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CITIZENS HELPING WITH BLACK BEAR RESEARCH: iSeeMammals connects citizens with local wildlife populations, and with science-based wildlife management.

If you live in upstate New York, you may have noticed that black bears seem to be in the news of late. Whether it is a televised news piece about a bear up a tree in the Albany suburb of Delmar, or the social media post of a bear walking down a rural driveway, or the bear that locked itself in a car in Old Forge, or the bear that broke into the house in Sabael, it may seem like those reports are getting more common.

You'd be right--the number of interactions between humans and bears in New York is on the rise. There are two primary reasons for this increase; probably the most significant cause is a growing black bear population. The other is that more people are moving into habitat occupied by bears, increasing the likelihood of interaction.

Why are bears becoming more plentiful? Bears have been protected since 1903, when New York instituted the first regulated hunting season. While this might sound counterintuitive, because regulated hunting allows people to kill bears, it also protects them whenever the season is closed, which is most of the year.

In 1952, DEC mapped black bear distribution in New York. Bears occupied three primary ranges: the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and a small sliver of the western Southern Tier, which we called the Allegany range. As bear populations have increased and bears have occupied new territory, the Catskill and Allegany ranges have merged into a single range called the Southern Black Bear Zone. Biologists estimate the bear population in New York now numbers between 6,000 and 8,000, and is growing.

Bears are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. While they thrive in forested habitats, they are also intelligent and adaptable. Recent research found that bears in southwestern New York were equally likely to be in areas with agriculture or human development as with forest cover. This was surprising, because we expected to find more bears in areas with more forest cover, and suggests that bears in southwestern New York may continue to expand north and east into central New York, where there is generally less forest.

In the summers of 2011 and 2012, researchers from DEC and the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University set up approximately 200 research sites in a 1,600-square-mile study area in the Southern Tier. We collaborated with 162 private landowners to establish research sites on private property, as well as sites on State Forests, State Parks, and Wildlife Management Areas.

We intended to snag hairs as bears crossed over barbed wire to investigate scent lures. We extracted DNA from hair samples and used that information to identify individual bears. This allowed us to reconstruct "histories" of when specific bears visited specific sites, and to estimate the population density of bears in the study area.

We estimated an average bear density of 1 bear per 3 square miles in our study area, which is a medium-level bear density for the northeastern United States. This is the first time bear density in southwestern New York has been estimated in this manner. In northern New York, bear density was estimated to be approximately 1 bear per 2 square miles in 2010 by Gardner et al. in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Density is but one part of the puzzle; how bears are distributed across the landscape is another. Biologists need good information like this if they are to succeed in managing black bears.

In 2015, we expanded data collection by setting up barbed wire and trail camera stations across the Southern Tier. To date, we have collected more than 1,500 hair samples and 1 million days of trail camera photographs. However, we aren't collecting data from the Adirondacks and Erie-Ontario Lowlands because we can't be everywhere at once. This is where you, the reader, can help.

Researchers are inviting the public to participate through a citizen science project called iSeeMammals. Citizen science is a method of scientific inquiry in which volunteers collaborate in scientific research with professional scientists.

iSeeMammals launched in the spring of 2017, and enlists hikers, hunters, trappers, naturalists and outdoor recreationists of all kinds to take part. Volunteers are asked to collect and submit any of three kinds of data: observations of bear and bear signs (tracks, scat, hair and markings), information about hikes when there is a possibility of seeing bear or bear signs, and trail camera observations.

We collect information about the date and location of observations, and encourage participants to take photographs so that we can confirm observations. Observations and trail cameras provide data on the presence of bears; hikes and trail cameras also provide information about the absence of bears. Absence information helps us determine where there are no bears, but importantly it also helps us determine the probability that an area has bears, even when none were observed. We welcome data from throughout the state, even in areas where research sites have been set up. A website ( and free smartphone app are available for citizen scientists to access the project and submit data.

As of October 2017, iSeeMammals had 721 users who collectively submitted more than 400 hikes, trail camera locations, and observations. The data collected through iSeeMammals will be used in combination with data from summer field research and the fall hunting season to generate more precise and accurate estimates of bear population size, growth and distribution than through any single method. Population trends based only on harvest data are subject to variable hunting effort, which can mask true changes in the population. In the current New York black bear management plan, DEC has identified target levels of black bear abundance in different parts of the state, based on best available science and the input of various stakeholder groups.

Our research will contribute estimates of current population sizes and distribution patterns that may shed light about how the population may change in the future. This will allow wildlife managers to consider the effectiveness of different potential management strategies.

Citizen science can be an inexpensive way to collect large quantities of data across large areas over many years. In this respect, iSeeMammals also serves as a pilot project to assess the feasibility of using citizen science as a tool for monitoring wildlife populations in New York. In addition to bears, iSeeMammals also received photographs and observations of white-tailed deer, eastern coyotes and bobcats even though they were not the target species of interest. Similar citizen science approaches may be useful for monitoring and managing other wildlife species.

Importantly, iSeeMammals represents a new way to engage the public in wildlife management in New York. iSeeMammals connects citizens with local wildlife populations, and with science-based wildlife management. To learn more or to get involved, visit

Catherine Sun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. Angela K. Fuller is the Unit Leader of the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Jeremy E. Hurst is a big game biologist in DEC's Albany office. Dave Nelson is editor of Conservationist.

Caption: DEC's management plan for bears varies by geographic region.

Caption: Researchers set up study areas consisting of scent lures surrounded by barbed wire. As bears entered the area a few hairs would get caught on the wire (see photo right) which were then tested for DNA.

Caption: Participants in iSeeMammals are asked to report bear sightings or any signs, such as bear tracks.

Caption: The study used trailcam photos to help document bear visits.
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Title Annotation:iSeeMammals
Author:Sun, Catherine; Fuller, Angela K.; Hurst, Jeremy E.; Nelson, Dave
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Feb 1, 2018
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