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Under Surveillance

In television terms, it's half Law & Order, half Nature. Perhaps that's the best way to describe what's happening in Montana's Glacier National Park, where the same science police use to put murderers behind bars now provides rangers with a better way to monitor bears.

The bears in question are Grizzlies, a species once common across North America but now considered threatened. Recent estimates put the number of Grizzlies in the continental United States at fewer than 800 bears. And while conservationists struggle to boost that figure, it's impossible for them to evaluate the success of their efforts without also having accurate population data on the bears.

Unfortunately, the most common method of tracking bears -- attaching collars with built-in radio transmitters to their necks -- is very intrusive. Thanks to scientific advances, though, conservationists now have an alternative, one borrowed straight from a big-city crime lab: genetic fingerprinting.

The DNA material comes from both hair and scat samples. Rangers collect the hair from trees that Grizzlies have rubbed and from special barbed-wire hair traps set up in the park. The scat, meanwhile, comes from specific park trails. Once collected, the samples are sent to the University of Idaho for analysis. Of course, not all samples provide positive results, but often it's possible extract enough DNA information to identify the species of bear, its gender, even the individual bear.

Thus far the Bear DNA Project appears to be a success. In a 24-week period last year almost 4,000 hair samples and more than 1,800 scat samples were collected in Glacier National Park, a number that rangers believe will better help them understand and follow the use patterns of Grizzlies in the park. Whether the DNA testing also results in any criminal convictions remains to be seen.