Yellow measuring tape plays a stark contrast against the dark fur of a black bear. On a given day over eight weeks during the summer of 2013, student interns and volunteers from Unity College (UC) are multitasking in the woods of Wildlife Management District (WMD) 23 in Waldo County, Maine. One team is checking the trapline for bears, the other is checking the prebait line for signs of bears; still other students are meeting with landowners, and others are at headquarters checking tax maps and datasheets. But every task and its achievement (the land permission that was obtained, the prebait site that was hit, the trap that was set) converges seamlessly when the call comes in: we have a bear.

On site, numbers are quietly called out, repeated, and written down. With his clipboard, an intern meticulously copies the data. A temperature reading is taken, and there’s a request for water. A bucket is poured over the bear where she lays anesthetized, and ice packs are repositioned. Her chest rises and falls, steady breaths brushing hot against our fingers as we pull a tooth and tattoo an ID number to the inside of a lip. Course fur tickles our knuckles as we secure a radiocollar around her neck. Blood is drawn from the inside of her thigh, and vials pass from hand to hand, while other busy fingers are pulling hair for later analysis, the caps of markers hanging from between teeth as numbers and letters are scribbled on yellow envelopes.

This is the Unity College Bear Study, for which last summer a crew of 12 undergraduate students spent eight weeks trapping, tagging, and tracking black bears in central Maine. Under the training and leadership of study coordinators Dr. George Matula and Lisa Bates, the UC Bear Study ran its pilot field season over the summer of 2013. What had begun the previous year as the seed of an idea by Matula to provide UC students with real-life, hands -on large mammal research, had evolved into a summer field season researching bears in an area of the state where this research had not been done before.

With permission from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), Matula, Bates, and the students of Unity College have set out to investigate a colonizing black bear population in central Maine for which the State has no current data. MDIFW’s current study areas – Downeast, Spectacle Pond, and Bradford – are far from Waldo County in WMD 23. Despite having one of the longest-running black bear monitoring programs in the country, there is simply not enough staff, time, or money for MDIFW to cover the entire state. But extrapolatingdensity estimates from the three established study areas and applying them to bears in WMD 23 could be inaccurate. The bears in central Maine are a growing, colonizing population entering reforested areas with low densities of conspecifics; life history, home range, habitat use, and other demographics are likely different from their northern and eastern counterparts.

WMD 23 is essentially unexplored territory for black bear research in Maine, and Unity College students are hungry for the opportunity to decipher the demographics of bears in their own backyards.

The black bear is expertly elusive. For every bear trapped and handled in a field season, hours upon hours of mosquito- infested labor have been invested searching for signs of bear activity, scouting for potential habitat, and lugging bait and lure through the woods: donuts, beaver carcasses, anise oil, skunk essence, and beaver castor. On a sweltering day, the malodorous mix of bear attractants wafts into our faces as we travel from site to site. Mosquitos feast on us as we set snares and clear trap circles. Sweat trickles into our eyes as we hustle from location to location in Unity, Burnham, Albion, and Monroe. Every hour of sunlight is maximized.

Our hunger, enthusiasm, and hard investments over the summer 2013 season were rewarded. During our pilot year, we obtained permission from 68 landowners for 11,000 acres of private land access, on which 40 Aldrich foot snares at 37 trap sites were set, two culvert traps and 30 hair snares were deployed; and after over 3600 combined hours of work, the result was the successful capture of eight bears plus three recaptures, and the fitting of three females with radiocollars.

Our smallest female, UC004, wears a refurbished VHF lynx collar from MDIFW which will be replaced with a larger GPS collar while she’s in her den this winter. UC003 and UC007, each wearing GPS/satellite collars, were both killed in traffic in July and August. Fortunately, we were able to collect over 140 locations between them, and noting larger home ranges than we had anticipated. Because females provide the best recruitment data and do not roam as far as males, fitting sows with radiocollars is the best way to gather data on home range, habitat use, and recruitment. As our sample size increases with subsequent trapping seasons, we hope to determine if data we collected over our pilot year are truly representative of the WMD 23 population. Next summer, we hope to collar a female bear with a video camera to obtain an on-the-ground, bear’s-eye view of habitat, range, behavior, diet, and activity. Meanwhile, wildlife biology student Jonah Gula has continued to track UC004 these several months, and data analysis on her home range is ongoing. She has chosen to den for the winter approximately 15 feet above the ground in the hollow of a tree. Revisiting her den to replace her collar will be a highlight of the winter.

It should not go without noting that the research being conducted by the UC Bear Study is significant and relevant, with real potential impacts for the management of bears in Maine. On quiet evenings last summer after interns and volunteers had washed the grime from our backs and rested our legs, our study coordinators never failed to remind us of the far-reaching importance of our work. As future professionals, it was important that we remember how the social and biopolitical climate would affect us in our careers.

Presently, black bears in Maine are at the center of a heated dispute, as anti-hunting organizations and special interest groups seek to qualify a referendum to place a ban on the state’s three traditional bear hunting methods. The passing of a ban on bait, trap, and hound hunting would significantly limit MDIFW’s ability to effectively manage the growing black bear population in the state, where wildlife managers depend so heavily on a sustainable harvest to maintain a healthy population of bears.

Students at Unity College understand that field research is not just one, but one of many, elements to wildlife management. Exposing the summer interns and volunteers to the realities of management beyond the mud on our boots provided us with the bigger-picture, practical perspectives we would need as future biologists, researchers, policymakers, educators, and stakeholder liaisons.

Our second summer field season is fast approaching, and preparations that have been underway since the beginning of last semester are picking up in pace. Over 80 students on 15 teams are working hard to analyze samples and data obtained last summer, streamline field and laboratory protocols, reach out to additional landowners, and develop outreach materials. Would-be interns are applying for the summer field positions, and our coordinators are elbow-deep in budgets and administrative details.

A large mammal research project is not without its costs, to say the least, and we owe our pilot year’s success to the financial support of Unity College, the Maine Chapter of the Safari Club International, and private and alumni donations. Going into year two, we are grateful for a continuing financial investment from the college, and the ongoing generosity of private and alumni donors, as we continue to search and apply for more funding.

Though the lifetime of the UC Bear Study is indefinite, the success of our pilot year secured the second year, and we anticipate further successes to secure further years of continuing research. For now, we prepare to hit the ground faster, harder, and sooner for summer 2014.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014