Research methods and goals

Research methods and goals

Update March 3, 2010 – 3:58 PM CST

We saw the concerns some of you had about our den visit yesterday and realized that new Lily-watchers haven’t seen past updates to know the kind of research we’re doing.  The ‘Bringing in extra bedding -- background on research’ update from January 19 tells a bit about the research.

This pioneering type of research is kinder and gentler than the old methods and lets us learn the things that can really help bears.

We helped pioneer the old research methods that many people now think are the only way bear research should be done.  Few people realize how harmful those old methods can be and how little can be learned by them.  Capturing bears can be injurious.  Drugging is sometimes lethal.  Radio-tracking puts dots on maps but provides very little information about what the bears are doing.  Such studies are often used to learn how many bears can be hunted.  Very long-term studies using those old methods can also determine the basic skeleton of social organization as you can see in our 1987 publication ‘Effects of food supply and kinship on social behavior, movements, and population dynamics of black bears in northeastern Minnesota.’  

However, there is only so much a researcher can learn by measuring tranquilized bears and putting dots on maps.  Without watching bears in their daily life, researchers gain little information on what bears are really like, how they communicate, and what forest components are important to them.  No modern technology can take the place of the kind of research Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall did—simply watching animals that trust and ignore you.

Doing that sounded impossible to us 25 years ago.  We had all the same misconceptions most people do.  Some of the breakthroughs are described in the paper ‘Does diversionary feeding create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety?’ 

In that study, we began to realize the immensity of the misconceptions about black bears and how pervasive they are in bear management, public perceptions, and everyday assumptions about black bear behavior.  We did literature searches and discovered how little science there is behind most beliefs about bear behavior, reactions to people, what happens if they lose their fear of people, and what happens if they receive supplemental food.  Misconceptions, and how they affect people’s attitudes, are the biggest problems bears face around the world and the main reason several species of bears are endangered.  Nearly everything we believed about bears after studying bears the old way for 17 years changed as we actually got to know bears.  Most people don’t study bears long enough or closely enough to move beyond their unfounded beliefs.

Now, we use trust and treats instead of traps and tranquilizers to radio-collar bears.  Then we use trust to see how they live.  Watching wild bears close-up opened a new world of knowledge about how they live and what they’re like.  It’s the kind of information that can change attitudes and help all bears.  It’s the kind of information no one would believe if you told them.  Many people immediately think it’s wrong to gain the trust of a bear and learn those things.  People have to see it for themselves.  Lily is one of the bears showing us.

Lily-watchers know more about maternal behavior in dens than 99 percent of the biologists in the world.  In the process, Lily is giving people a whole new view of bears.  Over the next 6 weeks, you’ll find us visiting the den often until we become part of the woodwork for Lily and Hope.  You’ll see us giving a few grapes to Lily as a means of earning her trust at this stage.  Walking with them in the woods, we don’t feed because it would distract them from the foraging we are there to observe.  The more they trust us, the more they ignore us, and the more we can learn how they live in all seasons.   Eventually, you’ll meet June, Juliet, and some of the others, too.  ‘Bearwalker of the Northwoods’ on Wild Kingdom on Animal Planet April 4 introduces them.  Lily is in that documentary as a yearling with June and then as a yearling on her own after family break-up.

To answer a common question, does this kind of research create nuisance bears, jeopardize public safety, and get bears killed by hunters?  Short answer, no, as you can see in the third paper cited above.  If it did, we wouldn’t be doing it.  A related point is that residents of this rural community have been feeding bears for four decades.  There has never been an attack.  The fed bears survive hunting season at a higher rate, and nuisance problems are lower than in the rest of the state.  House break-ins are nil.

There’s a lot to learn here that’s contrary to what most people think.  A lot of the ideas based on common sense do not turn out to make bear sense, and one goal of the project is to learn why.  The importance of these trusting bears to our ability to get information that can help all bears is immense.  Yes, they could be shot.  That is why we’re on pins and needles throughout hunting season.  Eventually, they will all be shot—as is the case with virtually all wild bears—but thankfully, during their lifetimes they provide important information to help us all understand bears.  And they live much longer than their non-research counterparts.  Fortunately, the MN DNR and the MN Bear Guides Association ask hunters to spare radio-collared bears.

For those who are critical of the research, the alternative is not learning what these bears can teach, not having a den cam, not changing people’s attitudes about bears, and living with the misconceptions that get thousands of bears killed unnecessarily each year.  This is research by researchers who have studied bears longer and in more detail than anyone in the world.  It is not treating them as pets.  The project is generating information that will give managers of national parks and state game agencies new tools for understanding and minimizing bear-human conflict.  And that will save many bears.

At this point, we expect healthy debate as we let Lily-watchers see a bit of our research.  Not all will agree.  We only ask that doubters keep an open mind, read up, and realize that most of what you are thinking at this time is what we thought 25 years ago before pioneering this phase of the research.  Our misconceptions held us back from trying this kinder and gentler research for many years before that.

At this time, we share information through the internet, documentaries, the North American Bear Center, and publications.  When the Bear Center is debt-free, we have plans to gradually expand our educational mission as resources permit.

We thank you for your contributions and your help.  We look forward to meeting many of you next summer at the picnic.

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