The North American Bear Center's Web site had 467,000 page views during 2009 - not bad for a two-year-old operation based in end-of-the-road Ely.
But thanks to Lily the hibernating bear, her newborn cub and live video of a wild black bear birth, the Bear Center has seen more interest in 2010. A lot more.
"We had more than 3 million visitors over three weeks in January alone," said Lynn Rogers, longtime Ely bear researcher and the driving force behind the Bear Center.
People are clicking at www.bear.org to see Lily and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of her cub. Dozens of volunteer Den Cam watchers from around the world have signed up to watch the video for one or two hours each week and record what they see, so researchers can eat and sleep and do other things.
"We have between 50 and 60 people signed up for one or two hours keeping track, and we'll organize all of it in a database. They're as far away as Germany, Australia, England, and from just about every state," said Janet Dalton, a grade school principal in Morristown, Tenn., who is coordinating the Den Cam monitoring effort. "And our (school's) kids are getting involved in class. One of our second-grade classes is writing their director's book about Lily."
Since the cub was born on Jan. 22, Lily has mostly kept her back to the camera while the cub has been nursing. Rogers said the cub and bear seem to be communicating more now and the cub's noises seem unmistakable, even to the untrained ear.
Viewers have reported seeing part of the cub now and then, but there have been no major appearances. Researchers say that should change in a few weeks - probably about March 1 or so.
"We think once its eyes open, which is at about 6 weeks, we'll see a lot more activity. He or she will start to move around more and we might see it on top of Lily and moving around," said Sue Mansfield, another researcher.
Rogers and Mansfield are watching their subjects from their research cabin four miles from Lily's den, getting the same video feed that millions of bear watchers around the world see. The researchers already have been surprised at what they've seen while watching an undisturbed bear give birth.
"The 21 hours of labor was totally unexpected. How could something so small, 9 inches long and 12 ounces, take that kind of labor?" Mansfield said. "You could see the muscles on top of her head tensing up. We think she (Lily) was probably clenching her teeth at that point. And there were some other, very violent movements as well. It was a struggle for her."
Rogers said it's become much clearer that all Minnesota black bears don't simply go to sleep in October and wake up in April. Lily and other bears he's watching in person sometimes leave the den to defecate. And Lily made a trip out just before giving birth to retrieve fresh bedding of balsam fir boughs.
"The level of care she's giving is almost constant," Rogers said. "A lot of people thought, and the literature assumed, that bears went to sleep for six months and would wake up surprised to see they had cubs. That clearly isn't the case."
Rogers is hoping that the popularity of Lily's Den Cam will help the Bear Center crawl out of debt. The $1.7 million center opened in Ely in May 2007 with 12,000 square feet of exhibits and hours of video from Rogers' research of bears. The nonprofit center's board borrowed to pay most of the center's cost, and $700,000 of the mortgage is still outstanding.
The Den Cam has helped trim that a bit. Donations in the latest round of fundraising rocketed from less than $5,000 early in January to more than $47,000 at month's end, though donations have trailed off in recent days.
"We are still a long way off," Rogers noted.
Lily is one of a dozen wild bear Rogers follows. He places collars on research bears without use of tranquilizing darts - he gains the animals' trust and the bears simply allow him to put the collar on. It's part of Rogers' larger effort to prove that black bears are a mostly docile animal that pose little or no threat to people.
Rogers also operates the nonprofit Bear Research Institute through which he and Mansfield conduct their "walking with bears" research, following bears through the woods and recording their behavior. They also escort tourists on three-day, $1,500 bear-walking sessions each summer.
Rogers' efforts have been criticized by traditional wildlife researchers and managers and some neighbors who say the bears Rogers studies become habituated to people, losing their fear, and could become a danger to the public. Others say Rogers is using the bears for personal fame and fortune and that his efforts are more promotional than scientific.
Rogers, 70, who has studied bears for 43 years, isn't deterred. He says he's doing some of the most important research he's ever done. Anything that helps people understand more about bears is a success, he said. He's been featured in a recent BBC documentary and his efforts will be featured in an Animal Planet show in April across the U.S.
"For years I was counting and weighing and tracking tranquilized bears and wasn't doing anything to help bears," Rogers said. "Between the Lily Den Cam and the three or four documentaries that are out or in the works, we're reaching millions of people. We're letting the world see what we have (in and around Ely), and we're changing attitudes about bears."
The North American Bear Center is working on a deal under which Cub Foods grocery stores will sponsor a "Name Lily's Cub" contest starting Feb. 21. The contest would be promoted in Cub's 73 stores across four states, and customers can submit entries for names for Lily's cub. The winner will get a $500 Cub gift certificate.
Cub Foods also will promote the center on its Web site, including a "click to donate" feature.
In addition, Twin Cities-based Cub Foods is promising to promote the North American Bear Center and its mission on grocery bags at the stores for two weeks. The stores go through about 3 million bags a week.
Information from: Duluth News Tribune
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)