I remember when a bear study was just a developing idea at the beginning of the fall 2012 semester. Admittedly, I never thought George’s hair-brained scheme would amount to what it has. Watching the project evolve has been fun and enlightening, especially seeing what it takes to start an institutional research study. Our summer field work seemed a long way off when I was chosen to work on the study in February. The prep work kept everyone busy, but I couldn’t help but look ahead to when we would begin capturing bears.
As an aspiring wildlife biologist, I have put a lot of effort and time into exploring the wilderness and tracking animals, but haven’t done anything as exciting as trapping black bears. Of course I had an idealized scenario in my head of how my first capture and handling would go down, and each morning as we checked our trapline I prepared myself for seeing a bear in one of our traps. But after one and a half weeks of setting traps and baiting with no captures, I couldn’t help but be discouraged. Our window of opportunity for trapping is a little over a month, and every day without a capture is a disappointment. Just when I thought I couldn’t be more down, I received the calls and texts of a small bear in one of my traps.
I was ecstatic, of course! However, I was eager more than anything…eager to see how my first handling would play out. More importantly, I was asking the million-dollar question: is this bear a female? I hoped so. I was excited to deploy one of our five GPS collars that I had spent so much time programming. When I walked into the trapsite, I was excited but not nearly as excited as I imagined I would be.
After the bear was immobilized and we moved in to handle it, I was still very collected. I was waiting for the moment that I handled it for my heart rate to increase and my excitement to explode. I’ll never forget when Lisa Bates, our assistant project coordinator for the Bear Study, asked me to help her move the bear out of the mud. As I helped pick it up, it was sort of a surreal moment, as corny as it sounds. But it wasn’t a moment of excitement; it was more of a “this is actually happening” moment.
I remained calm, despite having just carried a bear! Now it was time to get stuff done, though. First thing’s first: we sexed it. FEMALE! That was a bit of a relief! It’s important to closely monitor the animal’s condition under anesthesia, so I took its rectal temperature as my teammates got to work on finding a pulse, pulling a tooth, and tattooing her lip. I’m not going to lie – sticking a thermometer up a bear’s butt was not the first thing I imagined I would do, but I realized how crucial it was to the bear’s health as we worked on her. I proceeded with what I hope will become a regular routine: checking for a chest blaze, pulling hair, monitoring breaths, ear tagging, and attaching the collar – all the things I’ve wanted to do for so long! Her weight was estimated at around 100 pounds, so a GPS collar was too heavy. I was disappointed, but all was not lost! We have VHF collars for smaller bears like this one. While I was upset that we couldn’t deploy a GPS collar, I knew that the VHF collar would allow me to track her using telemetry in the Fall when I continue work on the study as a project assistant.
We began to take physiological measurements, but the bear started to react, which meant she was slowly coming out of anesthesia. In order for her to wake up smoothly, we ceased measurements and packed up our gear. As the group came out of the woods and we set the equipment down, it hit me: I had one bear under my belt. And oddly enough I was completely cool and collected, something that I still can’t figure out. Perhaps it was because there was work to be done and there was no time for excitement, but that’s just a theory. I guess I’m just a strange one. Or maybe it’s just all in a day’s work.