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DNA technology helps track grizzlies

Hair samples of grizzly bears were gathered from a non-invasive trap in Montana's Glacier National Park
 
ENN



March 21, 2000
Web posted at: 11:44 a.m. EST (1644 GMT)

There's a lot to be learned from the hair of a bear.

Katherine Kendall, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has pioneered a way to identify grizzly bears in Montana's Glacier National Park that does not require human contact with the species.

"Grizzlies are a solitary and secretive animal with huge home ranges," Kendall said Monday at a press conference in Washington D.C. "We have developed a technique that will help monitor them over time."

Using trees that the grizzlies frequently rub against as well as baited barbed wire, Kendall collects small samples of bear hair and bear scat. She then sends the samples to a laboratory, where DNA fingerprinting technology is applied to identify genetic variation, gender and relatedness of individual bears.

No reliable information exists on the status of the area's grizzly or black bear populations. Listed under the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies have been eliminate from 99 percent of their original range.

Glacier National Park is one of their last strongholds. To preserve the bears, park managers need to know how many bears exist and whether their populations are growing or shrinking.

If successful, Kendall's work could open new doors for grizzly bear recovery efforts throughout the United States.

"This is the first attempt to make sense of the Glacier grizzly population," said Louisa Wilcox, project coordinator for the Sierra Club's Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project. "Population studies have been conducted in particular areas but none have been conducted in a way that allows you to say something about the ecosystem as a whole. [Kendall's study] is some of the most rigorous work that is being done on grizzlies."

Previous grizzly population studies in forested habitats such as Glacier were often accomplished with radio telemetry. But that technique, which has been used to monitor bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is costly and can be disruptive to bears and park visitors.

While radio monitoring involves capture, sedation and air patrol, Kendall's technique provides a quiet, non-invasive means of tracking. And DNA methodology is faster than other techniques. With DNA fingerprinting, population results can be gathered in one year rather than the five years required with radio telemetry.

"It is hard to deal with bears," Kendall said. "To measure bear populations with a radio involves people experienced in bear-trapping. That requires a great amount of training."

The relative simplicity of Kendall's approach has allowed her to round up a generous group of volunteers for her research. The EarthWatch Institute offers nine 10-day expeditions that enlist volunteers to help Kendall gather data.

So far, 212 grizzlies have been identified in Glacier from thousands of hair and scat samples. Kendall hopes her work might eventually be combined with similar DNA research on grizzly bears in other areas such as Canada.

"Most [grizzly] population measures so far have not been reliable or biologically sound," said Wilcox. "Kendall might help us answer some of the biggest grizzly bear questions of the day. This is a real adventure and we are all hoping for the best results."

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved




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RELATED SITES:
Kendall's project
The Earthwatch Institute
Grizzly bear recovery
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Sierra Club's Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project.

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