Helicopter crash happened during Unity College bear research

Posted July 05, 2013, at 2:55 p.m.
Last modified July 05, 2013, at 6:45 p.m.

BURNHAM, Maine — A bear researcher working for Unity College escaped serious injury and helped the pilot to safety after a helicopter crash Wednesday evening.

The name of the pilot, who is 58 and from Bowdoinham, has not been released. However, the Physicians for Social Responsibility Facebook page identified him as Ed Friedman. An Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham was a patient at Maine Medical Center on Friday, listed as in recovery from surgery, according to a spokeswoman.

The bear researcher, Lisa Bates, 27, was treated at a hospital and subsequently released, according to Unity College associate professor George Matula Jr., who is leading the bear study.

Bates, a Unity College alum, is helping coordinate a multiyear black bear study that Unity announced in a March press release.

Matula said the helicopter crashed in heavy woods in Burnham. The Waterville Morning Sentinel reported that Bates moved the pilot away from the wreckage after smelling gasoline, then used her GPS to find the nearest road. After hiking to the road, she flagged down a motorist who called 911.

Matula visited Bates in the hospital and said she was upbeat and kidding with visitors.

“She had to have her wits about her [after the crash],” Matula said. “We took a look at the wreckage and we wonder how anybody survived. Just to have the presence of mind to use GPS, walk out, and flag anybody down. [If she hadn’t marked her GPS], looking at where the wreckage was, it would have been very difficult to see from the air.”

Bates suffered bruises and cuts during the crash, Matula said.

Matula said the flight was provided by LightHawk, which offers free flying services for conservation efforts around the country. It was the first flight that Unity researchers had taken since the study began.

Another blow to the study took place earlier Wednesday, when a previously collared bear was struck by a car.

“It was kind of a bad Wednesday for us,” Matula said.

The Sentinel reported that the helicopter crashed into a heavily wooded area about a quarter mile off Winnecook Road in Burnham as the pilot and Bates tried to find a particular bear by homing in on a signal from its radio collar.

Matula explained that the pilot and Bates were looking for a bear with a VHF radio collar. All the other bears in the study group are fitted with GPS collars, which can be monitored remotely and provide nearly real-time data on a bear’s whereabouts and travel patterns.

“This [bear] we put a VHF collar on because it was a smaller bear, not big enough to put a [larger, heavier] GPS collar on,” Matula said.

Bears were trapped and fitted with radio collars beginning in May, with Matula and Bates, a wildlife biologist contractor working for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, teaming up to lead the study.

Bates has worked with the DIF&W studying bears for several years. She often works as the “mole” on bear den visits, crawling into the dens and sedating mother bears so that the grown females and their cubs can be more closely examined.

Matula said that during the early stages of the Unity study, seven different bears were captured a total of 10 times.

Matula said he’s not sure if Unity will include flights in its bear research efforts in the future.

“I’m sure we’ll sit down and discuss the future and [answer the question] ‘Do we fly again?’” Matula said. “The only time we might fly is to locate a den of pinpoint a den.”

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