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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Black Bear Trail Research

FLCC Black Bear Management Class
Mohawk Trail State Park, MA 7/11
In early July, my Black Bear Management class traveled to Massachusetts to work with Nick and Val Wisniewski of Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center. The trip was funded through a grant by the National Science Foundation. Specifically, we wanted to see how Nick and Val conduct their research on specific kinds of black bear trails. Typically, these trails are heavily marked with scratched, rubbed and bitten trees and the bears that travel on them step in the same spots each time, making deep depressions in the soil. There is no universally accepted name for the trails but Paul Rezendes and his students coined the term "ritual trail". I have heard them called habitual use trails, mark trails and last week a man from Alaska told me that when he was a boy, they called them "hot foot trails" (and were made by brown bears). I have extensive photos posted in a Picasa Web Album here. Take a look and it will give you a much better idea of the markings associated with these trails (and will save me from reposting so many photos to this entry).

We arrived mid afternoon and got ourselves settled in to the campground. The campground is well forested and bordered on one side by the well-named Cold River. Sasha and I had planned a mini-study to get the students used to taking measurements, recording data, recognizing bear sign and generally thinking like researchers. We took the students along the campground road and showed them how many of the telephone poles had bear bites on them. After inspecting about ten poles, we sat at some picnic tables for a few minutes and started brainstorming questions we could ask and data we would need to take to answer those questions.
Black bear bite on telephone pole
(Mohawk Trail State Park, MA 7/11)
We decided that a good starting point would be to quantify the number of poles that were bitten, how many bites on each pole and the height of the highest and lowest bites. In addition, we noticed that some of the poles had wires running down them and although all the poles are treated with creosote, some really reeked of the stuff. We felt those were reasonable variables to take into account that may influence whether a bear was willing to bite the pole or not. I photographed each bite and experimented a little with using a transparency sheet to help identify each bite photo as shown at the left. I will post our results in another entry later...

Nick Wisniewski shows a bear bite
(MA, 7/11)
The next morning we got up early, had a quick breakfast, met up with Nick and headed out to see the "ritual trail" we were going to study. On our way to the trail, Nick pointed out a variety of wildlife sign. We saw moose tracks, coyote scat and of course, bear sign. Nick pointed out a tree that had been bitten years ago by a bear. This provided a nice contrast to the bites on the telephone poles since those do not heal.  One myth I hear over and over again is that bears will stand on their hind legs and bite as high as they can so that smaller bears will be able to measure themselves and know to stay away. I cannot say for sure that never occurs, but I can say for sure that bear bites can be found very low off the ground, as if done from all four legs.

Bear scratches on a birch tree
(MA, 7/11)
When we reached the ritual trail, the students fanned out to look at the amazing amount of sign present. We found scat (relatively fresh), scratches, bites, straddle trees and of course, the well worn foot steps that give the trail its name. We had three camera traps and decided to place one at either end of the trail. One of the questions we wanted to answer was whether bears used the trails in one direction or two. This particular trail is about 40 yards long and is dominated by a large birch tree with several years of bear sign. We gave the students a chance to absorb the scene and ask as many questions as they wanted. After about an hour, we continued hiking, stopped for lunch and eventually made it to another section of ritualized footsteps. But these appeared to have gone cold and not in use.

Patty Wakefield and Nick inspect a heavily marked red pine
(MA, 7/11)
This second trail was in a red pine stand and some of the trees were heavily scratched. It was interesting to note how different the pines looked compared to the birches. We saw beech trees with climbing scars. We crammed as much into our day as possible. By 5pm, we were back at the vehicles saying good bye to Nick and trying hard not to get our hopes up about the camera traps. Since they were only going to be set for 24 hours, we really did not have a great chance to capture a bear in action. We returned to the campground, swam in the Cold River, cooked dinner in a rainstorm and fell asleep dreaming of bears... Next post: Our results.

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