Wilder Times with Bears

by Jenny Blake, Indiana Wildlife Federation Sustainable Trails Coordinator

Someone recently asked me what it was like to be a U.S. Park Ranger. That led me to think—why not share some of my wilder times as a Bear Management Ranger with my fellow Hoosier wildlife conservationists?! From 2002 – 2009, I worked in Glacier National Park, Montana. Also referred to as “Crown of the Continent” and “Backbone of the World,” the 1-million-acre park is situated along the northern portion of the Continental Divide and its beauty is absolutely stunning!

I was fortunate enough to be able to work with a species that now only exists in six separate recovery ecosystems within the lower 48—the grizzly bearor ursos arctos horribilis. My duties varied anywhere from intense crowd control at wildlife traffic jams to collaring bears. I’m not making this up!

Wildlife traffic jams can quickly take a wrong turn (pun intended). Imagine taking a leisurely Sunday drive in the country near dusk and you spot a barn owl perched along a fence row. You stop, get out your camera, and snap a photo…maybe even watch it a while as it scans the field for prey. Sounds lovely, right?! Well, now imagine there are 150 other vehicles with the same idea as you that start rolling in one by one. However, not everyone can see so they get out of their cars and walk up to find out what the big deal is. Suddenly, you’re in the middle of a rodeo ring and the owl has shape shifted into a 500-pound fairly dangerous wild animal. We’re back in Glacier now! To add to the excitement, parents often take this opportunity to place their children in front of the bear for that perfect photo!! Yikes!! It could get quite challenging, to say the least!

Opposite of a crowded roadway involves trapping and collaring bears. Let me provide some back story as to why bears are trapped and collared at all. Having a notable population of grizzly bears, Glacier National Park is part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE)—believed to be the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. Ongoing research studies involving population size, reproduction, survival, and trend monitoring greatly improves the collective knowledge of grizzly bear ecology and provides more precise and measurable information to adequately judge the status of the NCDE grizzly bear population.

Another reason bears are collared is for management purposes. Remember that wildlife traffic jam scenario? Unfortunately, there are times when bears receive human food….not good. Bears are extremely intelligent and if a positive food reward is associated with an unwanted behavior, such as moving through a picnic area and eating discarded food left in the grass, they will associate that area with getting food. Sometimes it is necessary to collar an animal in order to track its movement and prevent further unwanted behaviors. When this is required, a small team of biologists and wildlife managers select the trap location based on where they do NOT want the bear to be comfortable or where the bear received the reward. For example, a picnic area, campground, restaurant, dumpster site, or sewer pond would fit in this category. For front country areas such as these, a large metal culvert trap works best to ensure bear and human safety. The trap is baited with a natural attractant, such as a roadkill deer or beaver, hanging on a spring-loaded hook at one end. Once the bear enters the trap and tugs on the bait, the trap door will drop….voila! You just caught a bear!

As you can imagine, the animal is angry, scared and anxious!  Consequently, you have to sedate the bear before applying the collar. Once this is done, the animal is carefully carried out of the culvert onto the ground. Let me back up here and let you guess who gets to go inside of the confined culvert trap with the mostly sedated bear??!! Due to the confinement of the culvert, typically the smallest person gets selected for this task. In other words, many times that job fell to me. I mastered a tactical crab-walk-style method in order to shimmy pass the bear. Don’t worry, we took many actions to confirm the bear was actually sedated…no reason to be anxious here!

Once the animal is removed from the culvert, several steps are taken to ensure it stays healthy while under sedation. The team administers oxygen and monitors the bear’s temperature, respirations, and heart rate. All of this has to happen as efficiently as possible to minimize the time the bear is down–it can be stressful on any animal to be under sedation. After the collar is fitted and applied, the team lifts the bear and safely positions it back in the trap.

Once the bear is fully alert, team members and sometimes even wildlife dogs such as Karelian Bear Dogs position themselves to make the bear as uncomfortable as possible upon release. Once all safety measures are accounted for, the trap door is remotely opened and the action starts! Loud yelling, clapping, barking dogs, and sometimes even cracker rounds (noise maker rounds fired in the air from a 12-guage shotgun) are implemented as the bear leaves the area. Again, the goal is to make the targeted area as uncomfortable as possible so the bear associates the two and does not return. Sometimes they run, sometimes they don’t—it just depends on the animal and the situation.

I hope you have enjoyed these two glimpses of my wilder times as a Bear Management Ranger! All kidding aside, I have a great appreciation for all wildlife and I’m honored to be part of an organization that works so hard to ensure sustainable wildlife and wildlife habitat for our future!!