Unity College bear study releases one-year report

Upon reaching its one year mark, the ground-breaking black bear study being conducted at Unity College has released a report that offers some new insights into the lives of central Maine bears.

A Unity College student with a Maine black bear cub at a den site.

A Unity College student with a Maine black bear cub at a den site.

The multi-year study features analyses of blood samples, DNA analyses and tracking of Maine black bears in the Unity area. As members of the bear study team continue the study, they’ll focus on the one prize that has so far eluded them: placing a video collar on a Maine black bear.

In addition to expanding our knowledge on the state’s bear population, the study is an opportunity for student researchers to gain high level, hands-on research experience. It may be the only undergraduate bear study in the United States, according to a recent press release by Unity College.

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: Grants Team, Planning Team, Outreach Team, GIS Team, Database Team, Dio-data Team, Landowner Relations Team, Hair ID Team, DNA Team, Scat Analyses Team, Hair Snare Team, Culvert Trap Team, Pre-baiting Team, Video and Trail-cam Team, Radiotelemetry Team, Capture Team and Capture Support Team.

Each year as students graduate, new opportunities arise for undergraduates to join the study.

Maine researchers have long been studying the state’s bear population.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been tracking black bears since 1975, when the Maine black bear monitoring program began with PhD student Roy Hugie. In 1981, MDIF&W took over the project, and today, the department has three active study areas in northern, north-central and eastern Maine.

BDN photo by Brian Feulner BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki holds a 1-year-old bear or "yearling" that has been tranquilized and taken from its winter den - where it was hibernating with its mother, Lugnut - by the Bear Crew of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to be examined for the black bear monitoring program on Feb. 19, 2013, 20 miles north of Ashland.

BDN photo by Brian Feulner
BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki holds a 1-year-old bear or “yearling” that has been tranquilized and taken from its winter den – where it was hibernating with its mother, Lugnut – by the Bear Crew of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to be examined for the black bear monitoring program on Feb. 19, 2013, 20 miles north of Ashland.

(For a video and story about the MDIF&W black bear monitoring program, click here.)

The Unity area is not one of those focus areas of that longstanding study. MDIF&W is working with Unity College so they can collect data similar to what MDIFW gathers in their three study areas.

“Our study is providing opportunities for students to get involved in real-life, large mammal research and management,” said associate professor George Matula in a recent press release.

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. Two were killed when hit by cars, but one is alive and well.

The remaining bear’s den was recently located by Matula and Lisa Bates, a 2008 Unity College alumnus and a wildlife biologist contractor with MDIF&W. Over the summer, Bates and a volunteer pilot were injured when their helicopter crashed while tracking the bear. (To hear Bates recount the crash, click here.) Bates returned to the project this winter to track down the bear once more.

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

Photo courtesy of Brian Hamel This black bear has been spotted in around the SAD 1 Education Farm in Presque Isle. Resident Brian Hamel got a look at the massive bear, estimated to weigh around 400-pounds, when it wandered up to the Hamel's back deck last week.

Photo courtesy of Brian Hamel
This black bear has been spotted in around the SAD 1 Education Farm in Presque Isle. Resident Brian Hamel got a look at the massive bear, estimated to weigh around 400-pounds, when it wandered up to the Hamel’s back deck last week.

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 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.

Team participants have successfully solicited permissions from 68 Unity area landowners to trap bear on their land, gaining access to approximately 11,000 acres, Matula said. Six summer interns will trap full-time from May 10 to July 11.

The public is encouraged to report bear sightings to the Unity study at 207-509-7269 or email jwhelan@unity.edu. Read the full one-year report on the Unity College website, www.unity.edu, or by clicking here.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.