William Housty, a director with the Qqs Society, says they've found that the grizzly bears under study are travelling hundreds of kilometres each year along preferred routes — and one trail in particular along the salmon-producing Koeye River.
"The bears walk in the same steps every time. Their feet are imprinted in the trail," he told CBC News. "You can follow these trails and really walk the same highway the bears walk."
Researchers from the Heiltsuk First Nation, combining traditional knowledge with scientific principles and techniques, have not only determined the grizzlies' territory is likely much larger than they expected —they've also found that there are more of the salmon-feeding bears than they thought.
For three years, Housty and other bear-trackers have lived alongside the bears.
"We were interacting with these bears, we were bumping into them on trails, and really came to the conclusion that we knew nothing," he said.
Part of the study involved setting wires hair-snares scented to attract the bears to rub up against them.
The researchers then collected the fur left behind, and sent the fur samples for DNA analysis to do genetic comparisons.
Housty says everyone was surprised to discover there were up to 65 grizzlies living in the Koeye River system alone.
"You know, it was staggering to know there was that many bears. We'd had figured that maybe we were dealing with 10 or 12 bears, based on the ones that we've seen. So it tells us a lot about the health of the system. It tells us that the salmon is fairly healthy," he said.
Housty said the research has given the Heiltsuk a clearer understanding of the size and shape of the bear sanctuary.
They now plan to expand their grizzly bear survey to other salmon streams in the area to help inform a management plan for the region.
Google Maps: Koeye Dam and Fishway