Touchdown, Cornell’s unofficial mascot, is the only red bear in New York.
But the state is home to at least 6,000 to 8,000 black bears, spread across all forms of terrain. Tracking all of them proves to be a significant challenge for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency tasked with the welfare of these animals. However, the development of a new mobile app at Cornell, named iSeeMammals, could soon revolutionize how data about bears and their presence is collected.
“We have approximately 200 research sites every summer across the Southern Tier, but we still can’t get everywhere. Developing an app would potentially allow us to collect more data in new places by enlisting the help of the public and folks who spend a lot of time outdoors. If they could submit data about where and when they saw bears and bear signs on hikes or on their trail cameras, we could really improve our dataset,” said Catherine Sun, a doctoral student in the department of human ecology, and the project’s lead.
Sun hopes that the data provided through the application will allow researchers to model the population of black bears in the state, including their rates of reproduction and survival.
“It is a great way to engage people with wildlife conservation, wildlife research and wildlife management. Bears are an iconic species, and they can be hunted in New York, with hunting being a primary tool of the NYSDEC for managing bears. We thought this would be a really interesting way to involve people in the science part of the process,” Sun said.
Existing methods used to track bears include the use of neck collars. Older versions of the technology used radio frequencies to help scientists triangulate the bear’s location but the recent use of GPS has made this location data even more easily accessible. Conservationists also use a technique known as spatial capture-recapture, which tracks visits by individual bears to specific research sites. Sun emphasizes the importance of using such techniques to estimate population size and distribution, an important step in managing wildlife.
“Traditional ‘scientists’ can only cover so much ground,” Sun said.
She emphasized the importance of crowdsourced data. One of the biggest advantages is the sheer amount of data that can be collected. Citizen scientists also prove to be extremely important when researchers are defining the focus of their investigation, the methods that they intend to use as well as during the process of collecting data and communicating results.
“So to pose and answer questions at large scales, like about climate change or natural patterns, it is very appealing to involve people who may not be professionally trained but are nonetheless able and interested in contributing to the scientific inquiry,” Sun said.
Sun also hopes that enlisting everyday citizens to help the cause will help people connect with the environment and understand the complex manner in which it functions.
“Especially for wildlife research with a state agency, citizen science is an additional way to incorporate the values and input of the public into downstream management decisions. It’s also an opportunity for transparency so folks can see that state agencies use rigorous science and aren’t pulling rules and decisions out of a hat,” Sun said.
The response to the application was immediate, with over 300 people signing up in the first four months alone.
“I was surprised by how organically interest in it has grown and how quick to be deeply involved some people were. It was almost as if they were waiting for something like this, because of how much data they immediately started providing. I think that alone highlights for me the value and potential of citizen science,” Sun said.
As with all crowdsourced projects, the reliability of data remains a worry. Though most people will not intentionally post misleading or inaccurate data, it is possible that other markings could be mistaken for bear signs. Sun says that the team has found ways to reduce these sources of error.
“To verify the data, we encourage people to include a photo of the bear signs that they see. Bear hair, tracks, scat and markings can sometimes be tricky to identify, so photographs help us make sure we’re only analyzing bear data,” Sun said.
While one of the application’s functions is to collect signs of the presence of bears, Sun emphasized the importance of tracking their absence, or perceived absence.
“When people do not see bears or bear signs, it is just as important for us to know. We really encourage people to use the app to track their hike route and to report the period that their trail cameras were set up. After all, it makes a difference if a person only saw one bear track on a hike that was a half mile versus a hike that was 10 miles or if a person saw a bear on their camera once over a two week period or over an entire year,” Sun said.
Though data from the application is still pouring in, Sun is optimistic about its potential. She believes that the data can be used to estimate population size, distribution and patterns so as to explain why and how bear populations are changing in the state. Such an investigation would then allow scientists at NYSDEC to develop a conservation plan for these animals.
“After that, we may consider using the app for studying and monitoring other wildlife species that are difficult to study with the traditional resources,” Sun said.