Bears and people aren’t known for always seeing eye to eye. Sure, people enjoy viewing bears at a safe distance in the north Maine woods. However, interactions can turn nasty very quickly.
Human-bear conflicts can range from the more benign end of the spectrum (e.g., bears commandeering human food, agricultural crops, and livestock) to more harmful incidents in which people get hurt.
It’s these interactions that are the focus of Dr. Jack Hopkins’s latest research project, titled “Development of a Multi-Method Approach to Study Wildlife Behavior: Investigating Human-Bear Conflicts in the Contrasting Landscapes of Europe.” Hopkins, an assistant professor of wildlife biology at Unity College, was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate human-bear conflict in Slovenia and Scandinavia. He and a team of researchers from the University of Ljubljana will use a large collection of organic tissue including muscle, liver, hair, and teeth from nearly a thousand bears collected over the course of 25 years as well as other sources of data, including radio collars.
“It’s a really great opportunity to work with my partners,” said Hopkins, noting that Fulbright Scholarships offer only about 20% of applicants the chance to either teach, conduct research, or do a combination of both. For the spring semester, Hopkins earned an award to focus strictly on research. He left Maine for Slovenia at the end of December with his wife and four children.
“Although transitions are never easy, I’m really excited about the opportunity for my kids,” he said. “Having the chance to live and go to school in Slovenia has the potential to really change their lives. It’ll be a great family adventure.”
Slovenia has one of the highest-density bear populations in the world, which is in part due to the country’s interest in harvesting them twice a year, using supplemental corn feed to maintain their thriving population. Hopkins will work with genetic and isotopic data from bear tissues to investigate their reliance on corn, how their diets affect their reproductive success and survival, and how conflict behavior develops in the first place.
“It’s convenient that understanding the impact of corn on bears is one of our project goals, rather than some other food, because corn has a different isotopic signature than bears’ native foods,” said Hopkins. “As a result, bears that eat more corn than others clearly show that signal in their tissues. It will be interesting to see if a certain amount of corn-consumption is related to conflict behavior.”
“I want to congratulate Hopkins on this incredible honor, and I can’t wait to see the results and conclusions that his research produces,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “Here at Unity College, we emphasize experiential education for our students, but it’s important to also encourage our faculty to pursue opportunities like this. In turn, they will pass down those experiences and inspire our students in the classroom and in the field.”
Although the research project focuses on Slovenia’s brown bear population, Hopkins believes the issues are in many ways similar here in Maine. Black bears and brown bears are intelligent, omnivorous, and they have the same need to put on weight in the fall to survive the winter and reproduce.
“Brown bears feed on corn in Slovenia like black bears feed on doughnuts and other bait in the fall in Maine,” Hopkins said. “In both places, baits are used to help control population numbers and meet the needs of hunters. Although baiting is controversial in Maine, it is the most successful method used to harvest bears. The concern is that if these artificial food sources are removed from the landscape, harvest numbers will decrease, and human-bear conflict will increase with bear density, which obviously has huge management implications in both Maine and Slovenia.”
The Fulbright Program presents roughly 8,000 grants each year to U.S. and foreign students, U.S. scholars, and visiting scholars.