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Maine College Students Take On A Bear Of A Study


In Maine, the state's effort to keep tabs on its black bear population is getting some help from a group of college kids. The program has undergraduate students capturing bears, running tests on them, and attaching tracking devices before releasing them back into the wild.

Maine Public Radio's Jay Field went along on a recent expedition into the woods.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: The Unity College black bear study team begins its day at headquarters, a classroom inside the school's science building. A large wall map shows the growing number of sites in the woods where students have set humane bear traps. At around noon, Lisa Bates, an experienced trapper and co-leader of the project, gets a call.

LISA BATES: It could be a yearling. But like a two-year-old female is not much bigger than a yearling. Alright, well, those are all good observations. Good job. We'll see you there.

FIELD: Within the hour, the team gathers in the woods of Burnham, Maine. Allie Pesano, a Unity junior, was part of the group that first spotted the bear.

ALLIE PESANO: It's covered in mud and it's really wet. There's a bog over there.

FIELD: Lisa Bates goes in and takes a look. It's between 80 and a hundred pounds, she guesses, as she shows the students how to put together the right drug cocktail to anesthetize the animal.

BATES: If I have two hundred milligrams of ketamine, I'm going to have 100 milligrams of xylazine.

FIELD: Bates, Allie Pesano, and the two other students head into the bog with a syringe attached to the end of a long pole. The bear, a cable wrapped tightly around its right front paw, eyes the team warily from the muddy water. It's removed as much bark as possible from the one tree within its grasp. Standing just out of reach, a student shuffles his feet to distract the bear, as Bates delivers the injection.


FIELD: Ten minutes later, the bear is fast asleep. An initial exam by Bates yields the day's best piece of news.

BATES: That, my friends, is a female.



GEORGE MATULA: Females are the ones we really want.

FIELD: George Matula is an associate professor of Wildlife Biology at Unity and the bear study's other co-director.

MATULA: They're the ones we want to collar, be able to follow to the den and get those data that we can get at the den.

FIELD: Matula says studying the females and their offspring will help determine whether the movement patterns, home ranges and denning activity of bears in central Maine are different than those of bears in other parts of the state. Students take hair samples, draw blood and monitor the bears' breathing and vital signs.

Unity junior Jonah Gula takes her temperature.

JONAH GULA: Ninety-seven point three.

BATES: So whenever you have - whenever you have data, say it your clipboard person, the person on the data sheet says it back to you.


FIELD: Bates draws a small tattoo on the inside of the bear's lip. A student tags an ear. And the team attaches a small radio collar around her neck. After about 40 minutes, the bear starts to twitch, so Pesano and the other students wrap up their work and head out to debrief.

PESANO: I was nervous when the bear was moving around. But once we got her down, you've got to stay calm. We have to get things done so people stay safe and the bear stays safe.

FIELD: Pesano says it was a team effort. The students do everything from negotiate trap placement with landowners to developing new systems to process the information they gather. So far, Unity officials say they haven't been able to find another project like it, designed specifically for undergraduates, anywhere in the country.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Field is a reporter for MPBN Radio based in the network’s Bangor bureau. In his reporting for the network’s flagship program, Maine Things Considered, Field enjoys exploring how real people’s lives are impacted by the unique policy challenges, economic, education, natural resource and otherwise, that come with daily life in a rural state.
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