EAST MISSOULA – U.S. Patent No. 8,112,934 B2 showed up in Ryan Alter’s mailbox last week, and grizzly bears everywhere are hibernating a little easier now.
The East Missoula entrepreneur has spent three years field-testing a better bear trap – one that phones home when it’s caught something, remotely releases wrong bears and can even reset itself. The patent means Alter Enterprises can start marketing its invention to bear managers and researchers around the world.
“For a small business, this is a really big deal,” Alter said on Monday. “We’ve spent three years and invested $25,000. It’s like getting the Pulitzer Prize in the mail.”
The timing was nice, too. In two weeks, the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation has its fourth Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop in Missoula. The last such gathering in 2009 brought in more than 300 biologists, wildlife managers, law enforcement officers and other researchers.
Conference organizer Rebecca Shoemaker said this year’s workshop will have presentations from several bear-product vendors, including sellers of radio collars, bear spray and bear-resistant food containers.
Alter’s trap could be a big money saver for wildlife agencies. While its baseline model costs three times as much as a basic culvert trap, its remote control capabilities mean much less wasted time driving to and from traps that don’t have bears – or worse – have caught the wrong kind of bear.
For example, the trap’s onboard infrared and color cameras can show if a captured bear is already collared, if it’s a grizzly or black bear, and often if it’s male or female. Other sensors compare the inside and outside temperatures (a big bear can raise the temperature in a trap by 10 degrees, putting the animal at risk of heat stress.)
During field tests last summer in Condon, Alter’s trap caught a 600-pound grizzly. Thirty days later, it caught the same bear again (although this time it was 700 pounds after piling on fat for hibernation). The trap’s internal cameras confirmed the bear’s identity, and let wardens know in advance they could automatically release it.
Four big solar cell blankets power the trap’s electronics, which include cellphone, email and satellite links to the outside world. That means the trap can be placed far off the power grid and still provide full service.
Alter said those communications perform a major safety function as well. One of bear-trapping’s biggest dangers comes from people walking up to traps to see what’s inside. Alter said this is especially true when wardens want to catch problem bears near people’s homes. The new traps can be set to notify residents by email if something’s inside, and provide pictures.
“They’re too busy updating their Facebook pages with our photos to ever go out and look at the trap,” he said.
With the patent in hand, Alter Enterprises now is working on a partnership with a separate manufacturer to build more traps. The idea is to license the design for construction anywhere bear managers need such things, including Canada, Europe and Russia.
The trap remains mainly for bears, although it has caught a number of other non-target animals.
“We did have one inquiry if it would work with sharks,” Alter said. “We didn’t get very far on that discussion.”