SEARSBURG— If you are hiking along a ridgeline in the Green Mountain National Forest in Searsburg or Readsboro and see a camera mounted to a tree, smile – your picture has already been taken.
The cameras are part of a research project on bears, and are designed to take pictures when they detect movement. But if you are hiking in the same area and see a camera on the ground, it probably was ripped off a tree by a bear. “Humans may be more respectful of our cameras than the bears,” said Forrest Hammond, bear project leader for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We have stickers identifying the cameras, and people leave them alone. A bear is not actually being disrespectful, they are just expressing their curiosity by using their claws,” said Hammond.
The research is part of a large multiyear study which seeks to determine how bears who frequent the ridgelines in Searsburg and Readsboro in search of beech nuts will change their behavior if Iberdrola’s new windmill project is erected.
Ibedrola received its certificate of public good in 2009, despite some opposition at that time from the department of fish and wildlife. According to Hammond, one of the primary concerns that the department had, in addition to the clearing of trees, was that windmills that are hundreds of feet tall could disturb the bears, causing them to abandon the beech trees, an important natural food source.
In Vermont, bears are more reliant on stands of beech trees for food than in some warmer locations, where blackberries and other berries are more plentiful. Hammond said that in autumn, bears in Vermont will climb up beech trees and feed on the nuts before they fall off the tree. “Their claw marks on the beech trees are visible from a distance,” said Hammond. “Red marks going up the tree suggests recent feeding, and black marks indicate older feeding. This location is one of the most heavily concentrated stands of beechnuts that we know of that is utilized by bears in Vermont.”
The multiyear study, paid for by Iberdrola, is a condition of the 2009 certificate of public good, and will attempt to determine to what extent the bears are displaced by the turbine project. “We are pleased to be working on this with them (the staff of Iberdrola),” said Hammond. “Although we initially opposed the project we have accepted that they are receiving both state and federal permits to do it. They have paid for a bear study and are doing other mitigation steps to comply with their permit conditions. We don’t have an adversarial relationship with Iberdrola, quite the opposite, really. We are going to be able to do a one-of-a-kind multiyear study and we are excited about that.”
The game cameras are the most recent addition to the tools that the researchers are using to gather information about the bears’ behavior before the turbines are erected on the ridge.
Satellite collars are also being used to track bears. “The collars send out location data for each collared bear to an Iridium satellite,” explained Hammond, “We can get a tracking location once every 20 minutes. And we can be as precise as to within 10 or 20 feet. We will have hundreds of thousands of data points for these collared animals.”
According to Hammond the tracking data, combined with the more general information from random bears who wander in front of the game cameras, will give researchers an opportunity to do a pre- and post-construction study of the impacts of the turbines on bear ecology.
One of the things that Hammond’s team has learned is that it is necessary to collar more bears. “We were thinking that 12 bears would be a good number to begin with. But we lost (collared) bears, to cars, and to hunters, and some bears removed their collars. Bears can often pull off a collar if they try hard enough. This is especially true for mature males whose necks are often larger than their heads. We are padding the collars with foam now to allow for growth of the bear while letting us put the collar on a little tighter when we first put the collar on.” Hammond said that their new goal is to collar 15 bears, so that there will be at least 12 bears in the study at all times.
Hammond said that local game wardens’ knowledge of the area, and especially game warden Richard Watkin’s knowledge of sites in Readsboro, has been put to good use. Watkin said that he especially enjoyed the work. “Game wardens not only work to uphold the laws, but we help biologists. My first experience was about four years ago and involved trapping (with a non-damaging snare) Milo, who was a fairly large male. We need to sedate the bears before we can collar them, of course, and it was a completely new thing for me to be so close. Bears are very vocal, and it took four jabs. He was not particularly impressed with the situation.”
Watkin said his role was to distract the bear while the biologist attempted to inject the tranquilizer with a jab stick. “Milo false-charged me. I believed that the snare would hold him, but, if it hadn’t, I might not be talking with you right now.”
Hammond said that he was looking forward to March, when the researchers would check on bears in their dens. “We should have eight to do. We check on the bears with collars once a year while they are in their winter dens. We do this to replace the collar with one with fresh batteries as well as to check to see if the females have cubs and if so how many and of which sex. If they have yearling cubs with them it gives us an idea of the number of cubs that survived their first year.”
Besides checking on the bears, Hammond and his team will note the occurrence of beech bark disease in the ridgeline. Beech bark disease is an insect-borne fungal infection, which was brought into New England in the 1960s. He indicated there was good and bad news on the beech bark disease front. “Since then (the 1960s) there have been waves of the disease, and it became prevalent here. But also since that time more and more resistance has built up.”
He said that some researchers believe that there will always be beech trees in New England’s forests.
Hammond said that many people, including himself see bears as more than just the top predator of the forest. “I think that Vermonters really seem to appreciate this large species that symbolizes wildness and forests. Bears are large and need a large area protected. Conservation of habitat for bears benefits all of us.” Hammond said that he was glad one outcome of the bear study would be to establish a clearer understanding of how much of the bears’ prime habitat needs to be conserved, and how greatly they may be displaced. “For the future, this will be useful information, and could help with regional efforts to manage bears.”