Baby bears buzz like a hive of bees when they are nursing.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” said MPG Ranch biologist Kylie Paul. “It actually sort of sounds like they’re humming. Then they stop and they breathe and then the sound starts all over again. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.”
And that’s saying something when you’re talking to a biologist who has spent countless hours out in the woods observing all sorts of different critters.
Paul is a member of the MPG Ranch’s team that documents the lives of the black bears that call the sweeping 16,400-acre ranch east of Florence home. The team uses video captured on about 200 strategically placed trail cameras.
The ranch released its fourth bear video recently. It's filled with surprising footage of bears being bears seemingly without a worry in the world. It can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/channels/1073221/261555913
While the video’s story focuses on what MPG Ranch researchers have learned about that moment when bear families decide to go their own separate ways, the belly-flopping, back-rubbing, and tree-climbing bears of all ages steal the show.
“From just from a bear enthusiast’s point of view, you get to see bears in a totally different way,” Paul said, about the time she’s spent looking through trail camera videos. “You see their behavior, how they move and they interact socially when there’s no one around. It really gives you an opportunity to get to know them.”
The bear research project is as unique as the ranch property on which it’s located.
There are no cattle, sheep or hay fields on this ranch. In their stead, the property is set aside for myriad of research projects that run the gamut from microbes and nighttime avian flights, to studies looking at elk and mountain lions. The ranch employees work to restore and conserve the land as a team.
“The MPG Ranch is a pretty unique kind of place,” Paul said. “They have all of these cameras set up in strategic places to capture footage of wildlife. When it comes to bears, they have the ability to take a more in-depth look at how they live their lives over a longer period of time than most research projects are able to.”
In other studies around the country, researchers use more invasive techniques like radio collars or taming the bears enough to tolerate people being nearby.
The unmanned cameras that have been there for years allow a more candid view of bears’ lives.
Alan Ramsey helped establish the first video cameras on the ranch back in 2010. His brother, Philip, has managed the ranch since its purchase in 2009.
Over the years, he’s learned that bears have a complex communication system and are far more social than many would have thought. Ramsey and other researchers also discovered that they could pick an individual bear if you took the time to get to know it.
“We starting noticing that we could tell individual bears by the way they looked,” Ramsey said. “We noticed that they had identifying marks or cowlicks or chest patches that set them apart.”
The researchers put together a list of 20 characteristics they used to keep track of the individual bears, which surprisingly even included the different ways each animal sheds its winter coat.
“You can follow those shedding patterns. … Some might lose their hair around their front legs first,” Ramsey said. “Other bears might lose their hair around the back their legs. They were all unique.”
The videos also offered a peek into the social life of a bear.
“It’s a lot more complicated than what people might think,” Ramsey said. “While most people think they live an isolated life once they leave their family, it doesn’t seem that way. They are really interested in other bears. Sometimes they spend time with other bears.”
And sometimes they communicate through their noses.
With a highly developed sense of smell, the bears keep track of each other through scent left at rub trees, game trails and water holes.
“There’s certainly a lot of interaction that occurs between bears, but it’s not all necessarily face to face,” Paul said. “They communicate in different ways. A lot of it is through scent. That allows them to share different resources on the landscape without being a problem to each other. They figure out ways to work it out.”
Since the first cameras were set, the researchers have documented 42 different bears. Most of those come and go.
“I think seasonally they use some places more often,” Paul said. “We see about 15 bears on a consistent basis. The rest come and go.”
The males seem to travel more.
“They’re just not planted in the same area like a female,” she said. “We’ve got hundreds of videos of one sow with two cubs and maybe five of this other large male. … There are some who stick around and there are others that we don’t know if they are even alive. There are a number of ways for a black bear to die, but most are human-caused.”
The MPG Ranch doesn’t allow bear hunting on its property.
It’s about this time of year that bears will start appearing again in the Bitterroot and beyond.
“It’s time to put away those attractants,” Paul said. “The more wild we can keep these bears, the better off they’ll be and more likely they will be able to survive.”