Henrys For Wildlife Alliance caught up with bear biologist Jeremy Nicholson of Idaho Fish & Game and asked him a few questions.
HFWA: What are some of your responsibilities as a bear biologist? We know you trap and collar bears. What do you learn from this?
Jeremy: The Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) is a member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST). State and federal biologists work together to monitor the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) grizzly population. One of the primary ways the study team tracks key population parameters is collecting data from bears that have been captured and fitted with a radio collar. An objective of the study team is to maintain and monitor a minimum of 25 radio-collared females. Females are the engine that drives the population, and tracking this segment is critical to understanding the status and trends of the population. By observing radio-collared females, we are able to document age of first reproduction, average litter size, cub and yearling survival, and how often females produces a litter. We also try to collar and monitor adult males. Data collected from both sexes allow us to estimate survival among different sex and age classes, causes of mortality, and gain a better understanding of habitat use and food habits.
In addition to our research, we spend a significant time trying to educate the public about living and recreating in bear country. We travel around the region and parts of the state with our bear education trailer, give presentations to a variety of groups, and canvass neighborhoods and campgrounds to talk to people about bears.
HWFA: What is the technology you use?
Jeremy: Advancements in trail camera technology have helped our monitoring and trapping efforts tremendously. We use cameras to monitor the presence and distribution of bears in SE Idaho and track the number of females with young. Additionally, we use trail cameras at all of our bait/trap sites. The cameras provide pictures and videos of activity taking place at our sites, which helps us decide what action we need to take next.
Bears are collared and monitored using VHF and GPS collars. VHF collars have been used by biologists to track wildlife for decades. VHF collars have a few advantages, including longer battery life and cheaper prices. The primary disadvantage, however, is having to go into the field to track the collars using radio telemetry equipment. GPS collars come with a bigger price tag, but in the long run save money with their ability to collect and send data to satellites, which can then be downloaded straight to my computer. GPS collars also have the ability to provide much more data, and data can be downloaded at whatever time interval the operator chooses.
HFWA: Are you ever surprised by what you learn when you trap a bear?
Jeremy: Each time a trap door is down and a bear is inside, I feel like a kid getting up early on Christmas morning to open presents. I’m always excited to see what we find when we pull the bear out of the trap. I’m continually surprised to see how impressive these animals are. Big males are often covered in years of battle scars and even fresh signs of scuffles. They wear a life of struggles and battles on their faces and bodies and are well equipped to do so, with massive muscles, teeth, and claws. We’ve captured males with large, open wounds sustained from fighting during breeding season, wounds that would be the death of most animals, but grizzlies are tanks and just scab over and keep going. Females are equally impressive but in a different way. They are smaller in stature but more crucial to the population. A quick inspection of an anesthetized female lets us know if they have reproduced in the past or currently have cubs. Sometimes an inspection is not required. We’ve had times when we pulled up to a trap and saw cubs scurry away and up a nearby tree. While we got our equipment ready, we could hear the sow and her cubs vocalizing to each other. Pretty cool! The bond between a sow and her cubs is legendary. She may lack the size and battle scars of a large male, but rest assured, she would quickly take on anything that threatens her cub.
HFWA: What do you most want the public to know about bears?
Jeremy: They’re wild animals and will generally try to avoid humans. However, the need to fatten up for the winter is the driving force in their life, and they will gladly pack on the pounds with human food if they get the chance. If they get accustomed to getting food and spending time near people, they almost always get in trouble. Sometimes we have to euthanize the bear. We hate to have to do this to a wild animal, particularly when its people’s actions that led to the death. Some people say, just take it to a zoo. But there aren’t enough zoos, there aren’t enough places in Idaho to safely relocate bears to keep them away from people; and we aren’t allowed to transport them across state lines. So we don’t have a lot of options. The best thing to do is prevent problems before they occur by storing attractants properly