Jim Elliot/ Yukon News
Lucille Fressigne shows off one of the bear scat sampling kits at the centre of a citizen-science project she is coordinating on May. 26.

Jim Elliot/ Yukon News Lucille Fressigne shows off one of the bear scat sampling kits at the centre of a citizen-science project she is coordinating on May. 26.

Project seeks to unlock the secrets of Yukon bear scat

Volunteers are needed to collect samples which will help with bear population estimates.

A lot can be learned from what bears leave behind as they stroll through the Yukon’s forests.

Paw prints in the dirt, berry bushes picked clean and deep scratches in the bark of trees can all serve as clues, but one group of researchers has focused their attention on the piles of bear scat left behind — and they are looking for volunteers who are willing to bag it up for them.

The main objective of collecting the feces samples is as a less invasive way of collecting the bear’s DNA, but there are other things it can teach as well.

Lucile Fressigne, one of the organizers of the project called Operation Ursus Research using Scat (OURS) said the main goal of the work is a more reliable estimate of grizzly and black bear populations in the Yukon.

Fressigne, who has a PHD in molecular and cellular biology, organized a pilot project last year focusing on the Southern Lakes region. She said the pilot study was mainly meant to engage with the community and see if having volunteers collect bear feces while they were out hiking or biking would be feasible. She said between 20 and 25 volunteers collected 90 per cent of the samples sent off to the lab in last year’s pilot project.

With the public’s interest in participating in a citizen science project established, Fressigne said they are eagerly awaiting the results of the laboratory analysis. She said results are slow in coming from the lab at Queen’s University she is collaborating with due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fressigne said the lab scientists believe they have successfully isolated DNA from the stool samples, but now they have to wait for a genetic analysis in order to identify the specific bear it came from. Once bears have been identified based on the DNA, the data can be used to come up with a population estimate for the study area.

“So this year is part of a two-year project where we’re going to try to sample as much as possible,” she said.

The study will focus on the Southern Lakes Region as well as the area around Beaver Creek. Fressigne said they plan to start by focusing on smaller areas to show that the project is viable before expanding.

New Technology

Fressigne said DNA surveys are generally done using hair snags which entice bears to brush or rub up against barbed wire leaving behind clumps of fur which can then be analyzed.

The technology for learning the identity of the bear that left it from the DNA left behind in the scat is still under development.

“That is new technology that is cheaper, and easy and fast. So if that can be successful, it would be really important for monitoring bears. That’s the problem, we don’t have much data on them because it’s expensive and hard to study them,” Fressigne said.

Accurate population estimates can assist with making management decisions regarding bears. Fressigne noted that since 2018, grizzly bears have been listed as a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act.

Beyond identifying bears by their DNA, Fressigne said other interesting details will also be detected in the study. She offered the example of traces of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, which will allow researchers to compare stress levels for bears spending time near roads and highways with those living deep in the woods.

Fressigne said the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, the White River First Nation in Beaver Creek and the Carcross/Tagish First Nation are engaged with the project. She said Kwanlin Dün was particularly interested in whether bears were a major predator of ungulates on their traditional territories.

For the work toward a better understanding of the bear population to continue, more assistance from the public with the collection of scat samples will be needed.

Tools of the trade

The OURS kits contain detailed instructions on how to sample bear scat while avoiding cross contamination of DNA. Samples must be logged using a cell phone app called iNaturalist and promptly frozen to preserve the DNA.

Kits are available at the CPAWS office in Whitehorse, the Mt. Lorne Community Centre, the Marsh Lake Community Centre and at the mail boxes by the restaurant at the Carcross Cutoff.

Volunteers are asked to contact OURS for more information on how to pick up and drop off the kits. They can reach out either by emailing ours.lfressigne@gmail.com or by searching Operation Ursus Research using Scat on Facebook or Instagram. The pickup and drop off boxes are secured with padlocks so people will need to contact Fressigne in order to gain access.

The Facebook page contains helpful resources including a video showing the correct way to sample the scat.

Those who submit scat samples will be eligible to win prizes including Canadian Tire gift cards.

Contact Jim Elliot at jim.elliot@yukon-news.com

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