Where did their toes go?
That was the mystery UBC Okanagan postdoctoral researcher Dr. Clayton Lamb set out to solve.
Lamb came across the phenomenon of grizzly bears with missing toes in the southeast corner of B.C. while conducting a live-capture research project for the University of Alberta. He was looking into the survival rate and movement of the species and noticed several of the bears were missing some of their front toes.
“The first bear that we saw could have been explained as an accident or kind of a one-off type situation, but we ended up catching four other bears. In the end, this was about seven per cent of the bears we caught and we realized something kind of larger going on. It was a bit of a trend,” explains Lamb.
The researchers discussed the issue with trappers, Indigenous communities, scientists, conservation officers, wildlife managers and guide outfitters. By comparing data they discovered a pattern and confirmed reports of grizzly bears that were killed with small mammal body-gripping traps still locked onto their feet.
To test their theory, they set up four traps rigged so they could trigger but not fully close. CCTV video showed grizzlies visited all four traps and sprung two of them.
“Even with the small sample, it was clear that baited traps attracted bears and that bears set off the traps to get the food. We have pictures and videos showing the bears investigating the traps and manipulating the boxes with their paws,” said Lamb.
The researchers also determined it wasn’t the initial snap of the trap that caused the bears to lose their toes, but the prolonged duration of the trap stuck on their foot.
So, what can be done?
Lamb notes most of the bears seemed to manage after losing toes, but to prevent pain and suffering he’s making two recommendations.
He’s suggesting that the trapping season for animals like weasels and martens be delayed from November 1 to early December, when most grizzlies will be hibernating. The other recommendation is to change the design of the traps.
“The humane trapping standards have actually been changing quite a bit in the last say, 20 years.
In some ways it’s a bit of a paradox in that as wildlife managers and trappers are trying to make traps more ethical so that they humanely kill the target species, they now are very strong.”
He’d like to see the box part of the trap narrowed so that the target species can get inside, but bears can’t reach in with their paws.
Despite the unfortunate digit-damaging consequence to the bears from these traps, Dr. Lamb notes that the grizzly population in southeast B.C. is quite healthy. He says where he lives, in the Elk Valley, there are about 180 of the species co-existing amidst all the human activity, including ski hills and coal mines.
His research was recently published in the scientific publication Wildlife Society.