By Abram Kimball
There are currently eight bear species on Earth: black bears, brown bears, Asiatic bears, giant pandas, polar bears, sloth bears, spectacles bears, and sun bears. Over the last few months, I have been learning about these eight species while interning with the Great Bear Foundation, a fantastic group of people dedicated to protecting these animals as well as their habitats and educating the public about them. In addition to learning about the eight bear species, I also had the opportunity to learn how to identify various animal tracks (including mountain lions and wolves) and sharpened my skills using Excel, all while gaining a new appreciation for the bears who share this planet with us.
During this internship, I spent time compiling data for the foundation’s map of bear interactions with people in Missoula and some surrounding areas. This map will serve as an archive of reported bear interactions in developed areas and what attracts them to these places. Bears have a strong sense of smell, so most of the attractants that lure them into populated areas are garbage cans, bird feeders, fruit trees, and other things they may perceive as a source of food. This has been an excellent opportunity to learn about the various dos’ and don’ts of living alongside bears.
As someone who is known by his classmates in the Wilderness and Civilization program to be absolutely terrified of bears, it was interesting to learn what brings bears to interact in negative ways towards people. As I read through the various reports of human interaction with bears, I found that most of them were caused by someone who had disregarded bear safety rules, such as only putting your trash out on garbage day or picking your fruit trees as soon as they are ready for gleaning. The latter is, by the way, a service the Great Bear Foundation will happily perform if you call in and ask for their assistance.
As well as compiling data for this map, I have also had the opportunity to localize data for a citizen science trip to Churchill, Canada. During this trip, volunteers observed polar bears in their natural habitat and recorded the data. I then took their records and created a series of Excel spreadsheets to summarize the information. This compilation of data will hopefully go on to help with research papers focused on studying these amazing creatures and how they cope with the harsh environments of the far north.
Spending time in this internship has reminded me of some of the core values I took away from the Wilderness and Civilization program. The most important of those values being that no matter how many arguments you have to make to prove to those with private interests that nature’s beauty is worth preserving, the most important one is the unspoken. That overwhelming feeling of being home when you enter the wilderness is worth far more than arguing that a landscape has value in tourism, or that its worth more money to allow a forest to grow than to chop it down all at once. Seeing and learning about these bears has reminded me that, yes, we could learn some things from a bear’s biological functions that enable it to hibernate for months at a time without loss of muscle mass and implement it in space travel, but no, that should not be the core reason in protecting bear habitat. At the end of the day the reason you should want to protect nature should be because you feel deep within the wildest part of your mind that it’s the right thing do, and a duty that you owe to the world that created you.