Jonah Gula is the new project coordinator for the Unity College Bear Study. That’s a cool job. And he’s only 21 (he skipped a grade). We called him up to find out how he landed it, whether bears really do smell bad and what he’s learned about the bears of Waldo County since he started studying them as an undergraduate in 2013.

BACKSTORY: Gula grew up in San Diego, which is known for its remarkable zoo. “I went to the San Diego Zoo my entire life.” He wanted to be a zookeeper as a child, and then he found out he could make a professional career out of studying animals. When he started to look at colleges, he knew nothing about Unity, but he knew he wanted to study wildlife. On a tour he sat in on a wildlife class. The hands-on aspect of the program, whether it involved dissecting the head of a harvested deer or capturing campus squirrels to study, was a “huge plus.”

THE BAIT: The alluring bear study, which has students working directly with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, came along after he matriculated. No one involved knew how many bears they’d find, if any, in this human-dominated region, although locals had filed nuisance reports complaining of bears at their bird feeders. But “basically everything was a shot in the dark,” Gula said.

Former Inland Fisheries & Wildlife bear biologist George Matula started the program at Unity. “Some people thought we would get lucky if we captured one or two,” Gula said. “I was just thinking, ‘Wow, we are going to get to capture bears!’ ” They captured and released seven bears that first summer, and “I kind of became obsessed with bears.”

THE FIRST BEAR: “I remember the first bear I handled. The trap was one that this other student and I had set the night before, so it was really special. Everything was kind of a blur, like in slow motion, I am touching a bear right now. It was pretty incredible.” The bear was a female, and Gula got to put her collar on, which wildlife biologists use to track the animal’s whereabouts (in the beginning, they only tagged females). She was 2 years old and weighed about 100 pounds. “People think all bears are pretty big, but females are generally pretty small. That was her first year on her own.”

WE MEET AGAIN: They captured her again a month later and replaced the collar, but in mid-August she was hit by a vehicle on 1-95 and died. Another female they’d collared also died that summer on the interstate, which sent Gula scrambling for statistics from the Department of Transportation. The findings? “In the past 10 years there have been about 11 bears hit on roads in this area, primarily on the interstate.” The biologists suspect the bears attempted to cross the road to find territory of their own, namely, south and east of I-95. “On this side of the interstate, it is kind of the wild frontier,” he said. Few other bears to compete with. “So it is a really attractive habitat.”

GOOD BREEDING GROUND: Two of the females they’ve collared were ready to breed by age 2; one was in estrus when they captured her. “Last winter she gave birth to cubs at just 3 years old.” The cubs are still with her, although she’s getting ready to kick them out. “Not only is it shocking that she bred so early, but that she successfully raised the cubs.” This indicates that the habitat is good in terms of health and nutrition.

ODIOUS ODOR? We’ve heard tell that despite their appealing fur, bears smell bad. True or false? “I don’t know where everyone gets the idea that bears smell bad. They smell like the woods. Like balsam fir and maples, this really woodsy smell.” Two weeks ago, Gula was out with someone who had never been on a bear capture before. “I said, ‘Put your face in there and smell it.’ That is the number one thing I tell people to do.”

GRIM STATISTICS: Since the study began, the Unity students have captured 16 bears and collared nine (they started collaring males in the second year of the program). “Half of them are dead,” Gula said. Three were killed by vehicles. A bear-car crash is survivable (“bears are pretty tough”) but these three didn’t make it. Neither did a young male killed by a larger male. The rest were shot by hunters. “With this kind of mortality rate, does that mean the population is going to continue to expand into the area?” Gula said. “Or will it be a population sink where they move in and die?”

CAUSE AND EFFECT? Is he concerned that publicity about the study might have drawn hunters to the area? Gula said he’s interviewed a handful of hunters after they reported their kills (Unity picks up the collars). “(They) didn’t even really know that Unity was doing a study.” But just in case, Unity doesn’t share information about bear locations, other than letting landowners know if, say, a bear has a den on their property.

Fun fact: the closest dwelling bear to campus is just a five-minute drive away. But you’d never know it. “That is what is really cool for me, because we work with a lot of landowners who have no clue that there are bears on their property.”

NO NAMES: The bears are assigned numbers (UC4 and so on) but not names. “We don’t name them because that creates an attachment.” But it is a blow when a bear they’re tracking dies. It’s not just the loss of the animal, but the information she’s bringing them, and the suspense of her life and habits. “We’re just at the edge of our seat, and then she’s gone and we are never able to answer those questions.”

BEAR MASTER: Gula graduated from Unity in 2015, traveled to South Africa for a research project and returned to Unity after he heard Matula was retiring. “I just had this epiphany that I still want to work with bears.” The full-time position will help him earn a master’s degree from the University of Maine. Ultimately, he hopes to continue a career in wildlife field research.

ABOUT THAT MOVIE: Sorry, we had to ask, but what did he think of “The Revenant,” which just won Academy Awards for best director and best actor and features a rather dramatic bear-mauling scene? Gula laughed. “That was pretty intense and realistic of what would go down.” Although he works with black bears, not grizzlies (which are considered far more dangerous), the friends he went to the movie with did glance his way during the mauling scene. “They were looking at me, like, ‘That is going to happen to you.’ “