s the multi-year study continues, members of the Unity College Bear Study team are taking stock of successes, evaluating shortcomings, and focusing on the one prize that has so far eluded them: placing a video collar on a Maine black bear.

The ongoing study features analyses of blood samples, DNA analyses, tracking of Maine black bears in the greater Unity, Maine, region, and opportunities for student researchers to gain high level, hands-on research experience.  It may be the only undergraduate bear study in the United States.

In the first year, 68 Unity College students from a variety of majors participated in the study.  Led by teams of faculty and staff members, the students were clustered into 17 teams.  Each year as students graduate, new opportunities arise for undergraduates to join the team.

Associate Professor George Matula says that the Unity program, with permission from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), is providing valuable data on Maine black bears in the Unity area, which is not one of the focus areas of the longstanding MDIFW bear study.  Unity College is continuing to collect data similar to what MDIFW gathers in their three study areas. “The MDIFW study of Maine black bears dates back to 1975,” Matula said.  “Our study is providing opportunities for students to get involved in real-life, large mammal research and management.”

Though the team hoped to affix a video collar on a large female bear, a variety of challenges prevented that from happening in 2013.  Team members did successfully capture three female bears that were fitted with radio collars–unfortunately two were killed when hit by cars, but one is alive and well.  Her den was recently located by Matula and Lisa Bates ’08, a Unity alumna and a Wildlife Biologist contractor with MDIFW who is also helping to coordinate the study at her alma mater.  The real world challenges of studying bears in the wild once again hobbled the team over the summer.  Bates and a volunteer pilot were injured when their helicopter crashed while tracking one of the collared bears.  The latest trip to locate the same bear and its den went far more smoothly.

“Lisa found the bear’s den approximately fifteen feet off the ground in a hollowed out tree,” Matula explained.  He says that it was important to locate the den in case the collar quit functioning before biologists could replace it.

In May, study members will return to the field to trap bears and gather biological data.  Several bears will be fitted with radio collars.  Matula is confident the video collar will finally be deployed.  The video camera placed on one of the bears will be removed and sent to the manufacturer for retrieval of the footage.  Student researchers will download and analyze those data.

“The bear that receives a video collar has to be relatively large, and although we would prefer to collar a female because of the large amount of family information they provide, if necessary we will place the collar on a male bear,” Matula said.

In addition to gaining valuable scientific field research and data analysis experience, Matula says that students also developed communication skills that allow the study to take place.  Team participants informed Unity area landowners about the study and successfully solicited permissions from landowners to trap bear on their land.

“Sixty eight landowners gave written consent for the study to access their land,” Matula said.  “That the students were able to gain access to approximately 11,000 acres is impressive for this part of Maine.  We don’t have the large land blocks in this part of the state like they do at the MDIFW study sites in Northern and Downeast Maine.”

Matula says that student research teams have been created to work on specific aspects of the study, such as planning the study; designing databases; conducting GIS analyses; procuring a bear culvert trap; deploying hair snares; conducting DNA analyses on bear hairs and blood; performing blood analyses; and pre-baiting for the trapping season.  Six summer interns will trap full time from May 10th to July 11th in 2014.

The general public is encouraged to call any bear sightings in to the Unity College Bear Study at (207) 509-7269, or e-mail jwhelan@unity.edu. “The information received will help us focus our research efforts,” said Matula.

The full report is available for download here.

Friday, January 24, 2014