Citizen-scientists track N.Y. bears with iSeeMammals app

bear print
Cat Sun/Provided
A bear track in the Catskills.

Black bear populations are on the rise in New York state, and Cornell researchers are combining digital technology with on-the-ground conservation efforts to better manage the growing numbers of the animals in the state.

Catherine Sun, a doctoral student in the Department of Natural Resources, working with Angela Fuller, associate professor of natural resources and leader of the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, led the development of the iSeeMammals app, which enables users to collect and submit information about bear sightings or any signs – such as tracks, scat, hair or markings – that indicate the presence, or even absence, of bears. Users can submit information from one-time observations, hikes and trail cameras.

Sun and Fuller are using the data to gain a clearer sense of black bear population size and how that distribution relates to different land-cover patterns, such as agriculture, forest and human communities. The project from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is giving hikers, hunters, naturalists and anyone with a smartphone or internet access the opportunity to contribute to Cornell research.

“New York’s black bear population is growing, and that has meant more intense and frequent interactions as human and bear populations increasingly nudge against one another,” Sun said. “Sightings, nuisance complaints, property damage, road kill – these kinds of interactions are up, so it’s critical that we have rigorous estimates of how many bears there are and how the population is changing. This will help us anticipate future issues and help the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) continue to develop science-based management strategies.”

A previous study by the research team, funded by NYSDEC, found that black bear populations in a study area in Allegany, Steuben and Livingston counties have not diminished despite increased urban and agricultural development. The research suggests the bears might continue to push into central and northern regions of the state unless management strategies are maintained and adapted, according to Sun.

bear hair
Cat Sun/Provided
Bear hair caught in barbed wire in the Catskills.

The idea for the iSeeMammals app originated in 2015 when Sun was conducting her first summer of fieldwork. She realized that traditional data-collection efforts were inadequate to cover the immense expanses of New York state.

“Even with collaborating with state agency biologists, we could really only sample about 200 locations over an entire summer,” Sun said. “That sounds like a lot, but when you think about how vast upstate New York is, it is actually very few points on the landscape.”

Data about where bears are – and where they are not – allow conservationists to estimate the probability that the animals will be found in specific areas, and determine how best to manage bears.

“Engaging citizen scientists – that is, nonprofessional scientists or volunteers – provides an opportunity to collect data at a very large spatial extent,” Fuller said. “Traditionally, bear populations are tracked using harvest indices, but they have limited utility because of variable hunter effort and time lags in the response of bear populations to hunting. The iSeeMammals app will allow us to collect data independent of harvest that will contribute to a monitoring and management plan for the population of bears in New York.”

The team began testing an early version of iSeeMammals in fall 2016 and officially launched the app this spring. It is available free via Apple and Android app stores. Hundreds of observations have already been logged through the app and its website, providing the Cornell researchers with data that would have taken years to collect on their own.

While the technology has the potential to be expanded to monitor different species and in other states – hence its neutral name – Sun believes the app also has the ability to connect the average person more deeply with nature.

“A pillar of the North American model of wildlife management is that wildlife and natural resources are a public trust, so they are managed with the citizens as the beneficiaries. That concept isn’t always communicated very well,” Sun said. “Citizen science engages people with this wildlife management that serves them, so now they can feel more involved and they’re actually part of a project that affects them at a local and statewide scale.”

David Nutt is a freelance writer.

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