Researching the Great Grizzlies of the Koeye River

Project Update:
  • Standing Up for Bears: An Intrepid Group of Young First Nations Leaders Are Watching Out for the Bears They Live With

The glassy river pulsates with leaping and splashing silver salmon. Bald eagles glide overhead, eyes trained on the banquet below. On the shore, also with lunch on its mind, is a black grizzly bear, partially camouflaged by the dense foliage of the Pacific coast rainforest.

William Housty knows this bear. “He’s big, a 600-pounder,” William says, and a regular on the Koeye River (pronounced Kway).

This bear’s DNA has turned up among the grizzly hair samples that William, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, has collected as part of the Coastwatch Grizzly Bear Project he runs with the support of The Nature Conservancy. The project is documenting the bear population along this river within northwestern Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.

To collect the hair samples, William hikes into the Koeye River wilderness and places salmon-scented bait within wire snares that are strategically located to snag grizzly hair. That he smells like a walking salmon on these forays doesn’t faze him.

“I know the bears are around, but I don’t feel threatened by them,” says the soft-spoken 28-year-old and rising Heiltsuk leader. “Bears are smart. If you respect them, they’ll respect you.”

Keeping Watch Over the Grizzlies and the Koeye

Not long ago, a grizzly sighting along the Koeye might have been rare. In the 1990s, about 200 acres at the mouth of the Koeye were clear-cut, and plans were underway to log the whole river valley. In addition, logging in surrounding watersheds reduced the food supply for bears.

“Planes were landing here, there was logging and the bears were pushed out of this habitat,” explains William.

But now, grizzlies are here — lots of them. The grizzly DNA that William and his Heiltsuk colleague Jordan Wilson have gathered over the last 5 years indicates perhaps more than one grizzly per linear mile of river — making the Koeye a veritable grizzly bear highway.

What Happened to Bring Back the Grizzlies?

To save the forest and its wildlife, the Heiltsuk First Nation people re-asserted their rights as the guardians of the Koeye River. The Heiltsuk settled here along what is now coastal British Columbia over 9,000 years ago. Their culture and livelihoods depend on a healthy rainforest and waters.

To continue their tradition of stewardship, Heiltsuk leaders, including William’s father and grandfather, established the Qqs Project Society (pronounced Kucks and means “eyes” in Heiltsuk). The Qqs project mobilized prominent allies to stop the logging, which would have ruined the streams where the salmon spawn.

The group established the Coastwatch program to monitor and prevent illegal hunting and fishing. They also successfully pushed for protection of all lands in the Heiltsuk nation. The Heiltsuk, the Conservancy and other partners are now working on a conservation management plan for the area.

“The Heiltsuk are the personification of hope,” says Richard Jeo, the Conservancy’s Canada Program director. “They have protected their land for thousands of years and their vision of the future is what will sustain these unique lands for their people and the rich wildlife here.”

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Smelling Like a Salmon in Grizzly Land

To conduct their research, William and Jordan canoe up the Koeye to gather hair samples. The enclosures — knee-high, made of single strands of loose barbed wire — surround salmon-scented duff piles. Or, as William likes to call them, “nice, stinky little bear cocktails.” To get at their cocktails, the bears crawl under the wire — and their hair catches on the barbs.

Some of the 16 enclosures are deep in grizzly country requiring William and Jordan to hike sometimes 20 miles carrying salmon bait. They’ve had some interesting encounters. Like the time they were canoeing and William poked his paddle at what he thought was a submerged log. Only it was a very startled bear. Or the time they came upon two large cubs on the trail and didn’t see the mom until she snorted and huffed; she was right behind them.

The researchers carry bear spray and noisemakers but rarely use them.

“Usually we know when the bears are around. We can feel it. Or we can hear them. They’re big and they crash through the trees,” says William.

The hair samples identify specific bears and shed some light on where the bears have traveled from to reach the Koeye.

“2008 was a big year for grizzlies,” says William. “We know there were at least 60 grizzlies here. And that’s just in the lower watershed alone. We haven’t even sampled in the upper watershed.”

Future research will reveal whether this large number is typical or if the population fluctuates from year to year.

Salmon: Foundation of the Rainforest

What the researchers do know is that the bears go where salmon numbers are highest, and typically that is during spawning.

Salmon is the foundation of the rainforest. The emerald green forest and its rich mossy understory are all fertilized by salmon remains. Salmon are the main food for not only grizzly bears, but black bears, wolves, marten, mink, eagles and other wildlife.

Now because of the watchful eyes and protection of the Heiltsuk Qqs Projects Society and the Coastwatch program, the Koeye retains its magic. And the grizzlies remain kings of the Heiltsuk rainforest.