The next time you see Yogi Bear, he might have a GPS device attached to his collar instead of a tie. Biologists in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee are using satellite tracking to keep tabs on “nuisance” black bears that frequent the campgrounds and picnic areas.

Bear tracking in the Smokies started in the late 1960s with a long-term population study by the University of Tennessee. The animals were trapped and fitted with radio telemetry collars that transmitted signals to be received by airplanes or ground crews. Data collection was relatively awkward and sometimes dangerous, such as an incident in the late 1990s when two UT students died in a plane crash while tracking Florida Panthers.

For the current study, two females and three males have been equipped with GPS tracking collars that trigger an email to park biologists when one of them leaves the park. The devices also feature a “virtual fence” function that updates the bear’s location every 20 minutes. Updates are issued every two hours when a bear is within the park confines.

Park biologist Bill Stiver says the GPS collars are providing staff with the first real-time look at the bears’ movement patterns. Of particular interest to the research team is how often the bears travel into developed areas outside the park. As Stiver puts it, the system is “almost like a video game” that downloads the previous 24 hours of movement to his computer screen with a simple keystroke.

The project, which runs through 2017, calls for a total of 23 bears to be fitted with the GPS collars. UT is partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey to compile the research for the study, funded by four different agencies including the National Park Service, Friends of the Smokies, Seven Islands Foundation and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

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