February 26, 2012

Live video: Maine's latest bear necessity

Wildlife group's black bear cam allows public to watch and learn along with biologists

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Lisa Bates and John Wood with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife remove a sedated mother bear from her den in the woods of Washington County to check on her general health, weigh her and replace her radio collar.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Lisa Bates, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, carries a tranquilized yearling back to its den earlier this month while doing research on black bears in Washington County. The department typically visits about 100 dens each winter.

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The Wildlife Research Foundation is a new nonprofit with the mission of supporting wildlife research, particularly on Maine’s black bear.

Started by guides Bert and Hank Goodman, owners of North Country Lodge sporting camp in Patten, the foundation placed a webcam in a remote bear den in northern Maine.

To learn more about the foundation or to see the black bear den video, go to www.wildliferesearchfoundation.org.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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