Faces & Places: Michael Proctor

When Kaslo-based Independent Research Scientist Michael Proctor went back to school at the age of 40, he was living in the wilderness across Kootenay Lake with the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy as his backyard. He and his wife had moved up from the States after buying a 40-acre piece of land near Kaslo with no road access. It was in this setting that he fell in love with wildlife and decided to take some open learning courses.

“I used to canoe across the lake to talk to my tutors by phone; I did 13 courses that way,” he said.

Eventually he went to Okanagan University College, a subsidiary of UBC at the time, to complete an undergraduate degree in ecology. Bears came into the picture after his first directed studies course on killer whales at the Bamfield Marine Station off the West Coast of Vancouver Island. When he was looking for a second field project to earn more university credits, a bear project was starting up in Revelstoke.

“It was the world’s first DNA bear census where we estimated population size by collecting hair off barbed wire. We were probably among the first to do that in the world with wildlife.”

The idea was the brainchild of preeminent bear scientist and Michael’s guru, Bruce McLellan, and Michael was the researcher who ran the pilot study. It laid the groundwork for what would become his career as an international expert in bear conservation.

“It was in the early days of the revolution of using DNA to answer wildlife questions and started spreading like wildfire,” said Michael. “Not only is it used in bears all over the world and most of the different bear species, but it’s also used in various forms with a whole suite of other animas, lynx, wolverines, tigers.”

Since that pivotal project, he’s led multiple large-scale grizzly bear surveys focused on the Purcell and Selkirk mountains; helped start a similar project on Spectacled bears in Ecuador; earned a PhD in Grizzly Bear Ecology from the University of Calgary; helped develop a multi-year research project on the Gobi bears in Mongolia that he continues to work with; and is the Principle researcher for the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project with a team of US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, designing and carrying out research and management to recover the internationally threatened grizzly bear populations spanning the Canada-US border in the South Selkirk and Purcell Mountains of southern B.C.

“The South Selkirks was a threatened small isolated population 10-15 years ago and after a decade of connectivity management we’re now documenting bears moving into the Selkirks, but they’re also reproducing and having kids and recovering that population.”

Using DNA surveys, Michael has been able to answer other more interesting questions, beyond population numbers.

“Recently we published a paper with a new twist. We’re using family pedigrees to monitor connectivity of populations, that is movement and gene flow leading to population recovery.

Next up is using genetics to look at reproductive success of females and relating that to habitat quality and food resources.

“That’s sort of the ultimate question in ecology, what contributes to fitness?” said Michael. “We’ve taken DNA from hair to understand Darwinian fitness related to habitat quality. That’s the top rung of my ladder. I’m pretty exited about that one.”

He sees all these techniques as applicable across the spectrum of wildlife, which is why he publishes his work in peer reviewed science journals.,

“I find bears are immensely fascinating,” he said. “They’re omnivores like humans are, and they are pretty smart. They’re a little bit dangerous and that makes the world more complex, and the wilderness more real… having grizzly bears out there means the world is really still wild and to me that represents a deeper connection in nature, in space across the landscape but also in time, backwards or forwards.”

“It’s a link to the wild and the past and the future, and that’s how I go through life.”

To learn more about the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project, click here.