Squirty, sporting a GPS collar, pauses for a drink. She has remained near Kilham’s home since he “mothered” her in 1996.
Photo by Ben Kilham.
Tucked in the deep, hilly woods of west-central New Hampshire are several bears, and a man, who are famous by virtue of their relationship with one another. Mother Bear Man – aka Ben Kilham – and his retinue of hand-reared, now-wild bears have been the subjects of many television shows and magazine articles, including in National Geographic. By acting as a surrogate mother to bear cubs he later releases into the woods, Kilham establishes an intimate bond that allows him to witness heretofore-unrevealed aspects of bear behavior.
Many of his former cubs stick around, establishing territories near Kilham’s home and allowing him to spend time observing and interacting with them. Those hours of observation have led him to make discoveries such as the existence of an organ in bears’ noses that allows them to identify high-volatility compounds, which may play a role in helping them recognize close relatives. Thanks to Kilham’s years of work and the advent of new technologies, including GPS and the software to process GPS information – Geographic Information Systems, or GIS – new frontiers in wildlife ecology are now open for exploration.
In conjunction with his partner, Don Cooke of Tele Atlas, Inc. in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Kilham has developed a new way to gather information about bear movements that provides far more information than wildlife managers are able to gather with seemingly old-fashioned radio collars, or even with conventional GPS collars. “Nobody has tried this type of detailed recording on wild bears,” says Cooke.
Many wildlife managers, including those at state fish and wildlife agencies, are tracking large mammals, including “nuisance” bears, with GPS collars in order to determine patterns of movement and favorite eateries. After tranquilizing a bear, they outfit it with a collar that contains a GPS unit. These collars take and store data readings 14 times a day for several years on end, conserving power by turning off between each data reading. Kilham and Cooke’s collar, in contrast, has a batteries that only last two weeks (since the unit is on all the time), but it takes an average of 1,400 readings per day, says Cooke, giving the researchers data that can shed light on where a bear travels and, just as important, where a bear doesn’t travel.
Doesn’t travel? While it may not seem important to know how long a bear sleeps or rests, this information is crucial to understanding bear behavior. The collar gives location and time readings, says Cooke, “So you can say, ‘Holy cow, she’s just going back and forth – cleaning out all sorts of berries or something.’” Cooke points out that the data will show bears exhibiting such behaviors as staying put for longer periods of time as they fatten up for winter in a berry patch, searching in late autumn for a good hibernation spot within a certain area, or even covering a lot of ground in a short time, a behavior that points to a need for further investigation.
Besides suggesting necessary research, the collars also help confirm some of Kilham’s observations. For instance, in the case of an adult female named Squirty, “Right after a male showed up in mating season, she left her cubs and checked out the perimeter of her home range, farther into other bears’ ranges,” says Kilham. “She had a ‘300-pound gorilla’ with her,” he adds, referring to the fact that neighboring females won’t repel an intruder with a bodyguard. He also observed her fattening up for winter. “It was clear that she was able to fatten up not only by eating more but by moving less.”
GPS collars providing this level of data collection may prove especially useful in tracking behavioral patterns of so-called nuisance bears, says Kilham, adding that the data may help wildlife managers determine instances where people – rather than bears – are causing problems.
Cooke and Kilham’s GPS collar is in developmental adolescence. “We’re trying to develop it and get funding to maximize the technology for use with bears and other animals,” says Kilham. One hurdle is increasing the collar’s battery life and longevity so a longer stretch of data can be collected. Standard GPS units have a short battery life, especially when they’re constantly collecting data, a feature that sets Cooke and Kilham’s collars apart. They’re also rather fragile for standard bear-antics. “Luckily, [Kilham] can find the bear and get the collar back, something most researchers can’t do,” says Cooke. “The surprise here is that nobody in the world except Ben can go out and mix it up with a wild bear,” he adds, “which puts him in a position to get some really amazing data.”