Unity College students research bear population, record data for DIF&W

Posted Feb. 23, 2014, at 8:59 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 23, 2014, at 7:32 p.m.

UNITY, Maine — Eight students from Unity College made a three mile trek deep into the woods on Saturday morning to get to what, at first, appeared to be a very inconspicuous tree.

But after wildlife technicians from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife used a chain saw to cut a square hole in the side of the tree, the students were able to look inside the hollow trunk at a 2-year-old black bear curled up at the base of the tree.

Student Justin Sutherland lifted the bear out of the tree so other students could check and record her temperature, weight, breathing and heart rate and tattoo a number under her lip. This wasn’t the first time these students had encountered this bear. Last summer they captured and tagged her as part of Unity College’s new bear study program. Under the guidance of associate professor of wildlife biology George Matula, the students completed an internship where they tracked and recorded data about the bears, which was shared with the DIF&W.

Though their internship is complete, the students were invited to work with the DIF&W officials on this trip. They also replaced a radio tracking collar on the bear with a GPS tracking collar, which will give the DIF&W a more precise read on her location.

“It gives them an opportunity to do some real life research,” said Matula, who previously worked at the DIF&W. “They see what it takes to do something like this.”

It takes guts and tact.

To figure out where exactly the bear was located, biology technician Lisa Bates climbed up metal pegs nailed into the tree to peer into a narrow hole 15 feet off the ground — probably the same hole the bear used to get inside. Three other wildlife technicians stood by holding tranquilizer guns, “in case she runs,” said Alex Nicolato, who graduated in December.

Since the bear was at the base of the tree, the technicians cut the square hole about 3 feet off the ground, just above where the bear was sleeping, and tranquilized it. After waiting about 15 minutes to make sure she was fully under the influence of the drugs, the bear was pulled out for her checkup.

“She looks very healthy,” Bates said.

This bear is about twice as big as the average Maine bear her age, according to Bates. That size is consistent with bears found in this area and is likely because there was plenty of food available during the summer and fall.

Black bears are relatively new to this part of the state, according to Matula. A hundred years ago, the region was covered in mostly farmland, with very little forest — bears’ natural habitat, he said. Those that did make it to the area were seen as pests and killed.

Now, with the forest regrown, bears are becoming more common in the midcoast region.

“The perspective on bears is shifting a bit,” Bates said. “People love them for nostalgic reasons. Other people love them for hunting.”

The DIF&W determines how many bears can be hunted each year in order to control and conserve Maine’s population, Bates said. When their are too many bears, their food becomes scarce, which leads to malnourishment and disease among the population.

But in the area around Unity, the population is stable and healthy, though in other parts of the state, it is growing.

Bates said much of her job involves educating residents about what to do when they see bears and how to avoid attracting them on to their property — a task that some of the Unity students hope to one day be involved in.

“The bear study has given me perfect insight into how to be a wildlife technician,” said junior Allie Pesano. “I know what I want to be now.”