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Bear tracking gives researchers insight into grizzly habits

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- At one minute past midnight on the 13th of October, 2001, a big old grizzly bear lumbered across the empty campground at Seeley Lake.

The campers had long since returned home from summer's sojourn, taking with them the attendant water toys and noise. Gone, too, were the water birds, chased south by the deepening cold, and the insects, burrowed underground. The quiet was complete.

No one passed on the road. No one saw the old bear. No one would have guessed he was so near.

But the grizzly had actually been in the Seeley Lake area off and on since shortly after Labor Day, keeping to the timber and thick bottom land vegetation in the daytime, venturing near humans only after nightfall, wandering into the campground only after everyone was gone.

When, two days later, the tracking collar around the bear's neck automatically released and fell to the ground, the on-board global positioning unit had -- in its memory bank -- an unprecedented account of one bear's daily travels from June to October.

Only then did anyone know that the bear had, in fact, spent nearly all summer in the Swan Valley and Clearwater drainage, often within a half mile of humans. Just twice did the grizzly cross Highway 83, to the east side of the valley. Mostly, he rooted around the low ground west of the highway, past Lakes Alva and Inez, up and down Lindbergh Lake, and finally -- in the fall -- to Seeley Lake.

''This grizzly gave us an amazing view of how bears use their environment, and how they can hang around people without anybody ever knowing they are there,'' said Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator in the northern Rockies and a student, for more than 20 years, of grizzlies in the Mission Mountains.

''In the past, the only way we could ever get this kind of data was to follow bears around, from the ground, at night,'' he said one morning earlier this week, a map of the old bear's travels filling the screen of his computer. ''If a bear is moving a mile or a mile and a half every hour, it's real hard to even figure out which direction he is going. He could be anywhere.''

Last June 11, bear biologist Rick Mace of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks captured the 300-pound grizzly and buckled a $3,000 collar around its neck.

Normally, wildlife managers use VHF collars that give off a radio signal, or pulse, that can be picked up from the air. Then, once or twice a week, a biologist flies over the area and tries to find the signal -- and the bear. It's a chancy operation, easily derailed by cloudy, windy or rainy weather, or a wandering bear.

This time, though, Mace used a new kind of collar equipped with a global positioning unit and programmed to record a position for the bear every 60 minutes. Because the information was stored on board, though, the animal's location was mostly unknown until the collar was collected in mid-October.

When the collar's memory was transferred to a computer, the 2,369 hourly locations ''opened the door to a whole new view of bears,'' in Servheen's words. All those days the biologists believed the old grizzly was nosing around the high country, he was a stone's throw from civilization.

The week of Sept. 9, the bear was at Lindbergh Lake, bouncing back and forth between two points, a mile and a half apart. Between Sept. 8 and Oct. 2, the bear was a blur of motion. He bee-lined to Condon, and then a bit farther north. Then to Lindbergh Lake. Down to Lake Alva, then to Seeley Lake, then up into the mountains and the high end of Elk Creek, then back down to Lindbergh Lake.

In three weeks, the grizzly traveled 141 miles -- by a straight-line measure. ''Which means he probably went twice that far,'' Servheen said.

Incredibly, because the satellites pinpointed the bear's exact location each hour, Servheen also knows when and where he ate, slept and came nearest to humans. At 5 p.m. on the 10th of October, he was bedded down in the lush bottom land along the Clearwater River, a half mile from the Forest Service's ranger station.

At 6 p.m., he was still napping. And at 7.

''Of course, we had no idea that this bear was doing these kind of things and going to places like this,'' Servheen said. ''This gives us a whole different view of how bears use their environment, where they go at night and where they are in relation to people.

''Here's a bear, he's 22 years old, he's been doing this for a while. This isn't the first time he's showed up down here. But it is the first time we've known about this bear. Seeley Lake isn't even in the recovery area.''

Which means, of course, that this is a bear skilled at avoiding people. Nearly everywhere he roamed last summer and fall, human beings lived or played nearby.

''When I worked in the Missions 20 years ago, when I was doing my doctorate, the bears almost always went over the top of the divide at some time during the summer,'' Servheen said. ''They spent a lot of time way up in the alpine. This bear didn't do that at all.''

The grizzly's strategy, the GPS data showed, was to keep to the timber during the daytime, and to move out into the open only at night, when people were least active. Late at night, the bear was in and around human beings and their homes and camp sites. Not once, though, did he get too close or attract any attention to himself.

The same was true of a second, younger bear captured by Mace on June 13 and fitted with another of the GPS collars. This bear was a female, about 5 or 6 years old and tending her first cub. Like the big old male, the sow and cub were never seen by people last summer, although they too were nearby.

''The female used a much smaller area west of Condon, so her use was intensive,'' Servheen said. ''A lot of the time, she was within a half mile or so of people, but she was careful of where she went. She was successfully living in very close proximity to people.''

Many days, the sow and cub were within a half mile of the Super 8 Motel in Condon, in an area of thick timber. They never came closer to the motel, though, and never crossed Highway 83. They also did not venture south to Seeley Lake, maybe because the cub was so young and, probably, difficult for its mother to corral.

''This bear is probably a third the age of the adult male, and yet she is still really skilled,'' Servheen said, switching his computer's view to a map of the young female bear's travels. ''She probably learned this from her mother. The thing about bears is they hand down their culture to their offspring.''

''Bears that aren't successful in avoiding people get into trouble and get killed,'' he said. ''It's a learning experience for them in some ways, but you don't learn much by getting killed. You're gone.''

And while there is much more to learn from the hourly locations, Servheen is eager to hand down something to humans before this summer's wanderings -- by people and bears -- begin.

''We want to get people thinking that this kind of thing is quite amazing -- that there are grizzly bears around and that humans need to be aware that they live in grizzly bear habitat,'' he said.

''The fact is that grizzly bears can live very close to people if we just do a little bit on our part to keep things clean and to keep our foods and garbage secure,'' Servheen said. ''We all have a responsibility to do things at our residences that prevent these animals from getting into trouble.''

And, as last summer's research showed, grizzlies sometimes live in unexpected places.

Knowing that grizzlies -- and likely black bears, too -- are so near shouldn't be cause for alarm, he said. The bears obviously prefer to stay away from people. But their proximity should be cause for extra care-taking with the kind of things that get even ''good'' bears into trouble.

Grizzly bears are so easily corrupted, biologists say. Leave dog food on the porch at night in grizzly country, and the bears will find the food -- and develop a taste for it and come back for more the next night.

But the delinquency is also easy to prevent.

Anyone who lives in mountainous terrain or near a stream, river or wooded area should accept responsibility for learning how to live with wildlife, said James Jonkel, a bear biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.



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