The Ups and Downs of Bear-watching

 

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Lily outside her den
Just when we thought we had the Den Cam aimed right, Lily built a wall in front of it.  We don’t know what to do.  Will she move the wall or should we move the Den Cam?  For tonight at least, there’s not much to see.  We’ll see what it looks like tomorrow.

 

Everything has to be right soon because Lily will have cubs shortly.  Her vulva is just nearly as swollen now as it was last year a week before parturition.  We have never seen this swelling reported in the literature.  We have never seen swelling like this except on Lily. However, she is the only bear we have examined in the days before parturition.

Like yesterday, Lily was a calm sweetheart, while Hope didn’t understand what we were doing.  When Lynn (again…) reached a camera inside the den to shoot out the entrance at Lily’s hindquarters, a nervous Hope slapped the den floor and blew.  This was an excellent opportunity for Den Cam Watchers to see how benign this scary-looking behavior is.  A problem is that this harmless nervous bluster can be quite convincing.  Too often, people shoot such bears for being “aggressive and threatening.”  For us, bears’ bluster makes us feel safe.  We know it means that bears are nervous and want to talk about it.   In our 44 years, we have never had a bear turn bluster into an attack.  These scared bears are easy to chase off, but, in our trust-based research, we say “I’m sorry” and show better bear manners.  Our goal is to build trust rather than fear.

 

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Hope expresses anxiety
Hope’s personality is less trusting than most, which will make it hard for us to radio-collar her.  In our trust-based research, we don’t radio-collar bears that resist too much.  In this picture, Hope just finished slapping the ground and blowing. She still has the long, narrow muzzle and intense eyes that show she is nervous. The top of the den is covered with hoar frost from Lily and Hope's breath. The Den Cam tube is to the right but not yet in its current position.

 

Without a radio-collar, Hope may be another bear like 12-year-old RC who used to let us radio-collar her but eventually didn’t want that anymore.  RC is a member of the clan we are studying.  She holds a territory in the study area.  We frequently see her and record how many cubs she has, but we don’t radio-collar her.  That means we can’t find her in the woods to walk with her and can’t obtain much ecological information from her.  But she produces some wonderful, trusting daughters who are not influenced by RC’s personality and who provide the kinds of data RC doesn’t. Calm Jo is one of blustery RC’s daughters.

If Lily leaves the den in the spring with new cubs and yearling Hope, it’s possible Hope will stay with Lily another whole year.  With several cubs nursing, Lily won’t breed this spring.  Will Hope choose on her own to separate from Lily this spring/summer, or will she take advantage of the extra year? Last summer, Hope gained an independence and awareness we don’t usually see in cubs her age. This is all on a wait-and-see basis, of course, but whatever happens will give us insights into what makes bears tick.  We will all learn together.

Today, the annual Christmas Party at the North American Bear Center was fun and laughter and grateful talk about what Lily fans have meant to us and the mission of the Bear Center.  Part of that talk was about how Lily’s army of fans gives the best chance ever for getting radio-collared bears protected.

Thank you for all you do.

—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center

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