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This Timeless Living Document Is Helping Scientists Discover More About Bears

In order to find bears, the scientific method had to reach back to a story told about the beginning of time itself.

This Timeless Living Document Is Helping Scientists Discover More About Bears
[Image: Grizzly bears via Shutterstock]

The Heiltsuk People lived in the Pacific Northwest before Captain George Vancouver sailed through it, before the fur traders arrived, and before, they say, the great flood. In Heiltsuk oral history, the First Nation has shared nearly 10 million acres of mountain, red cedar forest, and British Columbia coastline with bears since time began.

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Carbon-dating shows that the Heiltsuk have lived in the area for at least 9,700 years. Today, though, the 2,200-person population now lives in one town, Bella Bella, an old village that became the de facto Heiltsuk community after European-carried diseases decimated Heiltsuk families across the territory. Between commercial fishing interests, climate change, provincial rules, and federal governance, the Heiltsuk have lost a significant amount of control over the natural resources they’ve relied on–and shared history with–for millennia.

According to William Housty, Heiltsuk First Nation member and coastwatch director at the local social and environmental Qqs Society, the Heiltsuk were regularly told they didn’t have enough adequate science behind them to chime in on resource management decisions–like endangered grizzly bear trophy hunting, which the Heiltsuk have opposed for years. So, over the course of three years, Housty and several other Heiltsuk researchers started doing their own science. Using clever, noninvasive snares that tracked grizzly bear DNA across hundreds of miles, they discovered a hidden grizzly bear migration highway down to the mouth of the nearby Koeye river.

The resulting paper, which relied on both DNA analysis as well as cultural principles passed down verbally for generations translated into a written document, recently published details of the bear highway in Ecology and Society. Chris Filardi, a co-author and director of the Pacific Program at the American Museum of Natural History, says it’s the first of its kind.

“I’ve never cited an undated living document in a paper before,” Filardi says.

The discovery of the bear highway itself came as a surprise, too. Housty, who runs an environmental education program at the mouth of the river for two months every summer, says he and his campers had seen bears around the beaches, but never anticipated that so many were making the migration.

They only discovered how many bears were actually roaming the wilderness after creating roughly 30 triangular patches of knee-high snares. Housty and other researchers soaked moss with salmon oil, waited for the bears to come along and rub themselves in it, then analyzed the hairs–which could be traced to 57 individual bears–on the wire. This way, the researchers avoided shooting the grizzlies full of sedatives, attaching tracking collars to them, and catching them again later for analysis.

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“The amount of bears I had seen in my travels through the watershed, I figured there were 12 to 15 bears. That was really astounding to me,” Housty says. “That also opened up a whole other chapter in our studies, because of the salmon availability.”

Salmon availability in rivers in the Pacific Northwest has declined over the years, largely due to climate change and overfishing, but the amount of salmon in the Koeye has remained abundant. So being able to track the bears means being able to track a major part of a rare, thriving salmon ecosystem: Salmon to bears, bears to plants, plants to insects, and so on and so forth. According to Housty’s grandmother’s oral history, salmon originated from a Heiltsuk carpenter seeding the waters with fish-shaped carvings, which were then directed to return and feed his people.

Such intimate spiritual and historical ties inform the Heiltsuk’s land use plan and ethical guidelines, the living document cited in the study. Using that plan to guide research of the grizzly bear highway in a major publication lends scientific credibility to the Heiltsuk, and thus a seat at the resource management bargaining table, Housty adds.

“Because the lifecycle of all our resources are so intricate, it’s a cascading effect. If one thing falls, everything falls after,” Housty says. “By publishing this paper, we’re hoping it’s a step in the right direction not just for us, but for all First Nations.”

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About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data

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