istock_000013260959xsmall-300x199GPS technology is used all over the world for a wide variety of tasks. The U.S. military developed the technology in order to improve weapons and spy missions. Satellites were launched into space on a predictable orbit and used to pinpoint exact locations via signal receivers on earth. In the past few decades
, the technology has improved and become more precise. It has also become widely available for commercial and personal use. Just about everyone has a GPS navigation system in their car these days, if not a GPS-enabled smartphone in their pocket.

istock_000013260959xsmall-300x199In this writers opinion, one of the coolest ways GPS tracking is used is environmental studies and wildlife conservation efforts. We’ve reported many stories on here of how GPS collars are used to study or protect endangered species. Researchers like to use GPS tracking technology because it is fairly non-invasive, meaning that they can observe the animal’s behavior from a distance in it’s natural environment. This tactic allows the researchers to gather data about migration patterns of fish, birds and other animals. It also generally gives a good idea of how the wildlife interacts with its environment.

Not all wildlife studies focus on endangered animals. GPS tracking is also used to help understand and improve the relationship between human settlements and wildlife. One of the biggest threats to any species is losing its natural environment. The further we humans encroach into animal habitats, the more wildlife have to adjust, adapt or perish. Many environmentalist and wildlife advocates hope that GPS tracking studies can help us better understand how to coexist with the wildlife around us.

We have previously published stories of researchers tracking wolves to help protect the local farmer’s livestock as well as the wolves, who are often killed when found guilty of killing a domestic animal. We’ve also written about tracking more common animals, like domestic cats, in order to investigate how they interact with their urban environment and other wildlife, like birds and rats. This story, however, involves the common, yet dangerous, black bear.

In the middle of the Appalachian mountains, a city is thriving among a considerable population of black bears. According to wildlife officials, there are an estimated 7,000 bears living in western North Carolina. The city of Asheville seemed like a perfect place to launch a large-scale study of local black bears. The idea is to trap and collar the local bears and monitor them for a period of six months to a year. This tracking data will provide incredibly valuable information about where and when the bears interact with the urban environment.

The data is so valuable, because the better we can understand what attracts the bears and what is dangerous for them, the better prepared we are to peacefully coexist with the wildlife surrounding mountain towns. The study will track hundreds of black bears over the next four years. The goal is to track at least 40 bears at a time. The study is already under way, with dozens of of culvert traps have been placed in Asheville where bears have been spotted. Many of the traps are in the backyards of residents.

“We put a collar on. We give it unique ear tags,” said Nick Gould, wildlife researcher at North Carolina State University. “We give it a lip tattoo and take other body measurements. It usually takes an hour.” Once the bears have been evaluated and collared, they are placed back in the traps to wake up and be released. The GPS collars are about two pounds and held on the bear with a biodegradable material, which devolves over time. The tracking device either naturally falls off the bear after a year or it can be remotely detached by one of the researchers at any time.

The mountains provide beautiful scenery and weather. Many people seek out homes in the mountains, especially in retirement. As crazy as it might sound to some of us city-dwellers, the local bears are actually an attraction for many of the Asheville residents. “It’s the Appalachians down here. They’re beautiful,” Gould said. “It’s a good bear habitat, and people also like to live here.” However, human-bear conflict is not to be taken lightly. It’s important that studies like this take place so we can better understand our wild neighbors. This way we can make effort to reduce any kind of bear attack on a human, as well as protect the bears from becoming roadkill and other urban threats.

“[The goal is] making sure people are living with them correctly,” explained Gould, “trying to reduce the amount of conflict between bears and humans.” There are many places around the world where bears and other wildlife share their habitats with humans. It’s something that one can get used to, but there are a few precautions that should be taken when living or just camping around wildlife. In order to prevent bears and other annoying wild animals from wandering too close to your home, don’t put leave your dog or cat’s food outside. Also, don’t put your trash out until the morning it will be picked up by the trash truck. It’s also a good idea to remove any bird feeders during the spring, summer and fall months.

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