Thursday, May 26, 2011

A day in the field with the bear guys

Posted by on Thu, May 26, 2011 at 1:04 PM

The story “You’re next” pokes at the question of grizzly delisting in Montana and how the latest political turbulence around the Endangered Species Act complicated life for the bears. But in the course of covering the story, photo editor Chad Harder and I got an invite from Jamie Jonkel of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to tag along for a day of bear field research.

Jamie pulled into the Bonner gas station shortly after 10 a.m. last Saturday. He had a dead deer in the back of his rig and an 80-pound black bear riding rear-guard in a large culvert trap. As his colleague Eric Graham filled the truck’s tank, Jamie strolled over to greet Ryan Alter, an enterprising Missoula inventor who’s created a number of gadgets for state biologists over the years. Today Jamie and Eric planned to check out a high-tech culvert trap Ryan had put together and placed in a wooded glade near Lincoln. But first, the black bear.

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Chad recognizes him. He’s the same cinnamon-colored fellow Chad photographed up the Rattlesnake two days prior. The bear wandered into a carport early that Thursday—ironically, two doors down from an FWP warden’s house. The homeowner happened to be walking into the carport. She spooked the bear and he fled up a tree. Authorities lured him down with canned oranges and raw eggs. He ran off, but returned to the trap that night.

At the gas station, Ryan teases Jamie a little. “Just before you pulled in, there was a bus full of tourists here,” he says. “I considered pulling one over on you and telling them, ‘Wait, don’t leave. This guy’s going to show up in a few minutes with a black bear in a trap.’”

As if on cue, the driver at the next pump wanders over to the trap, staring in. With the man’s face just a few feet from the bars on the trap’s rear door, the bear lunges. It’s enough to startle the guy, but the bear can’t do any harm unless someone sticks a finger or a hand in there. Apparently, that’s not unheard of. “You’ll get these folks who train animals who think they know how to deal with bears,” Jamie tells me. “I have to ask them not to stick their fingers in there. That’s why we try to get in and out of the gas station as quick as possible.”

Before jumping in the truck, Jamie adds that he’s got a stuffed black bear he’s fond of sticking in traps when they’re empty, just to mess with people. His chuckle is infectious.

We follow Jamie and Eric up Highway 200, past Paws Up to a gated dirt road. Jamie hops out every few hundred yards to check on several bear rubs. FWP rigged barbed wire around several electrical poles up here. The bears stand up and use the wire to scratch their backs, much like they do with certain trees. Jamie and Eric collect the hair the bears leave behind for DNA analysis as part of an ongoing trend study on the grizzly population in the Blackfoot Valley. The hair supplies FWP with critical information on stable isotopes in the bears’ systems, as well as how individual bears are distributed in the area. It’s not quite “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” but it’s damn close.

Eric pulls up at a wide field several miles back and angles the trap away from the road. Ryan busies himself setting up a number of Flip movie cameras on tripods. His goal is to capture the black bear’s release on film, maybe even have the bear run right over one of the cameras—you know, for effect. Jamie starts to prep the winch to raise the trap door. “You don’t want to be up on the trap lifting the door when the bear comes out,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll double back and come at you.”

I outweigh the black bear by a good 60 pounds, but he’s got a one-up when it comes to teeth and claws. Plus, being in that trap for a day hasn’t put him in a very good mood, and in the interests of discouraging him from wandering too close to humans again, Eric hit just about every bump on the drive up.

With everyone positioned safely inside a vehicle, Eric hits the winch. The trap door opens slowly, and after a few seconds the bear pokes his head out. He sniffs, shuffles forward a few more inches, then leaps to the grounds and bounds off into the woods. The entire release lasts maybe 30 seconds. As Eric tells us about the different hazing methods he and Jamie will occasionally use to teach bears not to come around people again—bear spray, firecrackers, rubber bullets—he repositions himself so he can see in the direction the bear disappeared. “Sometimes it feels like a race to see who makes it back to town first, you or the bear,” Jamie says. He chuckles, but I get the distinct impression he isn’t joking.


Down the road, we stop to check a camera on a ranch near Ovando. The property is massive, with vast swaths near the mountains under conservation easement. Wooded glades, wide meadows, a gentle creek. The place looks like a nature preserve. Jamie says the alfalfa field we pass will have as many as eight foraging grizzlies in it during the summer. They dig up gophers too. When we get to the camera, Jamie finds that something dragged the bait away before feasting. There’s deer hair everywhere. The images the camera captured reveal no grizzlies, however. Instead we discover numerous shots of a radio-collared wolf returning to the bait over the course of a few days. Jamie’s clearly disappointed that it wasn’t a bear.

The relationship FWP has forged with the ranch’s owner is a prime example of what keeps Jamie busy. Without cooperation from the local residents, he says, these animals would have no place to go. Their willingness to eliminate bear attractants and accommodate the grizzlies on an expanding range is key to species recovery.

“The Blackfoot’s been a huge success,” Jamie says. He admits he’s nervous, however, about how contentious issues like the wolf debate will impact those partnerships.

We turn off the road just outside Lincoln and head into the woods. It’s here that Ryan has set up his elaborate trap. Nothing’s taken the bait inside—footage from a nearby camera reveal a mountain lion expressed some interest—so Ryan, Jamie and Eric make some adjustments to the door trigger. The trap has a camera mounted inside, with live feed relayed back to FWP headquarters in Missoula via wireless internet. There’s a temperature gauge inside the trap as well, and the door can be lifted and reset remotely from a computer. “That way if they get a skunk or a lion that they don’t want, they don’t have to drive all the way out here to release it and reset the trap,” Ryan says. That saves time, money and resources for the state. The whole thing is powered by large flexible solar panels that closely resemble the plastic tablemats parents buy for their kids. All the features were on a wish list Ryan compiled using feedback from FWP biologists.

Eric checks a few bear rubs he rigged up in the area. Not a lot of hair, but the trees are covered in scratch marks from grizzly claws. Later, he and Jamie cut a few slices off the deer in the back of the rig for fresh bait. Jamie tells us the deer turned up in the motor pool at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, chased by a few dogs. FWP had to put down the injured animal, and now Jamie and Eric use pieces of it to further their research. They fling a few hunks of meat onto the trap’s ramp, then Jamie drags the head along the ground for several yards in each direction, creating a scent trail for the bears to follow. He and Eric work like old pros, telling stories about the massive 830-pound grizzly male killed by a pickup near Lincoln back in 2007. “They should have put about another 100 pounds of clay on him,” Jamie says of the mount local taxidermists made with the bear and placed in Lincoln’s community center. “He had a lot of fat on him. I mean, a lot.”

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