PORTLAND — Video cameras are seemingly everywhere. Soon there’ll even be one hanging from around the neck of a Maine black bear as it interacts with its cubs, forages for berries or perhaps makes its way into a backyard bird feeder.
In a study that begins this spring, Unity College students will trap up to five female bears and attach collars with GPS devices that will record their movements via satellite. One of the collars will be equipped with a video camera.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife already gathers data from dozens of radio-collared bears, some of which are fitted with GPS that collect information on the animals’ travels. But this is the first time a video camera will be used to learn more about Maine’s black bear population.
The camera will hang from the bottom of the collar, giving a bear’s-eye view of the world, said George Matula, a wildlife biology professor who is leading the initiative in cooperation with the wildlife department.
The project will give dozens of students hands-on experience studying bears as well as provide data for the state, he said.
“We’re trying to give students a chance to get involved in real-life experiences while accomplishing something that will be useful to the state,” Matula said.
Maine has an estimated 31,000 black bears, the highest tally since their numbers began being methodically estimated in 1989.
The state wildlife department monitors the bear populations in areas in northern, north-central and eastern Maine.
For the Unity project, students will trap up to five bears, sedate them and attach the collars. The camera will be retrieved next winter while the bear is hibernating, then sent to the collar manufacturer, Lotek Wireless Inc., a Canadian company that makes monitoring devices for wildlife, Matula said.
Lotek will download the footage and send it to the school, where students will analyze it, Matula said. Because the camera can hold only about 20 hours of footage, Matula and others will have to program the camera in advance to try to capture the best footage in 10-second intervals.
The bears that are being targeted for the project live in towns in central Maine near Unity, where the college is located. The area hasn’t traditionally had a lot of bears because it was mostly open farmland, but the bear population has increased in recent decades as farms have been replaced by forestland, Matula said.
One goal is to use the data collected by the GPS devices and the camera collar to determine whether the bears in the Unity region differ from bears in the other areas where they are monitored. The study will take a look at things such as the range of the bears and reproduction, survival and recruitment rates.
More than 50 students at Unity have signed up to work on different aspects of the project, Matula said.
The video footage will provide another tool to learn more about Maine’s bear population, said Randy Cross, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who has studied bears for more than 30 years.
Elsewhere, video cameras are in use on caribou, deer, and black, brown and polar bears, according to Lotek. Video footage on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website from a camera worn by a brown bear in south-central Alaska shows a sow playing with her cub, a bear eating a beaver, a bear eating a moose and a bear in an icy lake.
The site also has a 13-minute video titled “A Bear’s Eye View, A Day in the Life of A Bear.”