'Critter cams' offer peek into daily lives of city bears

Michelle Theriault Boots

Anchorage's bears are seen most often in glimpses: loping across a road, nosing through a garbage can or disappearing into trailside pushki.

But what, exactly, do the city's bears do all day?

Last summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game captured six bears -- four black and two brown -- and attached collars with rugged, specially-made video cameras around their necks in an effort to answer that question.

Now, biologists have 60 hours of video that show the unseen lives of bears in Anchorage: sleeping, eating gull eggs, walking greenbelts, licking grease cans and gum stuck on the ground, salivating over garbage pizza and discarded birdseed, scooping up bivalves from Cook Inlet mudflats and scarfing horsetail and dandelions, all from a vantage point just under their muzzles. Combined with GPS tracking, the study gives researchers a clearer picture than ever before of how urban bears spend their days.

"You're riding around under their chin, seeing what they do," said Fish and Game research biologist Sean Farley, who designed the project. "Now we can say, a bear was here and this is what it was doing."

The cinéma vérité look at Anchorage from under the chin of a bear has the potential to help both research biologists interested in bear diet and behavior and wildlife managers, who want to minimize conflicts between the city's people and animals.

"The more we know about bears here in urban areas the better we are at managing them," said Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane.

"Critter cams," as Farley calls the small, durable cameras attached to wildlife, are not new.

Years ago Anchorage Fish and Game staff fitted a black bear dubbed Ansel with a collar camera that snapped still pictures.

Scientists have long tracked bears' locations with GPS collars.

But video cameras tough enough to withstand riding around on a bear only recently hit the market.

The cameras cost $5,000 each. Biologists programmed them to record 10 seconds of video every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day, for about a month. The collars are engineered to drop off at a designated time. Biologists like Tony Carnahan, Farley's assistant, locate them using a radio signal.

Last summer, six bears were darted and collared in Oceanview, Rabbit Creek and Stuckagain Heights and on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson land, then allowed to continue their summertime roaming.

Not all six cameras survived a month. The brown bears destroyed their collars, Farley said.

One black bear hibernated wearing her camera after the device programmed to drop the camera failed. Carnahan collected that camera last week. The biologists hope they'll still be able to pull useful video from it.

The project is the only one of its kind to track urban bears with video collars, Farley said. Another Alaska project in rural Nelchina used the video collar technique on brown bears.

It's far too early to begin to make any research conclusions from the 60 hours of video, Farley said. The biologists plan to follow another batch of bears this summer to gather more data.

They hope to gather film of the time of year when bears seem to stop going after garbage and head into the hills to eat berries.

But the initial video does raise some interesting questions, he said.

For all the time Anchorage bears spend pursuing garbage, they appear to spend twice as much time foraging on wild foods, Farley said.

"But they eat garbage every day, virtually, too," he said.

The footage may mean garbage is less important to the nutrition of bears in Anchorage because so much wild food is available in parks and greenbelts.

"That's one of the questions we want to ask: If we could magically get rid of all the garbage, would we still have bears in town?" Farley said. "My guess is we would."

The footage backs up some of the messages that Coltrane repeats daily in the summertime: lock up your garbage and bears will leave it alone. Use an electric fence to keep bears away from chickens. Bears were seen on video bypassing bear-proofed garbage containers and walking by properly-constructed electric fencing, she said.

The cameras also captured unsettling moments that show that while we watch bears they watch us, too.

In one clip, a bear turns the corner of a house and sees a person in the yard. The bear quietly slips away without the person ever knowing it was there.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.



Watch bear collar videos