TOWNSHIP 36, MD — Wildlife biologist Kendall Marden walked cautiously toward a mass of boulders deep in the Down East forest, moving quietly with four other biologists nearby.

Just as the team reached the boulders, a 50-pound yearling black bear bolted from a small cave the rocks concealed, filling the woods with strangely human-sounding cries.

Marden calmly grabbed the critter as it ran past him and planted a tranquilizer in its hide. Biologist Lisa Bates reached into the cave and tranquilized a second yearling and the mother bear. As quickly as that, bruin No. 2580, the mother, was added to Maine’s 2012 bear study.

For 37 years, biologists at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have visited up to 100 dens each winter in the nation’s oldest radio-collar monitoring program for bears.

Now the bear study has earned a trendy new distinction, courtesy of digital technology. One of the dens in northern Maine has been fitted with a webcam, streaming live images to an Internet website — including video of Lugnut, a female black bear, giving birth last month to two cubs. The site has logged more than 156,000 page views since it went live Jan. 24.

The Wildlife Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization, created the site as a tool to educate the public and raise money to support the IF&W’s bear study program.

The foundation is one of a number of private, nonprofit organizations that are raising and donating money to support cash-strapped, taxpayer-funded public agencies that manage wildlife, parks and other conservation lands.

It’s too early to say whether the foundation’s website will be a success. But the leader of the bear study, IF&W biologist Jennifer Vashon, says the idea is a good one.

“If nothing else, it already is an educational opportunity,” Vashon said. “People are learning about black bear and appreciating black bear. That is a success, whether it’s the end or the start.”

Vashon said Maine’s black bear population is estimated at 25,000 to 30,000, the largest it has been in 60 years.

The population is growing, Vashon said, because of an ample food supply, including berries and nuts as well as protein-rich bark. At the same time, the bear harvest in the fall hunting season has declined to around 3,000, from about 4,000 a decade ago. That’s a reflection of fewer hunters in the field, due in part to the poor economy.

Maine’s bear program involves gathering data from 80 to 100 radio-collared bears, ranging from month-old cubs to mother bears as old as 25. Some of the collars are fitted with GPS devices that provide information on the animals’ travels.

At the Down East den last month, the team of biologists weighed the three bears; replaced the mother’s radio collar; equipped the two yearlings with radio collars and ear tags; collected genetic samples of hair; and took note of the animals’ general health.

The annual den visits are made to three study areas that represent different bear habitats: one in the forests of northern Maine, one Down East near the blueberry barrens of Washington County, and another near farmland north of Bangor.

The team periodically takes students, legislators, the media and other interested groups to bear dens for educational purposes.

The breadth of Maine’s bear study makes it unique, said former Maine bear study leader Craig McLaughlin, now the terrestrial section manager at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. But Vashon said that with an expanding bear population, more data is needed.

She said adding a study area in western Maine or conducting a statewide DNA study would give a more accurate read on the population.

Wally Jakubus, the mammal group leader at IF&W, said the bear study is adequately funded. The program has a budget of $70,000, which does not include the salaries of biologists, he said.

But the founders of the Wildlife Research Foundation, brothers Bert and Hank Goodman, both registered Maine guides, said they were surprised when they went on a den visit and saw the state biologists relying on donated and second-hand materials.

“(The biologist’s) gloves were donated, his flashlight was donated, and his two sleds were outdated. It was just terrible,” Bert Goodman said.

Working with IF&W’s biologists, the Goodmans set up the video camera and website, which features the live streaming video, still photos, profiles of the state’s bear program members and solicitations to donate.

The brothers also started pitching den tours to the general public — priced at $5,000. They plan to coordinate those tours with the biologists when they normally visit the dens, between January and March. It’s something the state has done for years for education groups — at no charge.

Holding public tours to raise conservation funds is a new approach to the state’s wildlife work, but seeking private funds to support public agencies is not a new mission for nonprofit conservation groups.

For years, nonprofit groups have sought and contributed funds to help state and federal natural resource agencies in Maine.

“I often wondered why there wasn’t a bear conservation group,” said Robb Cotiaux, president of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Maine chapter.

In 2008, Safari Club International gave the state IF&W $5,800 to purchase black bear GPS collars; in 2009, the club’s Maine chapter donated another $6,000 to complete the purchase.

The turkey federation raises $20,000 annually to fund state biologists’ work growing the turkey population here, Cotiaux said. The program has increased the state population from 10 birds to an estimated statewide population of 61,000.

“Our goal was to restore the wild turkey to all suitable habitat. The IF&W people saw that and our desire to restore a species. It took a long time to build that relationship. They’re the paid professionals. Ultimately, they had the say,” said Jim Wescott of Windham, the 2012 recipient of the federation’s national conservation award.

Friends of Acadia may be the best example in Maine of a conservation group that partnered with a government agency to successfully fund conservation work.

Since 1986, the group has granted more than $17 million to help preserve Acadia National Park’s land, said Marla Stellpflug O’Byrne, the Friends president.

“We look to how we can expand the park’s ability to do its job, not replace what it’s doing,” O’Byrne said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph