On a cold February day, with a freezing mist in the air and mud and melting snow on the ground, University of Maine wildlife ecology professor Lindsay Seward and her students bundled up and headed deep into the North woods near Alton.
Led by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) biologist Randy Cross and his team — Phillip Adams, Lisa Bates and John Wood — the students were on a mission to find a bear’s den, complete with a mother and her cubs.
The trip, part of a wildlife ecology capstone course that teaches students about field, analytical and laboratory techniques for evaluating wildlife habitats, is one Seward has taken 11 times. But for most of the 12 students, it was their first opportunity to see a bear in the wild.
“I tell them to come with no expectations because you never know what could happen out here,” Seward said on the 1.5-mile walk down the logging road.
Cross, a UMaine alumnus, lets the class observe biologists assessing and tracking the bears in their Maine Black Bear Monitoring Program, which began as a study in 1975 and includes tagging the newest cubs.
“I basically contact Randy each year and ask if we can tag along,” Seward said. “I feel a bit sheepish asking Randy to accommodate our large group each year. It’s no small request. But, the rewards of showing an undergraduate wildlife ecology student a black bear den is worth the coordination and effort.”
MDIF&W has three study areas, one of which is the Bradford study area that includes Alton, and 93 collared bears — around 10 of them yearlings that were recently collared. Every winter the biologists make the rounds to dens of the collared bears to see how many cubs were born and to collar 1-year-olds. This year the biologists visited 82 dens and handled 180 bears between early January and late March.
The den checks help biologists monitor the bears and their environment by tracking how many cubs are born and survive from year to year.
“Randy is willing to bring these focused, wildlife ecology seniors because he recognizes that it’s an experience of a lifetime and looks to contribute to our student’s education,” Seward said.
When students first enroll in the wildlife ecology program, it’s often because they’re interested in animals and the outdoors, but most don’t know specifically what that means in terms of a career, Seward says.
She says the program attracts a variety of students, but all of them think carnivore mammals are fascinating. Most of the students realize these animals are difficult to study because it usually involves expensive and logistically complicated work such as trapping, sedating and safe handling.
“To actually get to see this kind of work in action is a rare and special experience that most people will never experience due to the intrinsic challenges of working with carnivores,” Seward said. “That’s why I try to facilitate this trip each year — it means so much to the students to have this unique experience with a charismatic species.”
Senior wildlife ecology major Joe Roy was one of the few who knew what to expect after the quiet walk into the woods because he’d made the trek before.
Roy, who loves bears, spent two summers volunteering to trap the animals with Cross. He was part of a team that set bait sites to trap bears for radio collaring. The collars allow pilots to use a transmitter to track bears before den visits.
“It was the best job I’ve ever had,” said Roy, a native of Jay, Maine, who plans to attend graduate school before becoming a bear biologist.
Not all students prefer bears over other animals, but they all welcomed the February field trip.
Emily Patrick, a senior wildlife ecology major from Greenville, Maine, prefers elephants to bears, but she calls herself an “equal opportunity animal lover” and said she felt “lucky to get this opportunity.”
Once the group made its way down the logging road and to the edge of the woods, Cross and his team went ahead of the group to tranquilize the female bear and secure the site. The students waited patiently and quietly in an effort to not spook the mother.
Derek Trunfio, the lone zoology major in a class of wildlife ecology majors, whispered he was “stoked” about seeing and handling the bear cubs.
“I’ve never been up close and hands-on with any wildlife like that,” Trunfio said. “I’ve handled animals like squirrels, but nothing like a bear.”
Trunfio, from Billerica, Mass., knew coming out of high school he wanted to work with animals and the University of Maine seemed to have the best programs and hands-on opportunities.
He called the bear den trip a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and was most interested in seeing how the cubs would react to humans.
Once Cross gave the OK, the group climbed over and under branches on a twisting, overgrown path that led to the ground den covered with branches and four glossy-eyed, dark brown, fuzzy cubs.
The cubs, who cuddled together and snuggled close when held by the students, let out cries and shivered in the cold, but didn’t seem to mind the attention.
The students had their own comments while passing around the cubs:
“She’s so tiny.”
“This is amazing.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen a black bear.”
“I just want to put her in my jacket to keep her warm.”
“This is really exciting. It’s putting together what you learn in the classroom out here,” wildlife ecology major Olivia Reed said while holding a cub.
After juggling all four bears at once for a photo, Jennifer Hussey of Gray, Maine called the experience “exciting, definitely a highlight of the program.”
“They have a way of humbling us,” Hussey said of the critters.
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747