Suitability for Bears in Greater Yellowstone,” appears in the current edition of Western North American Naturalist. Co-authors include: Jon P. Beckmann of WCS; Lisette P. Waits of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, University of Idaho; Aimee Hurt and Alice Whitelaw of Working Dogs for Conservation; and Scott Bergen of Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
WCS’s work in this region is supported by the Turner Foundation, Wilburforce Foundation, Brainerd Foundation, The New York Community Trust, and the Bureau of Land Management–Dillon, Montana office.