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Central Washington University

Unique Grizzly "Highway" Study Applies First Nations' Values to Research

An unprecedented collaboration between First Nations communities and scientists has revealed important information about grizzlies in coastal British Columbia. The study, which was published in Ecology and Society, was developed using practices and customs of the Heiltsuk People.

According to the article, the researchers looked to traditional Heiltsuk law, or Gvi'ilas, and consulted with community members, especially elders and hereditary chiefs to develop the project.

"This is a fundamental change in how scientific research is conducted," said Gerald Scoville, a Central Washington University biologist who worked on the study. "We strove to become part of the community while conducting our three-year study."

Incorporating First Nations' values was critical to how the study was planned, continued Scoville, and human intervention was kept to a minimum.

Roughly 57 bears were found to be travelling hundreds of miles to feed on the remote autumn-spawning waters of the Koeye River. The area is located in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest, and is the ancestral home to the Heiltsuk First Nation. Since the “grizzly highway” was linked to another important resource, salmon, First Nation conservation practices were used to monitor the relationship between the bears and the salmon, and observe how declines in the fish population mirrored declines in the bear population.

“We built scented, but unbaited enclosures along the trail, that were designed to gather fur from the bears in a non-invasive manner,” he said. In the past, he explained, a common practice would have been to tranquilize and radio-collar individual animals to track them.”

The scientists collected the fur from the enclosures and ran DNA analyses to determine how many individual bears were moving through the area. The analyses also revealed which bears returned to the area, and the period of time that the bears were on the move.

“All this information was gathered without capture or harassing the grizzlies,” said Scoville. “It’s a paradigm shift in resource management. Designing research in a socio-cultural framework of the original stewards of the land—such as the Heiltsuk or the Yakama or other Northwestern tribes—can transform the way environmental and ecological studies are carried out.”


The article, “Grizzly bear monitoring by the Heiltsuk people as a crucible for First
Nation conservation practice,” can be found at www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol19/iss2/art70/.

Photo by Ian McAllister, Pacific Wild, Searwater, BC, Canada

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518, valeriec@cwu.edu

September 3, 2014