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Seeing without being seen

Even watching a bear from this distance can change its behaviour.

Even watching a bear from this distance can change its behaviour.

From a scientific perspective, studying grizzly bear behaviour isn’t easy. In the Canadian Rockies, bears live at low densities (there aren’t many bear per km2), they tend to avoid people, and they cover large areas. The most challenging part, however, is that biologists want to study bear behaviour without affecting a bear’s behaviour, but bears can change their behaviour in the mere presence of people.

So how do you watch without being seen? Or even noticed?

There are a few ways to do this. One is through the use of GPS collars. GPS collars give a researcher a bear’s location at pre-determined time intervals and are used to help biologists determine the size of a bear’s territory and habitat use (called home range). DNA censusing using barbed wire to snag a bear’s hair when it walks by, which is later analyzed for DNA. These efforts usually coincide with population and density estimate studies. Both GPS and DNA work is incredibly important and has changed the way we look at and manage grizzly bears in Canada. But these methods may not provide information about behavioural responses to different stimuli.

Another way to watch without being seen involves remote cameras. Remote cameras, sometimes called camera traps, can set up to take pictures or video of bears just doing their thing in the wilderness. Cameras can take a photo at pre-determined time intervals. For example, a researcher could set up a cameras to take a picture at a particular feeding site or denning site every hour and see how the bears in the area change. Cameras can also be motion triggered, so they take a picture every time something in the frame moves. This has been done a lot in the Rocky Mountain National Parks to monitor wildlife usage throughout the park. Check out this video from Parks Canada to see what kind of information a remote camera can provide. 

These cameras take excellent photos, which are incredibly useful to researchers who want to watch without being seen. It’s almost like being able to look into the grizzlies world in secret and get a brief glimpse of their day.

But having some cool pictures is not necessarily a robust scientific research project. A scientific study is based on the premise that the methodology can be replicated with similar results. That’s why scientists do stats and lots of them – it’s a way to prove that your study could be replicated and that the results you got are a reflection of what’s really happening out there.

With cameras, setting that study up can be challenging. You’ve got to decide what the project objective is and then think about if cameras can give you the data you need to address that objective. You’ve got to consider where to put the cameras – should they be put out randomly on the landscape or should they focus on specific areas? Then you need to decide how many cameras and how often they will take a picture. Lastly, you can’t go into the field without thinking about how you are going to analyse the data once you’ve got it. Cameras generate A LOT of data, thousands of pictures can come from one camera and most projects will have several dozen cameras involved. So how will all that data be entered and analysed to effectively address the research objective?


This is what doing a literature review in Australia looks like. All I have to read and read and read… there are no rules about where I have to read!

This is the process I am going through right now. I’m reading scientific paper after scientific paper to learn how other researchers have set up remote cameras, how they analysed the data, and what kinds of research questions they were able to answer.

The objective of my research is to understand how grizzly bears might change habitat use in response to human use on hiking trails, but how do I use a series of remote cameras to answer that question? The crazy part about this is that I want to design a study where I can watch bears and see their reactions to people, without ever seeing a bear myself! I wouldn’t want my presence to make the bear do something different, or “confuse” the data.

I’m looking at a few possibilities. Fortunately, not all of my data will come from cameras since some bears have GPS collars as well. The data from the GPS collars will help me decide where to put the cameras (put cameras where bears are for a start). In areas where bears aren’t collared, I can try and capture bear and human habitat use by placing cameras on trails or overlooking a good berry patch and seeing when the bears are there and when the people are there. The trick is that just because a bear isn’t there, doesn’t mean it was displaced by a person – it could have just gone to eat somewhere else… I haven’t figured out how to answer that part of the question yet.

The reality is that this is complicated! As I read more and more, I have more and more questions. Thank goodness for graduate committees and mentors who can help me figure out how to get the best data that won’t make me turn too grey during the analysis part of this adventure.

Somehow I’ll figure out how to use remote cameras in a way that I can see without being seen.

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