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Grand Rapids man changes how polar bears are counted

Most of the year, Dave Garshelis keeps his focus on black bears. But he also saves a little time for white ones.

Garshelis is lead black bear research biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Grand Rapids.

But for a couple of weeks a year, on his own time, Garshelis rides a helicopter along the coast of Foxe Basin at the Arctic Circle counting polar bears and refining a new method of estimating their populations. Foxe Basin is just north of Hudson Bay and next door to Baffin Island.

As an adjunct associate professor of conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, Garshelis is supervising a four-year population study of polar bears for the government of Nunavut, a vast territory of northern Canada.

"I love it," says Garshelis, 57. "Like my DNR job, it has direct application. You make population estimates, and it's directly applicable to the management of that species."

With polar bears at the center of the climate-change discussion, Garshelis' work with polar bear populations is especially important. The population estimates are integral in determining what polar-bear hunting quotas will be for Inuit villages.

Much of the research is carried out by Seth Stapleton, 33, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. student whom Garshelis supervises. Last year was the first year of Stapleton's study.

Counting bears

The new research method Garshelis and Stapleton have designed allows biologists to estimate bear populations from the air, rather than a more conventional "mark-and-recapture" method that requires chasing and capturing bears from the air, then recapturing a portion of the population the following year. That process is expensive - thousands of dollars per bear - and invasive to the bears, Garshelis says.

The Inuit people of Canada, who live among and hunt polar bears, object to the chasing and tranquilizer-darting of bears, Stapleton says.

Many Inuit won't eat polar bears that they know have been administered drugs. That's why the Nunavut government is supportive of the work Garshelis and Stapleton are doing.

"They're the primary funders of this project," Garshelis says.

The Nunavut territory, a vast region of northern Canada, is administered by the Inuit people. About 45 percent of the world's polar bears live in Nunavut, Garshelis says.

Less invasive

The research method Garshelis and Stapleton are pioneering is much less invasive. It involves flying precise routes along the coastline, where bears must wait on shore each summer when the ocean is ice-free. Last summer, they counted 816 polar bears in their study area, Stapleton says.

That does not represent the complete count for the Foxe Basin area. But by estimating how many bears were missed in the count and knowing the size of the area actually covered, researchers can extrapolate the 816 to a total population estimate, Garshelis says.

The total polar bear population of Foxe Basin was estimated at 2,300 before this study, he says. An estimate from last year's aerial survey is not yet available, but Garshelis was pleased at the high number they counted.

"In general, the population in Foxe Basin looks to be pretty good," Garshelis says. "In Baffin Bay, we hear that population is not doing very well. And Hudson Bay is doing not doing well, either. There's strong evidence within Hudson Bay that the extended period ice is out is causing bears diminished health and reduced survival of bears that were on the edge anyway."

Polar bears need ice to catch seals in the ocean. When the bears are stranded on land, they eat virtually nothing and lose much of their body weight.

Polar bears have always spent time on land in summer, when ice is not present on the ocean. The question is whether a warming climate and a longer absence of ocean ice will be detrimental to bears.

Other applications

The new survey technique could be especially valuable in coming years, Stapleton says.

"With this new technique, we hope to be able to estimate populations much more quickly," he says. "That's an additional benefit of the study with climate change."

Stapleton and Garshelis hope to use the same survey techniques in Baffin Bay, between Canada's Baffin Island and Greenland. Stapleton visited several communities on Baffin Island last week to meet with Inuit leaders. He works closely with the communities to make sure they understand and approve of his research.

Beyond the science of the polar bear work is the awe of being close to these animals. Both Garshelis and Stapleton have accompanied a biologist doing mark-and-recapture work, in which crews land and take samples from tranquilized bears.

"They're fantastic animals," Stapleton says. "When you get up close, they're very impressive. I have a picture where I'm putting my two size-11 rubber boots side by side, and they're still smaller than a polar bear track."

Garshelis agrees.

"They're just massive, and heavy," he says. "We did some that were up around 1,000 pounds. Just to roll the bear over took four people."

The bears are drugged lightly so they will recover quickly and not be cannibalized by other hungry bears, Garshelis says.

"We work really fast," he says. "We land. Everyone rushes from the helicopter. We're back to the helicopter in 15 minutes. But while you're there, the bear is sort of groggy and lifting its head up. You're dealing with this massive bear that's kind of dopey.

"You fly over a half-hour later, and the thing is gone."

If the new research methodology proves successful, as it seems to be, those on-the-ground encounters to mark bears for population estimates could be largely a thing of the past.

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