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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bear Truth

Air Date: Week of

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kate Kendall led the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project. (Photo: Clay Scott)

The U.S. grizzly bear population is alive and well. That's according to government biologist Kate Kendall who spearheaded a five year project collecting and analyzing bear hair DNA.  Producer Clay Scott went to Glacier National Park with Kate Kendall to learn more about her groundbreaking work.


ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living On Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment, and from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living On Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[MUSIC: Rachel Z: Love Will Tear Us Apart from Dept Of Good And Evil (Savoy Jazz 2007)]

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

In his campaign ads and on the stump, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain talks tough about squandering government money on pork barrel projects.

McCAIN: We’re never going to spend three million dollars again to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or a criminal issue but it’s not going to happen again.

GELLERMAN: Actually, McCain is wrong. The federal government spent 4.8 million dollars studying grizzly bear DNA. The money went to fund Kate Kendall’s research in Northwest Montana. Kendall is a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. She studies grizzlies in Glacier National Park, one of the bear’s last strongholds in the U.S.

Since 1975, grizzlies have been protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act. Producer Clay Scott recently spent a day with the scientist in the field, and has our report.


SCOTT: Most people try to avoid grizzly bears. Kate Kendall has spent her career looking for them. On an early September day, Kendall and two researchers are in Glacier National Park on an ongoing study of grizzly bear behavior.

Volunteer Karla Yates mimics the movements of a bear so the research team can mount the camera to record bears in action. (Photo: Clay Scott)


RESEARCHERS: Yeah, be a bear. Be a bear! OK….

SCOTT: The team is setting up remote video cameras, hoping to get footage of grizzlies. This is steep terrain, a jungle of spindly lodge pole pine. It’s one of the places where Kendall and her researchers carried out their recently completed, five-year-long grizzly DNA study.

KENDALL: Eight-million acre study area is the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. It’s 80% the size of Switzerland, and this is extremely rugged and remote area to do work in. It’s logistically very challenging to do work in, and we were actually able to do the fieldwork for 25 cents an acre.


SCOTT: Kendall carries a pack loaded with heavy equipment, but steps nimbly over fallen logs. Huckleberries are still ripe here, and so close to the trail that we can pick them without breaking stride. But good berry country is also good bear country. The team doesn’t want to surprise one while they’re setting up equipment.

This motion sensor detects when a bear is approaching and turns on the camera. (Photo: Clay Scott)

KENDALL: Hey! Hey bear!

SCOTT: Bear sign is everywhere: scat, filled with huckleberries. Tracks in the dust. Suddenly, Kendall stops and approaches a lodge pole pine. To my eyes, it looks the same as any other.

KENDALL: So, you can see the claw marks here - it’s from bears reaching up, rubbing themselves, grabbing over their head on the trees.

SCOTT: And why do they do that?

KENDALL: Chemical marking, that’s what we think. Chemical communication. For other bears. Let ‘em know they’re in the neighborhood.

SCOTT: To demonstrate what grizzlies do at the trees, Kendall unselfconsciously imitates one, rubbing her back against the lodge pole, scratching the trunk.

KENDALL: You know, what we look for in a rub tree is when you’re hiking along a regular trail, is you often find a little trail going to the base of a tree, and kind of a bare spot below it and then most of all you look for kind of smooth bark, and then you look for bear hair, which…here’s a wad of it right here.

SCOTT: Kendall points to a clump of hair wedged in the bark. Black bears use rub trees as well, but this hair, she says - light brown with a silver tip - is almost certainly from a grizzly. And she should know. During the study she directed of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, Kendall and more than 200 researchers took hair from nearly 5,000 rub trees. They also set up 2,500 barbed wire hair traps, baited with a foul-smelling concoction of rotten fish and cattle blood. In all, they collected 34,000 grizzly bear hair samples.

KENDALL: The more weathered it is, the more the DNA is broken down, degraded, and it’s harder to get good genetic results from that. There’s also very little DNA in one single hair. So the more degraded and the smaller the sample, the more difficult it is.

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kate Kendall. (Photo: Clay Scott)

SCOTT: DNA analysis was done on the hair collected during the study, and the results were just released. Among other findings, the researchers came up with an astounding population estimate of 765 grizzly bears – two-and-a-half times as many as were previously thought to inhabit the area.

KENDALL: To put that into perspective, this population is one of only two viable populations left south of Canada, of grizzly bears. It was listed as threatened in 1975, and we have never had any baseline data for the entire ecosystem.

SCOTT: Kendall’s research found that the bears’ range was much larger that had been believed, and that the genetic health of the population was good. Those results have been applauded by some who believe the grizzly’s endangered status was an impediment to drilling and development in Northwest Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the bear’s status in Montana. But Kendall says her goal was simply to get a reliable snapshot of the population, to provide good scientific data where none existed.


SCOTT: The Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project is over, but Kendall’s research continues. She says she still has much to learn about grizzly bears.

KENDALL: They’re intelligent animals, so they have a lot of interesting behavior, and a lot of human-like qualities. I love the environments where grizzly bears live, wild places. I’ve been lucky enough to work in two of the most beautiful national parks in the United States - Glacier and Yellowstone, because grizzly bears are there.

SCOTT: Kendall has logged hundreds of miles on backcountry trails, packed foul smelling bear lure, set up cameras, looked for rub trees. She has been close to many bears, and been charged by one. But the years of hard work, the occasional unpleasantness, and the occasional danger, she believes, have been worth it. Because grizzlies, she says, are part of who we are as humans.

For Living On Earth, I’m Clay Scott in West Glacier, Montana.

GELLERMAN: For incredible videos of the grizzlies - go to our web site, loe.org



Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project

See videos of grizzlies and other wildlife recorded by the USGS remote cameras


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