Glacier Park Bear Camera Captivates the World

As the National Park Service's earliest adopter of web-camera technology, Glacier Park offers the world a glimpse into its wild interior

By Tristan Scott
A screen capture from the Glacier National Park webcam of a black bear den in a cottonwood tree on March 29, 2018. Courtesy Glacier National Park

A sluggish black bear that spent its winter denned high up inside a cottonwood tree in Glacier National Park is slowly awakening, and the world is watching as the sleepy bruin ploddingly emerges from its lair, yawning and scratching and prompting a collective “awww” from across the globe.

After observing the bear on March 23, park employees installed a webcam and began streaming live footage of a prominent hole in the cottonwood’s trunk where a branch broke away, allowing the bear to take refuge in the repurposed digs last fall and enjoy its winter slumber undisturbed. The footage features two views, a close-up and a wide-angle shot, using a telephoto lens with a 30X optical zoom so as not to disturb the bear.

Although the distance from the camera to the tree is 357 feet, the view looks spectacularly close. At times the bear’s ears and tufted bedhead can easily be viewed through the portal, through which the bear occasionally pokes its head and yawns adorably, or climbs out onto the cottonwood’s branches to explore.

“Everybody at park headquarters had one of their dual monitors on the bear camera,” Lauren Alley, Glacier Park’s public affairs specialist, said. “At times it was difficult to focus on work.”

The park employees weren’t alone. A video Glacier Park shared on Facebook depicting  the bear yawning and sticking out an eight-inch ribbon of tongue received 2,500 likes and nearly 600 shares.

From as far away as China and Namibia, virtual visitors to Glacier National Park linked to the webcam for a rare opportunity to view a fascinating creature’s response to spring after escaping the cold all winter.

On March 29, the zoomed bear camera web page received 37,388 views. The wide-angle received approximately 12,000 hits. That day, the zoomed bear camera web page was the most visited page in the entire National Park Service, surpassing even its main landing page.

Erik Wenum, bear and lion specialist at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1, said it’s extremely common for bears to convert cottonwood trees into winter dens.

“We call them a chimney den,” Wenum said. “A big mature cottonwood with a branch broken off that gets a little core rot makes an excellent den. A lot of times bears crawl up the tree and into the hollow cavity, and then climb down inside the tree 20 or more feet. It’s like a chimney and they are at the bottom of the chimney, but first they have to go up and over and inside. It can be really deceiving because you think they’re right at the level of the hole, but depending on the extent of the tree’s core rot, it could be sleeping down on ground level. Each tree is different.”

Although bears are not true hibernators, they slow their systems for up to five months during the winter and fall, entering a deep torpor during which they do not eat, drink, defecate or urinate, Wenum said.

Bear physiology is a biological wonder of the world, prompting NASA to study the physical properties of bears in an effort to explore the species’ potential genetic applications to deep space travel, he said.

“Bears have it figured out,” Wenum said. “The whole physiological thing is just so fascinating. If we could figure it out and somehow flip that gene on, we’d be on to something.”

Indeed, research has shown that hibernating bears are able to defy some of the most basic rules of mammalian physiology — they consume no nutrition, have no waste disposal and yet they emerge each spring groggy but healthy. For a human, a months-long period of inactivity would lead to bone thinning and muscle atrophy, but leaves bear bones unharmed.

Although bears do not move their brawny muscles for more than 100 days, they manage to increase their lean body mass while denning. And while bears do not urinate during their months of hibernation, their bodies show no buildup of urea, a toxic byproduct of protein metabolism normally eliminated by the kidneys.

When they do awaken, it takes time to jumpstart their system, Wenum said, which is precisely what Glacier Park’s celebrity bear is doing.

“There’s a post-denning lethargy period,” he said. “They can’t just get out of the den, stretch their arms and go grab a big meal. It takes a couple weeks.”

Even large bears seek out tight tree holes, Wenum said. So long as a bear can fit the least pliable part of its body through the hole — its skull — the rest of it can fit, too.

The bear camera’s popularity certainly led to an uptick in page views on Glacier’s website, but the park’s webcams have enjoyed popularity since 1999, when it became the first National Park Service unit to employ them — a forward-thinking vision that defied mainstream thinking about technology.

In the late 1990s, the National Park Service began establishing individual park websites, with some parks launching more extensive sites than others. In the fall of 1996, Glacier’s inaugural website was awarded first place in the National Association for Interpretation’s annual media awards competition, according to Glacier National Park Interpretive Specialist Bill Hayden.

The following year, the National Park Service’s web master in Washington, D.C., installed a small webcam in his office so the web designers at individual parks could check. It was pointed at the web master’s desk, and if he was in his office, employees could observe their calls answered when they had questions.

“I thought that if we had something similar we could point it at some scenery and allow visitors to see real-time views of the park,” Hayden said. “Our first thought was that local businesses and hotels would be able to check park weather for their guests and advise them if a trip to the park would be a good idea. It quickly became apparent that the larger audience was people that had previously visited the park and loved the idea of being brought back in real-time through their computer screens.”

The first webcam at Glacier was installed at park headquarters and pointed out the window at the picnic tables.

“It was a test until we could establish a better, more scenic location,” Hayden said. “When we tried to remove that and place it at Many Glacier, we received a number of email complaints. That view had a strong following and they did not want to see it disappear. Mostly I think people liked to see the snow pile up on the picnic tables to see how much had fallen the night before.”

The road crew also used it to monitor the weather.

One visitor even called park officials to inquire how much the webcams cost.

“When we told him, he wrote a check to the Glacier Natural History Association and they purchased a new camera and donated it to us,” Hayden said. “That camera was the one we placed at Many Glacier.”

Today, there are currently 13 web cams installed throughout the park. Some are temporary, like the bear camera or the “snow family” camera, which allows visitors to watch a family of snow people created by park employees and keep tabs on the warming weather. Others stay up all year.

Between March 30, 2017 and March 30, 2018, Glacier’s webcams received 2,255,700 views, and saw a significant increase in viewership while last summer’s Sprague Fire was visible from two cameras.

The Logan Pass webcam looking to Going-to-the-Sun Mountain has received 379,318 visits since it was installed in mid-July 2017. On March 29, it received 3,230 views as virtual rubberneckers gawked at the Continental Divide’s incredible snowpack

“It’s the most popular page on our website,” Alley said of Glacier’s webcam page, which accounts for approximately 17 percent of total viewership to the park’s website.

The celebrity cottonwood bear isn’t the first bruin to captivate a global audience. A webcam at Goat Haunt once caught a grizzly bear lumbering along the lakeshore, and a moose made its debut on the silver screen during a cameo appearance at Two Medicine.

In 2006, Glacier Park aimed the St. Mary camera at the Red Eagle Fire and captured the blaze as it burned, and again with the Reynolds Fire in 2015.

But the original camera at headquarters remains.

“We had a wedding on the lawn at headquarters one summer,” Hayden said. “The bridal party was able to have family that was unable to be here join in on the ceremony online.”

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