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Anchorage's new film stars: Urban black and grizzly bears

Rick Sinnott
A still image taken from a bear collar video camera, part of a research project by bear biologist Sean Farley.
Courtesy ADF&G
Sean Farley, bear biologist. April 10, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Sean Farley, bear biologist.
Loren Holmes photo
Bear 16, a black bear wearing a collar that records video, part of biologist Sean Farley's research.
Courtesy ADF&G
Bears going after garbage in southcentral Alaska.
Courtesy Dan Rosenberg / ADF&G
A still image taken from a bear collar video camera, part of a research project by bear biologist Sean Farley.
Courtesy ADF&G

You’ve seen bears act in movies before, often cast as the bad guy. But you probably haven’t seen a movie directed and filmed by bears.

Lights, camera, scratchin’.

As it happens, a movie filmed by bears may not be as relentlessly tedious or indescribably weird as you may think. Like teenagers, when bears direct and film their own documentaries, they’re liable to reveal fascinating and provocative secrets.

In this case, the amateur filmmakers included four black and two brown bears living in and about Anchorage. There was no need for a casting call. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is home to hundreds of bears within the municipality.

Other filmmaking accoutrements, like tripods or dollies, were also unnecessary. Cameras suspended under the bear’s chins recorded 10 seconds of video every five minutes for black bears and every 20 minutes for brown bears. The collar-mounted cameras were also equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) devices which pinpointed the bears’ locations every 20 minutes.

Pure cinema verité

Of course, bears can’t supervise the making of a film; the film’s producers were all humans. But by putting cameras on bears and letting them act naturally, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game hopes to gain useful information about the lives and habits of urban bears. Sean Farley, a wildlife physiologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, designed the camera-collar project and is the lead investigator.

Scenes filmed by the bears are pure cinema verité. The clips look like shaky outtakes from The Blair Witch Project. Farley confessed he hasn’t seen The Blair Witch Project, but he assured me no humans or bears were harmed in the making of this film. In fact, one of the ultimate purposes of the project is to keep bears and humans from hurting one another unnecessarily.

The project is a joint effort by research and management biologists and education specialists. Farley and his assistant Tony Carnahan are analyzing the urban bear movements documented by the GPS collars and using the videos to characterize what they call “fine-scale diet and resource use.” This involves scanning every second of video recorded by the bears to determine what they were doing and where they were doing it.

If feeding, on what exactly? If moving, how fast? Other behavioral categories include interactions with other bears, wildlife, and people; feeding on garbage, birdseed, or pet food, as well as natural foods; and, of course, scratching, or grooming  as Farley calls it.  

Jessy Coltrane and Dave Battle, Anchorage-area management biologists, helped capture the bears and documented hundreds of bear sightings by Anchorage residents last summer. The researchers will analyze the effect of natural and human-provided foods on bear movements in the city, attempting to correlate nuisance bear calls with actual bear movements and behavior. Maybe we’ll find out if urban bears really do respond to trash collection patterns, following the garbage trucks from one neighborhood to the next. The biologists also hope to determine susceptibility of urban bears to mortality from hunters. In Anchorage, bears can be urban bears one day and big-game animals the next. The GPS locations will indicate when, and for how long, the bears occupy areas where hunting is allowed. That, in turn, will help determine whether hunting outside the metropolitan area is an effective tool for managing Anchorage’s urban bear population.

Fish and Game’s education and outreach specialist, Elizabeth Manning, is also collaborating. She believes the data can provide an innovative way to teach adults how to reduce bear-human interactions, particularly those in which bears are unnecessarily attracted by garbage, birdseed, and pet food. The scientists have shared some of the video clips and GPS locations of individual bears with Manning so she can use them with teachers to promote science, technology, and math in their classrooms.

Day in the life of an urban bear

The practice of mounting cameras on wild animals for scientific -- or other -- reasons has increased with recent advances in technology until the cameras now have a name: CritterCams

Nevertheless, like a late-model car, new or untested scientific equipment can have technical glitches. For example, the electronic device that automatically unhooks a collar on a predetermined date failed to operate on one black bear. She’s been sleeping with her collar all winter. It will be retrieved as soon as possible this spring.

