The Department of Fish and Wildlife is using cameras to study how bears will react to a new commercial wind project in southeastern Vermont.
Since 2011, the department's been tracking about a dozen of the animals in Readsboro and Searsburg with radio collars to get an idea of how they move around before the turbines are in place.
Jaclyn Comeau, who works for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the radio collars the state uses to study the bears are pretty good -- but they have their limitations.
For one, they're expensive, and the state's only been able to track about a dozen of the animals.
Also, the bears can be rough on the radio collars, and they've lost a few.
And sometimes a collared bear just takes off into another area.
So, Comeau says the department decided to test another method for finding out what's going on in the woods.
"Last year we felt like we needed, like a back-up for that data collection," she says. "That's why we decided to deploy these cameras. We just started in the fall. And I'll say I haven't even fully gone through all of the data yet, but we have, gosh, hundreds of bear detections, so it's pretty exciting."
The cameras came down for the winter and on a chilly day in early April, Comeau hiked into the Green Mountain National Forest to put them back up.
The Iberdrola Deerfield Wind Project includes 15 turbines, and it's going up on two ridges within the Manchester Ranger District. It will be the very first commercial wind project on U.S. Forest Service land.
Comeau says her department is concerned because the wind turbines will be built very near, and in a few instances right on top of, important beech stands where the bears feed.
"And so we just don't know once these turbines are up, are the bears still going to feel comfortable spending all this time sitting up in these trees, and foraging under these trees?" Comeau says. "And so that's the point of this study, is to see: Is that going to cause the bears to stop coming here and are they going to have to find another place to get food if they don't feel comfortable being here anymore?"
Comeau has set up four areas, with 10 temperature-sensitive cameras in each region.
She walks through deep, wooded land, far off marked trails, with a hand held GPS unit that has all of her tagged trees on it.
As she stops at each tree she drops her pack to the ground and removes a camera.
Each camera points into an open space, and she hunches down, like a bear, to get the right position before setting the automatic shutter and walking off to the next tree.
Along the way she points out piles of bear scat, trees with claw marks and broken twigs and branches where bears have been feeding on the beech nuts.
She says this study will be the first long range, before-and-after look at how a commercial wind project impacts bear behavior.
"Wind development is a pressing issue across the entire state," she says. "So the more we can understand how it potentially impacts wildlife, hopefully the better we can help mitigate or guide development through our regulatory review process. That's the hope."
Comeau says the cameras have given the Fish and Wildlife staff a whole new set of data to look at that the radio collars could not provide.
It's shown them, for instance, snapshots of how bears act when they don't know they're being watched.
And she says the department is also gathering information on moose, deer, bobcats and other wildlife that call the Green Mountain National Forest home.
And most importantly, Comeau says, the relatively inexpensive cameras will allow the department to continue studying the wildlife long after the radio collar project is finished.