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Hidden cameras reveal the secret life of bears

What do grizzly bears do in the woods? They rub trees. Kate Kendall, a field biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, took advantage of that behavior to tackle a task that many said was impossible — a census of the threatened animals.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

What do grizzly bears do in the woods when nobody’s watching? They rub. A lot. Mostly against trees, standing upright and scratching their huge backs, or even locking a tree trunk in a bear hug and rubbing their heads against it.

Kate Kendall, a 56-year-old field biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, has spent her life studying grizzlies, and she shared film of bears shimmying in the woods in a special report filed for TODAY by NBC’s Michael Okwu.

Bears may look like they’re scratching a nagging itch when they rub, a behavior they may engage in for more than an hour. But they’re really marking territory and advertising their presence to other bears.

Kendall took advantage of that behavior to tackle a task that many said was impossible — a census of grizzly bears. Leading a team that included more than 200 paid workers and hundreds of volunteers, she took the first definitive tally ever of grizzly bears in Glacier National Park and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, a territory that spans nearly 8 million acres in western Montana from Missoula and Helena in the south to the Canadian border in the north.

The bears had been declared endangered more than 30 years ago, in 1975. Conservation efforts allowed the huge omnivores to repopulate the territory and improve the status of the population to “threatened,” but no one knew how many bears now roamed the rugged forests.

Hair bear bunchGrizzly bears are solitary critters that shun contact with humans. That makes them awfully difficult to find, let alone count.

But one thing that is well-known about bears is that they like to rub against trees. So Kendall, a field biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who once stared down a charging mother grizzly, hit on the idea of collecting fur from the trees that bears visited and collecting DNA samples from the hair.

She also figured out a way to set up “traps” to collect more hair samples. She set up strands of barbed wire around lures baited with a fragrant concoction of rotten fish and cattle blood — an aroma bears find irresistible. Bears would either slide under the wire or sashay over it, in either case leaving strands of fur caught on the “hair traps.”

Kendall held up some of the fur for inspection. “This is bear hair, and it’s the key to our project,” she told TODAY. “We have no baseline information about the status of this population, and we need that to judge whether they have recovered or not.”

They do now, thanks to her efforts and those of the hundreds of professionals and volunteers who divided the vast territory of Glacier National Park into quadrants and collected grizzly hair.

A waste of money?
Wildlife experts are in awe of what Kendall has managed to do. But what bears do in the woods has raised the hackles of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. McCain has used Kendall’s work as an example of waste in government, lumping it together with the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and other pork barrel projects.

The project cost nearly $5 million, The Washington Post reported earlier this year. And it was money well spent, Sterling Miller of the National Wildlife Federation told the newspaper, saying, “It was extremely well executed and well worth the money. Someone like McCain should be delighted, in fact. The Endangered Species Act works.”

Kendall’s crew collected more than 33,000 samples of hair. DNA labs identified 563 different bears as the source of the fur. For the first time since the federal government took over care of the grizzly population 33 years ago, researchers had a number that represented the minimum number of animals in the vast territory.

The DNA project concluded in 2004. But Kendall has continued to study the bears, using her lures and the knowledge she’s gained about the bears’ rubbing behavior to collect rare film footage of the animals in the wild.

Under her direction the Geological Survey has filmed bears rubbing and interacting with other animals that inhabit the ecosystem, including wolves, wolverines, foxes and elk.

“We’re finding that it is also an unbelievably powerful outreach tool to engage the public and get them interested in bears and bear conservation,” she said.