For the love of white bears

A prototype GPS transmitter is applied to a wild polar bear before it is released in Manitoba. 

When a full-size polar bear pelt arrived at the desk of White Bear Lake resident Jon Kirschhoffer, it drew a lot of curious looks. For Jon and the team at 3M, it was a chance to see exactly what they were working with. 

The pelt was sent by his son BJ Kirschhoffer, to help with their latest collaborative project: designing a new kind of GPS transmitter that can stick to polar bear fur. BJ is the director of field operations at Polar Bears International, a Montana-based nonprofit focused on the science and conservation of polar bears. After attending a national polar bear conference, BJ and his colleagues at PBI were looking for a more efficient way to track polar bears. BJ instantly thought of his dad. 

“He called me and said ‘Dad, you work for a company that makes things stick. Can you make this little radio tag stick to a bear?” Jon said. 

As a research specialist at 3M, Jon brought the “Burr on Fur challenge” to a problem-solving organization within the company called Tech Forum. 

“Tech Forum is a gathering place of all things science, where different disciplines come together and share ideas and the work they’re doing,” he explained. More than 70 people attended brainstorming sessions and heard presentations from BJ and his colleagues to learn more about bear research. “We turned all these technical folks loose on the idea,” Jon said.

The large group became a smaller core group, and the development process took about two years. In late November 2020, the four most promising prototypes were transported to Churchill, Manitoba with members of the PBI team, and installed on live polar bears. 

Polar bears are one of the most wide-ranging and elusive large mammals in North America. They also happen to be one of the most threatened animals in the world, facing the rapid effects of climate change on their arctic habitat. There’s more need than ever to understand the biology and behaviors of these large predators, but until now, it has only been possible to track adult female bears. Since the heads of adult males are as wide as their necks, it’s easy for neck collar transmitters to slip off. And young bears might outgrow their collars, potentially causing harm or at least irritation. 

“Virtually everything we know about bears comes from females because those are the only bears we can collar safely,” BJ said. “We have a pretty good idea what they guys are up to, but these [transmitters] unlock the ability to track males as well as sub-adult bears.” 

“One of our key goals was to not have it be less invasive,” Jon said. “We’re not going to hurt the animal, inject anything, pierce them, or attach permanently to an ear. Some of the other methods are collars, big and bulky but they don’t work on male bears; everything slides right off. This is a unique platform in the wildlife community.”

Leading up to the field tests, development was somewhat hampered by the onset of Covid-19 and resulting health precautions. Jon did a lot of the work himself, unable to meet with other design specialists in person. And the team at PBI worried that with travel restrictions, especially the remote communities nearest to polar bear habitat, they wouldn’t be able to begin the test at all. 

“The bear world was largely unable to deploy transmitters this year; we couldn’t get people in helicopters and get into northern communities,” BJ said. But eventually, Geoff York, the senior director of conservation at PBI, was able to travel to Churchill and work with local partners to get the job done. Every year, some polar bears wander into the town of Churchill, located on Hudson Bay. These large predators can be dangerous to humans, so the town is put on lockdown, and if the bear doesn’t pass through, sometimes is tranquilized and held until it can be relocated. PBI used the opportunity to apply the transmitters to these bears before they were released, with the aid of instructional videos made by Jon.  

With luck, the prototypes will cling to the bear’s fur just like a burr or seed, withstanding the ice, snow and saltwater of the bear’s environment. BJ and Jon hope the tag will stay attached to their fur for at least 270 days—the length of the transmitter’s battery life.  When the bears molt for the summer months, the tags will drop off along with the extra fur. Until the battery dies, all of the GPS data is transmitted to a satellite for researchers to follow the bear’s movements. 

“They’re not having to wear it for the rest of their life,” Jon said. 

With their longtime connection to the community of White Bear Lake, both Jon and BJ were amused by the coincidence that their work together has focused on protecting white bears. Jon grew up in Wausau, Wisconsin, and moved to White Bear Lake after receiving his degree in industrial design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He has worked as an advanced research specialist at 3M for nearly 40 years and has been a longtime member of the White Bear Yacht Club.

BJ grew up in White Bear Lake and graduated with the class of 2001. Attracted to the mountain landscape, he attended Montana State University and graduated with a B.A. in photography. A connection with a wildlife photographer enabled him to travel to Canada and see polar bears for the first time, and he’s been traveling the world and working to help polar bears ever since. His dad’s predilection for design certainly came in handy—in remote arctic communities, he is often the one ready to address any technical issues that may crop up. 

“To work on a project with my dad that has meaningful impact for a species is pretty neat,” BJ said. “Having a small nonprofit and a large corporation working together is kind of special. I knew how far I could push him. And vice versa on my end. There’s some fun there.”  

“It’s been a special time, and an honor to be able to work with him,” Jon said. “We talk almost every day. This is just the beginning. If we can make something stick to a polar bear, it can stick to just about anything.” 

Jon is also thankful for the flexibility that 3M gives its employees, allowing them to pursue personal passions in their work life. 

“This has really been a rare and wonderful opportunity for me that demonstrates the very best of 3M, in that we talk about applying science to life,” Jon said. “It’s important to allow people to explore their personal interests and give them time to do that. The byproduct is people who are really engaged in some cool ideas.” 

If the transmitter prototypes fulfill their potential, they may be developed further, and have wide applications across the animal research field. At the end of 2020, Jon retired after nearly 40 years at 3M. “This is my graduation project, if you will,” he said. “I don’t refer to it as retirement, I refer to it as graduation because I know there’s more to come.” 

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