Polar Bears International

Polar Bears International is testing fixed motion-detection cameras in northern Alaska at likely polar bear den sites. If successful, the cameras will allow us to monitor the entire denning process from hundreds of miles away.

© BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International

9/19/2017 8:13:53 PM

Polar Bear Research: Motion Detection Cameras

Leave it to BJ Kirschhoffer, our director of field operations, to come up with yet another way to study polar bears non-invasively.

A technical whiz who loves the chance to problem-solve, BJ is the brainchild behind the remote camera systems that allow us to record the behavior of polar bear moms and cubs when they first leave their maternity dens. (No easy task given the subzero temperatures and remote locations.) 

BJ is also the guru behind our Tundra Connections® webcasts—which link scientists in the field with viewers in remote locations—and is working with partners to test new technology that will detect polar bears as they approach villages, giving wildlife managers the chance to drive the bears away with loud noises and other non-lethal deterrents, thus avoiding tragic encounters.

Every year seems to bring a new innovation on BJ’s part, so it should come as no surprise that he’s up to it again: this time, experimenting with fixed motion-detection cameras in areas where female polar bears are highly likely to dig snow dens.

“The idea is to minimize the disturbance and increase the efficiency of efforts to document denning polar bears while also having the ability to capture more information,” said Geoff York, our senior director of conservation. “If we are lucky, the cams will allow us to capture the entire denning process from site selection to den abandonment.”

For the test phase, BJ set up a camera just north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, at a high probability bear denning site. Back home in Bozeman, Montana, he worked with partners at GCI Alaska and Hilcorp to activate the motion detection function, then kicked back to let images, like the ones above and below, roll in.

“The camera is set to email the images to Polar Bears International every time it detects motion,” he said. “By monitoring the site remotely, we’re able to minimize disturbances to polar bears."

"We plan to install this type of camera system at times of the year when no polar bears are present," he added, "and then return for maintenance every year or every other year, again during the off-season.”

The project builds on the work already being done with polar bear den sites in Alaska and Svalbard, adding to our understanding of this vulnerable period in the polar bear’s life cycle.

A polar bear mom and two cubs on the tundra.

The movements of a polar bear mom and cubs activated one of our fixed motion-detection cameras, which then emailed a set of images back to our offices in Montana.

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