PUBLISHED: 4:16 PM on Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Bear tracks
Middle schoolers conduct wildlife research project

Photo by Dave Wilson
  An area black bear sports a digital necklace, which is a global positioning system transmitter. The GPS monitoring program is part of a local initiative designed to help people and bears co-exist.
If you wake up one morning this spring, look out your window and see a large black bear sporting a digital necklace, don't be alarmed.

The oversized dog collar with a battery pack is supposed to be around the bear's neck. It's a global positioning system transmitter and the signals it will send this spring should help Juneau middle schoolers and biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game better understand the movements, habits and eating preferences of the capital city's urban bears. There are three Juneau bears now wearing them.

The GPS monitoring program is part of a larger local initiative designed to help people and bears co-exist.

The Alaska Bears in Communities is a joint program sponsored by the Department of Fish & Game, the City and Borough of Juneau and the U.S. Forest Service.

Mathew Staley is interested in learning more about bears in Juneau. He's a seventh grader at Dzantiki'I Heeni Middle School and last fall took part in a field trip with a handful of other middle schoolers to watch a bear collaring.

That's when Alaska Fish and Game biologist Neil Barton tagged and put a global positioning system collar on a sedated 15-year old female captured near Thunder Mountain in the Mendenhall Valley. "They took her tooth out to tell the bear's age," Staley said.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  Middle school students download information to be used for class assignments throughout the year.
The students touched the bear and Staley said they didn't realize how much a bear smelled. Barton told them that in addition to placing a GPS collar on the bear, he was putting a large tag on the bear's ear to help identify it. Scientists said the collar devices don't hurt the bears. They're designed to expand if the animals grow, and they're supposed to fall off in 2008.

Five students from Dzantiki'I Heeni Middle School and about 100 students from Floyd Dryden Middle Schools are learning about monitored bears' whereabouts and habits using data transmitted by their collars. Science teacher Kathleen Galau said when the Department of Fish and Game asked if her students would like to participate in the program, she quickly enrolled all of them.

"I think it's important for them to learn about the natural area and wildlife around us. Plus, bears are such charismatic creatures, I'm hoping to hook them into learning about GPS," she said.

Galau is already planning to offer the GPS bear-tracking program next year.

She said GPS technology now plays an important role in people's lives and work. She believes students who master the tools will have more career options in the future.

Eighth grader Kurt Wade is one of Galau's students. He's particularly intrigued in a 20-year old possibly pregnant female bear. She was trapped and collared near the Mendenhall Glacier last August.

Wade watched the bear's traveling and eating patterns through GPS collar data during much of the fall until the bear began hibernating. He learned about the technology in a summer course at the University of Alaska Southeast. By the time his fall semester at Floyd Dryden started up again, he knew enough to help Galau teach the GPS course.

"We got downloading points from the bear and I started putting them on a map in the computer and once I had them all in, I could see where the bear was by month," he said.

Galau said this spring about 40 of her students will download information from a bear collar onto school computers. They'll use the data for class assignments, and probably learn more about black bear habits than most people in Juneau now know. After all, some of the best information the general population has on urban bear activities comes from either personal encounters or the police blotter: Bear - mountain bike collision, biker unhurt, bear ran away; bear in cold storage, bear on second floor porch, bear in garage, can't get out.

For all the bear-human encounters in the capital city, Fish and Game Education Associate Kristen Romanoff said surprisingly little is understood about their habits. She says data students are collecting will contribute to the City's ursine awareness. "The students are able to form questions themselves, plus the area biologists have questions, and we're working with the students to use the data to answer them and to get a handle on what bears are doing in and around Juneau," she said.

In mid-March, Fish and Game is teaming up with a few middle schoolers to offer a community presentation to discuss what they've learned from the collared bears.

That's just in time for April, when black bears wake for spring.