New Bear Center Proposal
A coalition of university, state, and federal scientists who have studied bears for the past 22 years at Washington State University are proposing to create a National Bear Center. The Center will have two primary missions. The first is to provide a valued research facility supported by the diverse faculty, facilities, and students of Washington State University, a nationally recognized research university. The second mission is to educate students and the general public about bears, their needs, their role in nature, and how humans can interact with them safely. These two missions will be synergistic in that the research program will provide the information necessary for public education, public education will foster concern and understanding of bears, and in turn public education programs will help generate funding for research.
The Center will be the first in North America to provide adequate facilities for the wide diversity of modern bear research. Research programs will range from basic medical sciences to applied field ecology necessary to perpetuate healthy wild populations. The education role of the Center will provide an unbiased look at the needs of bears and their role in a modern world. Students will be given the opportunity to learn about bears, including the biology and ecology of wild bears and how to care for captive bears. Students will have the unique opportunity to participate in field studies in such diverse locations as Yellowstone National Park and various Alaskan wildernesses. The general public will learn about bears through an unsurpassed, interactive, computer and video-driven education program that will provide opportunities for discussions with Center students and staff. Visitors will have the opportunity to see bears up close and view ongoing research in a way that no other facility provides. Washington State University and the supporting state and federal agencies are in a unique position to create a Center of excellence that will bring lasting national and international recognition to the university and its sponsors.
Need for a University-based National Bear Center
Scientists from Washington State University and cooperating state and federal natural resource agencies have become internationally recognized for their contributions to understanding bear biology and ecology. They have demonstrated the productive interaction that can occur between universities, agencies, scientists, students of all ages, and the general public when studying both captive and wild bears. Even though there are only eight species of bears, most are threatened or endangered and their ranges greatly reduced. However, the public has an enduring fascination with all bears, including grizzly bears, polar bears and giant pandas. While our primary focus has been on assisting the recovery of wild bear populations, many important studies can only be done with captive bears. While the opportunity to work with captive bears is attractive to scientists, captive bears also attract the public’s interest. The Center would be invaluable in educating the public, providing a valuable resource for researchers, and attracting an international interest in Washington State University by those interested in nature and the environment.
Unique, not Competitive
There are many other bear facilities in the US. These include the relatively small exhibits at most metropolitan zoos that have two to four individuals of any particular bear species. These zoos also may have hundreds to thousands of other non-bear species on display. Other, more focused bear facilities with larger populations include the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, MT; Bear Country USA in Rapid City, SD; North American Bear Center in Ely, MN; and the Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, WA. The mission of all of these facilities is public education and entertainment, and most are in gateway locations to major tourist destinations.
A National Bear Center at Washington State University would be the only modern facility in the US with a large, permanent bear population located at a major research-based university. As such, research of the highest caliber becomes possible because of the millions of dollars invested in the university’s faculty and staff, buildings and equipment, and students. Thus, the Center would have a mission in educating students and the general public as the other facilities have, but its primary role would be world-class research that is unmatched by any other facility. Because of this research focus, the Center will be in an excellent position to give the visitor a rare opportunity to see ongoing projects, to hear about the latest discoveries, and to provide an overall positive image for the role of university research in environmental, ecological and medical studies related to both animals and humans.
Rescue and Rehabilitation
The National Bear Center will serve local and regional natural resource agencies by providing a temporary home for injured, orphaned, or sick bears where veterinary care can be provided. These bears will not be part of either the research or public display groups.
National Bear Center Business Plan
Site and Facilities
The location of the new facility will be on the Washington State University campus for easy access by students and investigators, but sufficiently far removed from intense human activities of the campus or city for the bears to feel secure. Washington State University has been chosen for this facility because their scientists have the longest history of working with captive bears, and the university administration has enthusiastically supported grizzly bear research for several decades. A vacant area across the street from the current bear facility has been identified as the new location. The topography is that of a gently rolling hillside where the buildings can be constructed at the top and bottom and the exercise yards can extend across the hill.
The needs of the bears, the researchers, and the general public can be met by constructing 2 buildings. The first building will meet the needs of the bears and the associated researchers. This building will include a kitchen with walk-in refrigerator and freezer, video control room, medical facilities, 18 dens and outside runs, and 3 three-acre exercise yards with irrigated pastures, pools and trees for the enjoyment of the bears. The second building will include 8 faculty, staff, and student offices; restrooms; common nutrition, physiology, and reproduction laboratories; conference and classrooms; and observation and display areas. The 3 large bear exercise yards will extend between the bear research building and the education center.
Costs and Revenues
The preliminary cost estimate for a National Bear Center that will meet the broad needs identified above is $7.1 million. The Center could be built in two phases, the first phase would be site development and the actual bear facility for $4.3 million, and the second would be the education center for $2.8 million.
When fully developed, the National Bear Center has the potential to generate revenues in excess of $1.0 million/year. This includes admission fees, retail sales, educational programs, bear-use fees paid by researchers and agencies, and donations and memberships. This is a conservative estimate based on attendance and incomes of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, MT (110,000 visitors, $1.3 million/year) and International Wolf Center in Ely, MN (45,000 visitors, $1.5 million/year).
Staffing will begin with what is minimally necessary to meet public and research demands. This will include an Executive Director (currently Dr. Charles Robbins) and Assistant Director (currently Dr. Lynne Nelson) to oversee all phases of the Center, two Education/Research Specialists who will develop and coordinate both on-site and web-based public education efforts while developing their own research programs, a Business Manager/Fundraiser to oversee sales, marketing, and fundraising, two staff positions to assist in research, animal care, and public education, two graduate students, and six undergraduate or public trainee positions. Both Drs. Robbins and Nelson have full-time faculty positions that include research and teaching. Dr. Nelson, a veterinarian, provides all medical care for the captive bears. The Education/Research Scientists, Business Manager/Fundraiser, two staff positions, and two graduate students would be new. As the Center’s income increases, additional positions will be filled. Those positions will include secretarial, maintenance, and additional staff positions to assist in public education, animal care, and research.
Visitors to the National Bear Center
The Center will be one of the primary attractions when visiting Pullman and Washington State University and Moscow and the University of Idaho. Many tourists, public school students, outdoor recreationists, local residents, hunters, Native Americans, scientists, university students and alumni are fascinated by bears. We estimate that visitation will be in excess of 40,000 people per year based on comparisons to other facilities. Annual visitation to zoos exceeds attendance at all professional sports combined.
Researchers working on such a broad array of topics on such a high profile, charismatic species as grizzly bears have attracted national media attention. Current research programs have been featured in the Spokane Spokesman Review, Seattle Times, and Anchorage Daily News Sunday editions, MSNBC, ABC Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and several Animal Planet shows, including one hosted by the late Steve Irwin. The Washington State University Bear Program has received more media coverage than any other research program at the university.