Conservation and management of species at risk demands cost effective methods for rapidly monitoring change in animal abundance, distribution and physiologic health over time.
The value of our noninvasive approach was clearly demonstrated in our fist study employing detection dogs as part of a comprehensive monitoring program for large landscapes. Between 1999 and 2001, we examined impacts of human disturbance on grizzly and black bear populations on the east slope of the Canadian Rockies. These populations are exposed to a variety of human pressures including mining, forestry, oil and gas development and exploration, transportation corridors, trapping, hunting, and public recreational use. We also compared results from the dogs to data from hair-snag stations and radio-collared bears that other researchers gathered independently.
Detection dogs were trained to locate feces (scat) from grizzly and black bears, while sampling contiguous grid cells across the 5,200 km2 study area. Sample locations were recorded using a Global Positioning System (GPS). DNA extracted from feces indicated the species, gender, and identity of the individual that left each sample. Data on individual identifications were then applied to mark-recapture models to estimate population abundance. Stress and reproductive hormones extracted from these same fecal samples were used to indicate the physiologic health of these individuals. Data were layered onto a Geographic Information System (GIS) that also included location-specific data on human disturbances over the landscape.
DNA testing of samples showed that the dogs detected four times more individual grizzly bears per square mile than the hair-snag stations did. Statistical tests showed that the dog sampling was unbiased-all bears in the population had an equal probability of being detected. Telemetry provided massive amounts of data on the movements of nineteen radio-collared bears. In the end the telemetry showed the same bear distributions as the scat (Figures 1a-d), but at more than thirty-three times the cost (about $1,000,000 for telemetry versus $30,000 for the dog sampling). Moreover, two grizzly bears died and one was seriously injured as a result of the trapping-high stakes for a population of only 100threatened animals. That, more than anything else, made me appreciate the conservation value of our methods.
Grizzly bears, but not black bears, avoided areas of high tourist densities within the national park, while both species concentrated in the multiple human use areas outside the park. The bears appeared to be drawn to the ephemeral food sources created by the chronic disturbances in these multi-use areas. Grizzly bears also had lower levels of physiological stress, better body condition, and more successful reproduction in these high disturbance areas outside the park.