Research Scientist and Program Lead, Grizzly Bear Program, fRI Research

Gordon Stenhouse

If you’ve seen a photo of a grizzly bear wearing radio collar in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, it’s likely a bear being studied by fRI Research – a non-profit corporation that works to develop peer-reviewed science to support and improve land and resource management decisions. Indeed, few understand why wildlife monitoring matters in an era of finite resources and how research can impact policy making – it’s why fRI is committed to making their science more understandable and their tools more accessible. With that in mind, we asked fRI’s Gordon Stenhouse to share with us, by email, why wildlife research still matters and what it takes to ask the better questions.

It seems like we live in a world with too much information. Make the case for why we still have more to learn; why wildlife monitoring still matters?

I have had a fairly long career studying bears in Canada and for the past 23 years I have been fortunate to be able to study and learn more about grizzly bears in Alberta. During this time, our team continues to gather new data, using new techniques and technology that provides new insights into the lives and behaviour of this elusive species. For example, we have learned things in the past few years, from long term data sets, about the social dynamics of bears that biologists had never known about. Gaining new insights into how wildlife uses a landscape that they share with humans is key to conservation planning and ensuring that we continue to recognize the needs of all creatures on this planet.

How has your research led to better decisions? Is it important to have local context when it comes to making decisions on development projects in, say, grizzly bear habitat?

The research that we have completed on grizzly bears in Alberta has produced the first habitat maps of key grizzly bear habitat in the province. We have also provided the first provincial data set which documents the current population size of provincial grizzly bear habitat and through the use of grizzly bear movement data, habitat maps and DNA results we have documented the key or core grizzly bear areas in the province which require special management actions and attention. Once these areas were identified, our long-term data and published research papers allowed the government and industry to agree with the need for open road density thresholds for these habitats in order to ensure high levels of grizzly bear survival. All this work was done at regional scales, using local data to make sound management decisions. Our research partners, which include industry, have accepted management and policy changes from this work since it is science based.

Science often begins with a question and that question will often determine the scope of research. How do you decide how much – or how little – context to include in a research study?

My research efforts have always focused on our Program Goal Statement: “To provide scientific data and knowledge and planning tools to support the long-term conservation of grizzly bears in Alberta”. Thus, all our research is directed at co-existence on a shared landscape. Yes, we have many research questions and they always represent applied research which we hope will support our program goal. The context of our research questions therefore are always tied to supporting the long-term conservation of the species. And, of course, like all scientific endeavors one question usually results in others that follow from answering the first.

Should the results of your research be the final word on land-use planning, or do we need to bring societal ethics, culture and economics into the equation?

There is always the need to make land use planning decisions based upon a suite of values and issues. Science can help inform the decision-making process but often there are other values and issues that always need to be considered.  We hope that by providing strong scientific data it will help managers understand the possible outcomes of management decisions.

Everyone has biases. Some scientists we’ve spoken with believe strongly that the scientific process removes bias from the findings, while others have said that there is no such thing as an unbiased study. What are your thoughts? How do you tackle bias – real or perceived?

I always believe that scientific data speaks for itself and that scientists must accept their results even if they do not support preconceived notions or bias. The challenge scientists face is when it comes down to interpreting scientific results in an open and honest manner, which is usually seen in management recommendations. The key is to not extend beyond what the data reveals and clearly articulate statements that are opinion or speculation. A scientist needs to be honest with their work and belief systems when presenting or publishing their work.

fRI Research believes strongly in peer reviewed science. Can you simply explain what the peer review process is like and why it matters?

The peer review process is a key component to scientific research. The process can be lengthy, sometimes over a year from submission to actual publication, but the review process ensures scientific rigor and a high level of scrutiny which results in better papers at the end of the process. Most researchers do not enjoy the process, but recognize its importance. It is in fact an integral part of science for all disciplines. However, the peer review process is not perfect.

fRI is also committed to the democratization of science – by using accessible language when publishing your findings, by being transparent with your process, by sharing the tools you use with the community. Why is this important? Can it help restore the public’s faith in science?

Making scientific results available to all, and in a manner that is clear and easily understood, is a responsibility of all scientists and we make great efforts to ensure that we continue to do this for all our research topics. We believe these efforts will support the public’s faith in science, but recognize that some members of the public will not believe scientific findings.

How do you manage finite resources to monitor wildlife? How do you decide what to study? Is there a top priority, a wish list of research you want to lead?

We have “activity teams” that help provide program direction. All of our research topics are raised by program partners and focused on applied research questions. Of course, I always aid and provide input into new areas of research and, yes, I do have my own personal list of key questions that have yet to be answered.

Is technology making wildlife monitoring less intrusive on the animal and more affordable for society?

Yes, some new technologies have helped in the world of wildlife monitoring, but one needs to be careful with the use and application of some of these technologies and to understand their limitations. We also need to recognize that new technologies cannot answer all questions, and that invasive techniques can have impacts on both the animals being studied and the data produced.

What’s is the most interesting finding you’ve made monitoring wildlife?

In Alberta, we translocate “conflict bears” long distances. I have been amazed how animals travel through new habitats and travel very large distances to often return to their original home ranges.

Given what you’ve learned through this work – and through your life – what is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew at 15?

If you will work with wildlife, you will always need to work with people and it is essential that you develop great communication and listening skills. You will also need to be able to clearly explain to others what you are studying and inspire them with your enthusiasm and knowledge. I knew at 15 that I wanted to study and work with animals and I followed my dream and it has worked out beyond my wildest dreams. I have seen places on this planet that few have and worked with wildlife species I only had read about. I have been truly fortunate.

Gordon Stenhouse gave us a better sense of why, in a time of few resources, knowing what we don’t know is still worth exploring. After all, in the struggle to understand threats to biodiversity and what needs to be done to protect threatened species, science can help create a basis of knowledge to frame or even resolve a debate between policy makers, land developers and conservation advocates.

• Do you believe that we still have more information to learn about human impact on nature in order to make informed decisions? Even in a time of finite resources?

• When studying the localized impact of development on wildlife, are we including too much or too little context in order to get the best answer?

• Does fRI Research bring a bias to their work? If you think they have a bias, is it real or just perceived, based on their clients? Do you have more faith in fRI’s research given their commitment to peer reviewed science?

• Should wildlife monitoring research results be the final word on land-use decisions or should decisions also include ethics, culture and economics?

• How important is it that scientific researchers commit to transparency in their work, helping democratize the process by making their tools and findings available to all, free of jargon?

Over to you.

Simon Jackson