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Bearcam

A black bear is captured on a webcam, high up in a cottonwood den in Glacier National Park, trying to wake up after a long winter hibernation. The bear gave a large yawn, decided it wasn't worth the effort, and snuggled back down.

The images change slowly, but are almost unbearably delightful.

One minute, the black bear’s ears, eyes and snout pop out of a large hole in the trunk of a cottonwood tree in Glacier National Park. About two minutes later, only a tuft of hair is visible in the hole, which has been converted into a winter den. Wait for it — and out pops a paw. A few minutes later, it looks like the bear has rolled over, with only the hair on its back visible.

Lauren Alley laughs as she notes how a lot of people probably are having a hard time working after Glacier National Park posted the bear cam on its website Thursday. That day alone, 37,388 viewers saw the black bear slowly emerging from a long winter’s nap — not unlike watching an adult reach for that first cup of morning coffee. Another 12,000 people viewed the wide-angle posting of the bear’s den.

“That zoomed-in page was the number one page for the entire National Park Service; it even surpassed NPS.gov, which is the main page for the whole park service,” said Alley, the public affairs officer for the park. “We had people viewing from Namibia, China. It’s caught the attention of a lot of people.”

A video posted on Glacier National Park’s Facebook page shows the bear almost standing up, with half of its body visible, taking a big stretch and a large yawn with its tongue extending about 6 inches before lying back down.

Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said it’s not unusual for bears to den in cottonwoods about one story or so off the ground.

“Those cottonwood dens are very common. It’s a nice little hole in the tree,” Jonkel said. “I love when they den in those.”

When bears emerge, they often take their time, he said.

“A lot of our collared grizzlies are doing the same thing,” Jonkel said. “They just kind of hang out in the den, moving around, dozing, coming out of the den and going back to it. Sure, some just roll over like ‘OK, I’m awake.’ But others kind of hang out for a couple weeks before they move down.”

Washington State University has a bear lab with cameras, where people can observe bears denning all winter. But Jonkel, who has a long history of bear research, prefers the personal touch.

”I have seen bears in January and February in the den; I peek my head in there and look at this very unaware bear, sleeping soundly, and once in a while you see a leg move. They’re actually pretty vulnerable in that mode,” Jonkel said.

He added that bears aren’t true hibernators in the winter in that they don’t totally shut down.

“Females even give birth in January,” he said.

The bear cam is one of 13 in the park, most of which provide scenic views of the landscape. They’re used for educational, as well as practical purposes.

“We hear from people all over the world who watch the cameras of Glacier while they’re at work in busy cities,” Alley said. “Our snow family is a really popular one. Kids from around the country watch that one.” It’s popular in classrooms in places like Florida, where they can watch and learn about the snow.”

Park employees build and maintain Snowball and Snowflake, complete with black top hats and brightly colored neck warmers, outside of the park’s headquarters, and feature them on the webcam at times. 

“The snow family is an employee effort; it magically appears and after storms it reappears, then they can watch the snow family melt,” Alley said. “It’s one way the employees can show the world what it’s like here.”

Glacier was the first national park to install a webcam in 1999. Since its installation in 2017, the Logan Pass webcam looking to Going-to-the-Sun Mountain has had 379,318 views.

"People use the webcams for different purposes; they want to get that Glacier experience if they can't be there, or people wanting to check them to see what's going on," Alley said. "They're increasingly used for real-time information, like people who are coming from Missoula or the Flathead valley want to know what the weather might be like, since sometimes it's sunny on the east side of the park and raining on the west side."

She noted that the bear cam is a good reminder that bears are emerging, and it’s time for people to remove attractants, like bird food and grills that were put out during the winter, in order to avoid conflicts.

The camera has a telephoto lens and is hung on a tree, 357 feet from the bear’s den.

The nonprofit partner in the park, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, covers the cost of the webcams, while the park covers the cost of the electricity to run them.

Amy Dempster, the conservancy’s director of marketing and communication, said she hopes people will learn more about the park as they watch the webcams. And yes, she has the bear webcam in the corner of her computer screen.

“I’ve enjoyed watching it,” she said. “To be able to capture something we don’t see very often, but is happening, is really special.”

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