Unity College Bear Study Program

With Permission From the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Unity College Maine Black Bear Study Program

Unity College has begun a multi-year Maine black bear study.  The study will involve both faculty and students and include the trapping, tracking, and in at least one case, attachment of a video camera to a Maine black bear.

Associate Professor George Matula says that the Unity program is permitted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), and is collecting data similar to what MDIFW gathers in their three study areas. “They have been studying Maine black bears dating back to 1975,” Matula said.  “This initiative will provide opportunities for students to get involved in real-life, large mammal research and management that is unique for undergraduate students.”

Trapping of bears will begin in May, with Matula and Lisa Bates ’08, a Unity alum who is a Wildlife Biologist contractor with the MDIFW, leading students to wildlife management district 23 in the Dixmont, Troy, and Benton areas.  They will place GPS / satellite collars on up to five adult female Maine bears.  One of the collars will be equipped with a video camera.

“One of the things we are trying to do is begin to collect data in an area that is different than where the state is collecting,” said Matula.  “Our goal is to determine whether there are differences between the bears in our study and bears in the other three MDIFW studies.  The differences may include the home range of the bears, birth and mortality rates, and dispersal of offspring.”  The Unity study will also see if there are differences in habitat for the bears in district 23 to the three MDIFW study locations, and whether these differences affect the size of the bears.

“If the habitat is better down here, it should show up in the number of cubs that are born, their size at birth, the size that they attain when they become yearlings, and the size they reach when they are adults,” Matula explained.

The collars will provide information on the home range size of the bears, and whether they occasionally move far afield from their normal range.  Information on survival and time of denning will also be gathered.

During the winter months, Unity study participants will go to the dens of the collared females to determine if they had cubs and if so how many, and collect biological data that will reveal their general health.

“The cubs are tagged and then stay with the mother for another year,” said Matula. “Bears generally only have cubs every other year.”

“We’ll go back into the dens the next year to determine the minimum number of cubs that survived to become yearlings, and then while we’re there, we will radio collar the female offspring,” he said.

The video camera placed on one of the bears will be removed and sent to the manufacturer for retrieval of the footage.  Student researchers will download and analyze that data.

Matula says that student research teams have been created to work on specific aspects of the study, such as planning the study; designing databases and GIS analyses; producing a bear culvert trap; deploying hair snares; conducting DNA analysis of bear hairs; performing blood analyses; and pre-baiting for the trapping season.  Six summer interns will serve full-time for six weeks trapping bears from mid-May to the end of June, with two teams of trappers trading off duties.  Matula will lead one team and Bates the other.

In service to Unity’s transdisciplinary approach to ecological problem solving, some students participating in the study will also apply their work with other classes. For instance, some students will incorporate their GIS analysis into an applied GIS course with Instructor Kathleen Dunckel, and Assistant Professor Cheryl Frederick will guide students through analyses of the video footage and scats.  Assistant Professor Brent Bibles will be designing the hair snare protocols and setting them out, and helping to collect data for another course. Professor Tom Mullin will incorporate some of the bear study analysis into developing a website and outreach materials to the general public in the area advising on co-existence with bears.

“Creating outreach materials for the general public is an important part of the Unity study,” Matula noted.  “The MDIFW is receiving more nuisance complaints about black bears in the central Maine area, so they welcome the creation of materials to help the public understand that they can easily and safely co-exist with bears.”

The general public is encouraged to call any bear sightings in to the Unity study at (207) 948-9269, or e-mail blackbear@unity.edu. “The information received will help us focus our research efforts,” said Matula.

Unity College is a private college in rural Maine that provides dedicated, engaged students with a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources. Unity College graduates are prepared to be environmental stewards, effective leaders, and responsible citizens through active learning experiences within a supportive community.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013