Grizzly census a slow slog

When Ramona Maraj's pager goes off at 1 a.m., it's usually a grizzly bear calling.

When Ramona Maraj’s pager goes off at 1 a.m., it’s usually a grizzly bear calling.

Maraj is Yukon’s carnivore biologist, and her pager buzzes when one of her traps is tripped.

She’s conducting the first major study of how many grizzlies live in the Southern Lakes region, which is framed by the BC border to the south, the Alaska Highway to the east and north, and Kusawa Lake to the west.

It’s an important question for the territory’s wildlife managers, because without knowing the size and health of the grizzly population, it’s impossible to effectively regulate the grizzly hunt.

And grizzly bears, along with other big animals such as moose, face a growing threat in southern Yukon.

It’s us.

Housing and roads have eaten into grizzly habitat. And what wilderness remains may now be easily accessed by hunters, thanks to the growing popularity of all-terrain vehicles.

Remote valleys and alpine meadows that once took several days to reach by horse may now be accessed within a few hours from Whitehorse.

Typically, residents of the Southern Lakes region report the deaths of two grizzly sows annually. That’s “quite high” for the population density found in the area, said Maraj.

Population estimates from the 1980s put the Southern Lakes grizzly population at about 90.

Resident hunters are able to shoot one grizzly every three years. There’s no total allowable harvest for grizzlies.

The last time outfitters hunted grizzlies in the Southern Lakes area was in the late 1990s or early 2000s, said conservation officer Ryan Hennings.

Maraj’s study should take at least five years, and her first season’s work is just about wrapped up, as bears are currently digging their winter dens.

She’s gotten off to a slow start. She hoped to capture 40 grizzlies to fit with radio-transmitting collars, which allow Maraj to later track the bears’ movements during helicopter surveys.

She’s gotten eight so far. Three are females, which are the ones that matter if you’re interested in calculating a population’s birth rate, as Maraj is.

She catches bears with a variety of traps. Some use padded snares concealed in long plastic tubes. Others lure bears into metal cages or culverts. All are designed to ensure the bear stays put, without harming the animal.

To entice grizzlies, the traps are baited with fermented seal meat, which Maraj attests is “definitely smelly.”

Unfortunately, the bait attracts more than grizzlies.

Maraj has been more successful in catching black bears – which are more populous and resilient than grizzlies, and so are not as big of a conservation concern.

When a trap is tripped, a signal bounces from it up to a satellite and back down to a phone service, which buzzes Maraj’s pager.

Once Maraj finds a captured bear, she and her technician, Molly Kirk, sedate the animal, give it a battery of tests and fit it with a radio collar.

They rig up a metal tripod to weigh the animal. They pull a tooth, which can be used to tell how old a bear is.

They take hair samples and a plug of fat, which can both indicate the animal’s diet. And she collects a blood sample to determine the animal’s health.

It all takes about an hour.

All this work is intrusive, but necessary, if we’re to gather the best possible information with which to manage the grizzly population, said Maraj.

To understand how the grizzly population is faring in Southern Lakes, she needs to know a lot more than the number of bears.

She also needs to establish the grizzly’s birth and death rates, as well as their range and movements.

Grizzlies that decline in one area may be replaced by bears from elsewhere that move in to fill the vacuum. Unless those movements are understood, the decline may go unnoticed.

And grizzlies can cover a lot of ground. It’s not uncommon for males to cover 70 kilometres in a day. “They definitely truck from place to place,” said Maraj.

Maraj also captured several grizzlies without traps, by darting the animals during her periodic helicopter surveys. She could have caught more, but on a few occasions she decided against darting sows with young cubs.

“I thought, ‘That cub’s too young,’” she said.

The bear’s breathing and pulse is carefully monitored while it’s tranquilized. Nevertheless, a bear will occasionally react badly to the powerful drugs and die.

None died under Maraj’s watch this summer.

But, once collared and released, a bear is occasionally shot, such as a boar that ventured up a driveway along Annie Lake Road this summer.

The death of every collared bear is a setback for Maraj’s research, which is why the territorial government is urging hunters to not shoot collared animals.

There’s only one other extensive study of a grizzly population that’s been undertaken in the Yukon, on the territory’s North Slope. That study began in 2004 and should wrap up next year.

The Southern Lakes project costs about $150,000 annually. Like so much else having to do with the project, its end date will not be determined by Maraj, but by the bears she studies.

“They run my life,” she said. “They manage me.”

Contact John Thompson at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Yukon skip Laura Eby, left, directs her team as Team Northern Ontario skip Krysta Burns looks on at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary on Feb. 22. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Team Yukon reports positive experience at Scotties

Team Yukon played their final game at the national championship in Calgary on Thursday afternoon

A sign indicating a drop-off area behind Selkirk Elementary school in Whitehorse on Feb. 25. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Parking lot proposal for Selkirk Elementary criticized

Parents and school council are raising concerns about green space and traffic woes


Wyatt’s World for Feb. 26, 2021

Josi Leideritz, the executive director for the Yukon Quest International Association (Canada), poses for a photo in Whitehorse on Oct.1, 2020. The Quest announced plans for its 2022 race to start in Fairbanks on Feb. 5. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2022 Quest planning gets underway

Race would begin Feb. 5 in Fairbanks

Beadwork and boots being sold by the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association. A survey from StatsCan reveals the number of Indigenous people who make handmade crafts. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Survey reveals number of Yukoners who speak Indigenous languages

Yukon is behind Nunavut and Northwest Territories when it comes to language retention

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read