As I write this at my home, there’s snow on the ground. But spring is almost here. In fact, as I opened the door to leave my house this morning, I was greeted by a sure sign of spring; the patently pungent smell of skunk! And I couldn’t help but wonder if the little stinker, indeed, missed or misted its adversary.
It never ceases to amaze me how animals can spend the winter months in hibernation (deep sleep) or torpor (a state of decreased physiological activity during periods of extreme cold; light hibernation) in order to survive months of harsh weather and scarcity of food. They’re waking up now, and coming out of their dens and lairs looking for (in the case of skunks, mates and) something to eat.
When asked to name an animal that hibernates, more often than not, the first critter that comes to mind is the black bear (Ursus americanus). So, it’s significant to note that female bears (sows) actually give birth to and nurse their young during the winter months; suggesting torpor, rather than true hibernation.
Male black bears (boars) are usually first to emerge from their dens; followed by lone females and females with yearlings or two-year-old cubs. Sows with new-born cubs are the last to emerge. Although many bears emerge in what I’ve heard called ‘a state of walking hibernation’, during which their metabolic processes slowly return to normal activity levels, others awaken, or can be awakened, abruptly and fully-alert.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) is the agency tasked with seeing to the welfare of state wildlife populations. And, during the winter denning season, NYSDEC wildlife biologists, routinely check on black bears; often fitting them with radio collars, which help with tracking their activities throughout the year and/or relocating dens in subsequent years, in order to study cub production, condition, and survival. But, tracking a growing, shifting black bear population presents significant challenges.
Black bears are intelligent and able to adapt to changes in their environment. It’s widely accepted that many bears are expanding their territories; moving from areas that are heavily forested to agricultural regions and locales of intensifying human development. Both the state’s black bear population; currently estimated at 6,000-8,000 bears and growing, of which 50-60% are believed to inhabit forest lands within the Adirondacks and New York’s northern tier, and the number of reported interactions between humans and black bears across the state are on the rise.
Enter Catherine (Cat) Sun, a graduate student and research assistant with Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources who, working with Angela Fuller, an Associate Professor of Natural Resources and leader of the Cornell University-based New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which coordinates research, planning, and management efforts between University faculty and staff (highly-qualified graduate students and research affiliates) and NYSDEC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists and technicians, are combining digital technology with on-the-ground conservation efforts, to better manage the growing number of bears within the state. Sun, Fuller, and a team of Cornell researchers are using data collected by citizen scientists to gain a more-precise understanding of New York’s black bear population size and distribution, and how that distribution relates to forest, agricultural, and urban/suburban landscapes and communities.
Citizen science, sometimes referred to as crowd-sourced or networked science, is the involvement of the public in scientific research. Sun believes that citizen science is “a great way to engage people with wildlife conservation, wildlife research, and wildlife management.” The goal of the Sun / Fuller science project, called iSeeMammals, which offers landowners, hikers, campers, naturalists, hunters; and literally anyone with a smartphone or internet access the opportunity to be a part of vitally important Cornell research, is to ascertain just how many black bears are out there, where they are, and why they’re moving into new areas. Sun also hopes that the project will help researchers better-evaluate black bear survival and reproductive rates.
Sun led the development of the iSeeMammals app, which enables participants to collect and submit information about bear sightings or signs that indicate the presence of bears (tracks, scat, hair, markings), and is the project’s leader. The data collected through iSeeMammals will be used in combination with data from summer field research and the fall hunting season (hunting is a primary tool of the NYSDEC for managing bears) to generate more precise and accurate estimates of bear population size, growth, and distribution than could be determined through any single method. To learn more or to get involved, visit iseemammals.org.
Photo: Bear at a feeder in Marathon Ontario, provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.