Those folks at Glacier National Park just upped their game when it comes to the popular bear webcam.
On Wednesday, park officials announced that one of their technicians figured out how to livestream the bear cam on YouTube. Now people can view the hibernating bear in real time.
The bear is denned high in a cottonwood tree in an undisclosed location in Glacier National Park. In recent days, the bear — park officials say they're pretty sure it's a male black bear — didn’t appear to be very active on the still webcam, which updated the picture every two minutes or so.
But on Wednesday, as fat, fluffy snowflakes fell, an occasional shot of brown fur was punctuated with the bear popping its head up, looking around, then hunkering back down. The bear occasionally rested its head on the side of the tree, then raised its head and licked areas where the snow may have puddled.
At one point, the bear turned around and stuck its backside out of the hole, answering the age-old question of what a bear does in the woods. Later in the day, it climbed out of the den and up the tree, then chewed on some of the cottonwood buds before pulling the branch into the den.
"They will bring in nesting material," said Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "They'll also climb the trees and eat the black cottonwood and aspen buds. I think he's killing time and maybe bringing in bedding material."
It’s easy to anthropomorphize that the bear, like many people, is looking at the overcast skies and precipitation, wondering when winter will end. Unlike humans, though, the bear just rolls over and goes back to sleep.
"It's like he's the male that says he's out in the woods working or hunting, but he's actually just relaxing," Jonkel said, laughing.
Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for Glacier, said they've received quite a bit of positive feedback from the public. One couple took the liberty of naming him "Bruce the Bear," saying that they're "mesmerized" by the web cam and feel like they're at the park on a bear-watching trip. Comments have come from as far away as Australia, and one person noted that the bear cam "is slowing down the inside of an office."
The still webcam had been down intermittently due to some glitches, according to Alley. But that didn’t stop people from watching.
The close-up still bear cam has had 215,503 views since it was installed last week, which included nearly 50,000 per day during the weekend. As of Wednesday afternoon, they’re getting more than 25,000 views per day.
Alley added that a lot of the viewership is to external pages like Facebook and Twitter. The still webcam accounted for 6 percent of all NPS.gov traffic during the weekend, and right now it’s hovering around 2 percent of all NPS.gov viewership.
By Wednesday afternoon — only a few hours after the live cam aired on YouTube — more than 600 people were watching it, as the number of viewers climbed during the afternoon hours. When the bear left the den to climb the tree, the camera followed it upward, at one point pulling back to better show the bear's location in the tree.
"Our amazing IT staff can remotely control the camera," Alley noted. "An IT specialist sitting at a desk here noticed the bear was moving out of the tree den and decided to follow it for the hundreds of people who were watching. We have quite an innovative IT department."
The bear cam is one of 13 webcams in the park, most of which provide scenic views of the landscape. They’re used for educational, as well as practical purposes.
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.
Jonkel is excited about the educational opportunities the bear cam presents, even if it only is live until the bear leaves the den.
"Folks can see what real wilderness is like," he said. "Everyone gets stuck in the human world rut and don't realize we're floating on a big rock that we're sharing with other mammals and critters. It's good that it puts people back into reality and is a great tool so kids can see what a bear does."
Alley added that their education staff has been using the bear cam with their distance learning programs with a group of homeschoolers and a school in Polson.
"Both said they would continue watching throughout the week," Alley said.