Bears, in particular, are infamous for being rough on radio-collars, which can be chewed on by cubs or other bears. The VHF radio signal researchers use to locate collars after they’ve detached failed on one damaged brown bear collar when it became wet. Fortunately, the bear was recaptured before the date the collar was programmed to drop off. The camera on the other brown bear’s collar was destroyed, possibly by her offspring; however, the GPS data were recovered.

Despite gremlins, the untested technology has worked better on bears than biologists expected. So far, about 60 hours of video have been recovered from three black bears and one brown bear, and the collars recorded as many as 2,500 precise locations for individual bears during the month or so each collar was deployed last summer.

Analysis is ongoing and any conclusions would be premature, but Carnahan has flagged some interesting scenes captured on film. A black bear collared in east Anchorage made its way to Kincaid Park, then crossed the tidal flats to Fire Island, about three miles from the mainland. After workers installing wind turbines reported seeing a black bear playing with a “smallish” brown bear on the island, Carnahan scanned the clips and found several video snapshots of the brown bear, keepsakes of their summer together. While it’s not unheard of for a black bear to hang out with a brown bear, many brown bears would have considered the plucky black bear more food than friend. It was an interesting variation on Hollywood’s buddy movie.

Another black bear discovered a natural omelet of sorts near a midtown sedimentation pond. Film clips captured the bear gobbling up gull eggs. They also documented the bear ignoring broken eggs with feathered embryos. So bears won’t eat just anything.

The bear with three young cubs established a den with a fifth bear, presumably a close relative. Carnahan temporarily strung a wire near the mouth of the den to collect hair samples from the bears as they sunned themselves a few weeks ago. Colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey Molecular Ecology laboratory are attempting to isolate DNA from the hair samples to determine if and how the bears are related.

You can get a good idea of image quality and watch the amateur actors chewing up the scenery on Fish and Game’s Living With Bears website, under the urban bear project.  The four short videos are comprised of clips spliced together with asides added by the human producers. Bears in the mini-documentaries demonstrate their likes and dislikes. Likes: garbage, birdseed, natural foods. Dislikes: bear-resistant containers, electric fences.

Educational value

While the biologists toggle forward, reverse, freeze-frame, forward through shaky and sometimes slobbery videos to characterize various bear behaviors and movement patterns, Elizabeth Manning has already started using the raw video clips and GPS data for educational purposes. She believes the videos have educational value for two main audiences: the general public and school-aged kids.

Manning is using the data to teach teachers how to apply technology in classrooms. She recently completed a workshop in which Katie Kennedy, an instructor from the University of Alaska Fairbanks geography department, used the bear data to demonstrate how to use global positioning system technology or mapping programs in classrooms. Lessons used Google Earth and ArcGIS Online, applications where the potential for student-directed exploratory learning is nearly endless. 

Manning has already worked with two teachers -- Chris Kleckner from Central Middle School and Scott McKim from Begich Middle School – to develop and employ lessons using the GPS location data and 10-second videos. Kids appreciate working with real-life problems rather than textbook drills. It helps immensely, too, that the bear data was collected in the students’ hometown.

Other school districts have partnered with wildlife agencies to allow students to follow the movements of collared animals, but new and increasingly user-friendly technology -- from the camera collars to ArcGIS Online -- is making projects like this more meaningful and relevant to students.

Mirror Lake Middle School students and staff discovered a practical use for the clips, incorporating some video footage in a new bear-safety film aimed at kids entitled, “Hey Bears!!!” The film’s premiere was in early April. Copies will soon be distributed to all schools in the Anchorage School District and are available through the website. Manning also plans to collaborate with the Alaska Teen Media Institute, getting kids excited to learn about bears and science through moviemaking.

For the adult audience, in addition to the information added to Fish and Game’s Living With Bears website, Manning hopes to produce several public service announcements using some of the clips.

The researchers anticipate that analyzing every second of the 60 hours of video will give them new insight into the lives of urban bears. The bears hope they’ll win next year’s Oscar for best foreign documentary.

I’m kidding. What the bears are really counting on is that people, ignoring Fish and Game’s advice and all the educational material being developed in schools, will continue feeding them highly desirable and enticing garbage. Not everyone is a movie buff.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com