Updated: 3:47 p.m.
Here’s the problem. Polar bears live in some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible habitat on Earth — tough for humans and practically anything people make.
“They’re in the Arctic. They’re in and out of the sea that is sometimes frozen,” says Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, based in Montana and Winnipeg. He and his colleagues try to track bears. “And they’re just rough on things.”
Researchers who study the bears have relied on radio and satellite tracking to monitor bear habitat and populations for decades. Location is one of the key metrics in studying the bears.
But there’s a second problem. “Male adult polar bears have necks that are larger than their heads,” York says. “So, they’re cone shaped. And physiologically, collars fall off of them. They won’t keep them on.”
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So researchers have had to settle for collaring and tracking adult female bears — bears that have a more collar-friendly shape. Researchers have also tried ear tags, but they’re sensitive to potential injuries to bears' ears with permanent tags.
Enter BJ Kirschhoffer, who runs field operations for Polar Bear International. (He grew up, as it happens, in White Bear Lake). It also just so happens that his dad, Jon, is an advanced research specialist at Maplewood-based 3M.
So BJ Kirschhoffer asked his dad to come up with a better way to deploy battery powered transmitters, which are about the size of a back of gum. It just made sense: researchers turning to the company that makes Scotch tape and Post-it notes to stick GPS trackers to bears.
Jon Kirschhoffer and a group of 3M scientists met recently for a brainstorming session — part of an initiative that gives researchers a little time each year to work on, well, stuff. Ideas that may not immediately, or ever, turn into products.
“We called it the tag-a-bear challenge,” the senior Kirschhoffer says.
Ideas quickly focused on polar bear fur. It’s a pretty daunting surface, but has one distinct advantage — bears get rid of it when they molt. In theory, a radio tracker could be stuck on a bear, transmit until it runs out of batteries, then the bear sheds its fur and the tracker, and the bears and researchers go their separate ways.
The 3M scientists came up with a whole series of ideas. Some of them look like sticky plastic starfish. Another is like a little three-way hair roller, but industrial strength. Kirschhoffer says they use a combination of friction and waterproof (and snow and ice proof) glue to stick the tracker to the bear.
They tested them on bear pelts. This fall, sent them to Canada, where researchers put them on bears that wandered into Churchill, Manitoba, and had to be relocated away from people. Jon Kirschhoffer says they’re now stuck on bears wandering around Hudson Bay — or at least the prototypes that worked. The bears scraped some off right away .
“We attach them just above their shoulders on the back of their neck,” Kirschhoffer says. “We want to put it in a place that doesn’t bother the bear much and that they can’t roll or have, you know, get up there with a paw and scratch this thing off.”
Bear researchers hope it’ll be a new era in polar bear tracking — particularly for bears that they haven’t been able to track well using existing technology.
“The interesting part will come with younger animals, both males and females,” York says. “They tend to be the ones that disperse , the ones that move more frequently, and the ones that might be higher risk takers, because they’re in that age when they’re not established yet.”
The new systems are likely to cost a fraction of conventional tracking collars which can run $5,000 or more, and make it more affordable to keep tabs on polar bears, although the initial 3M prototypes were free.
And even more importantly, researchers are hoping to get an even better idea how bears are responding to climate change, as the animals’ habitat changes around them.
Correction (Dec. 8, 2020): A previous version of this article misspelled Jon Kirschhoffer’s name. The story has been updated.