Wildlife professor leads party on ‘beary’ unique trek

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    By Sara Lenz

    Video courtesy of the Daily News at Noon

    Grin and “bear” it.

    This is what 140 BYU students, friends and researchers of Hal Black, professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU, did earlier this month at the Utah-Colorado border while waiting to see black bears in their natural habitat.

    Some BYU students, including Ashley Hipps, a sophomore from Asheville, N.C., majoring in psychology, and Lauren Rockwood, a pre-communications sophomore from Park City, got up at 4:30 a.m. to drive down and participate in what they called a once in a lifetime opportunity.

    ?How many times can you say I went to a bear den?? Rockwood said. ?This is my kind of forte.?

    Adults, students and children bundled up and packed into four-wheel drive cars and into the back of trucks to make the 6-mile trek up the mountain where the bear, Heidi, was expected to be.

    Black, who is in charge of the event and the research being conducted, invites as many as he can to come and see the bears, including Emma Sorensen, a seventh grader at Centennial Middle School in Utah who was paralyzed when she was four.

    This year was Sorensen?s second trip to see the bears, but it was her first time to see a baby bear.

    ?It was awesome,? Sorensen said. ?Hardly anyone in the world gets to do this.?

    Being able to see and hold the baby bear was Sorensen?s favorite part. Black named the cub, who weighed about four pounds, Emma.

    One of the firefighters who responded when Sorensen was first injured, Tom ?Auggie? Augustus, helped to bring Sorensen down the trail on a new off-roading wheelchair constructed by a retired firefighter, Dale Pitts. Sorensen?s father, Norman, was also there to help. Norman Sorensen said seeing the bear was incredible.

    ?Even for those of us who spend a lot of time in the mountains, that was awesome,? he said.

    Black hopes bringing people to see the bears in their natural habitat will have some sort of impact on them.

    ?Once they see something like this, we think it has a lasting effect,? Black said.

    Humans have had a long history with bears, Black said. He said jokingly that it goes back to Goldilocks.

    Black said people are sometimes freaked out about bears, but usually bears are going to run away when they see a person. However, that does not mean people should approach bears, he said.

    Black said it never gets old showing the bears to the general public. Seeing the bears, he said, brings such a wild, natural high. Since bears are mammals, there is a great connection with people, Black said, especially when people get to see a baby bear, which are only 15 to 16 oounces when born.

    Other researchers also believe bringing people out to see the bears has a great impact.

    Janene Auger, adjunct faculty in plant and wildlife sciences at BYU, has been researching with Black since the start in 1991.

    ?People connect so much with the outdoors when they?re here,? Auger said. ?Respect for wildlife builds.?

    Josh Heward, bear researcher for about 12 years and biology teacher at Timpanogos High School, said most people do not work in the wildlife arena, and it is nice to show them what it is like.

    ?By bringing people, it will build a conservation ethic in people so our kids and grandkids can keep doing this,? Heward said.

    Not only do these bear adventures bring people closer and more familiar with nature, they also give the researchers a vast knowledge of the bears in Utah.

    Heward said the most important reason for doing this research is to obtain information on the bears? reproductive patterns and to see the effects the environment has on reproduction. They have found that 55 percent of cubs die.

    After about 15 months of living with mom, cubs are sent off to thrive by themselves so the mom can mate again. The female yearlings stay in the area where they were raised while the male yearlings disperse. If they do survive, they are tough, Larisa Harding, who started participating in the research about 13 years ago and got her master?s at BYU.

    Female bears have what is called delayed implantation, which means they mate in the spring, and if they gain enough weight, the embryo will implant in the fall and begin to grow. Gaining weight is crucial because the bears go without food or water for five months in the winter, and the mother has to be able to grow the fetus for a couple of months and be able to nurse.

    Harding said many people think bears are like squirrels and just sleep all winter, but bears don?t. Their body temperature only drops a few degrees, and they are conscious the full five months, but they hang around their dens so they will not use up the energy they have stored.

    The researchers started out with collaring and researching as many as 45 to 50 bears, usually about 25 at a time, but that number has dwindled down to seven because they have not tagged any new bears since 2002, Heward said. By collaring the bears, the researchers are able to track their locations. Black said the long-term study is finished, but Harding said they will probably keep doing research until the end of the current collared bears? lives.

    The research started in 1991, with the major amount of funding from Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and some money coming from the Bureau of Land Management and BYU. The current contract for the research will end in 2012, Harding said.

    Auger, who has been with Black since the start of the research, was there when Heidi, now 24 years old, was first trapped and collared. She has published several papers on the project. She did her master?s thesis on how germination of seeds are affected by the bear?s digestive system.

    She was originally interested in studying turkeys, but money for the research fell through, and Black asked Auger if she wanted to work on the bear project instead.

    Heward was the one who actually crawled into Heidi?s den this year. He was about seven feet away when he jabbed the bear in the right shoulder with the drugs that would make her fall asleep.

    Although the cave was open and Heward thought it would be hard to get the bear to sleep, he said it was one of the easiest jabs he has done. To check to see if the bear was sufficiently asleep, he would yell ?hey bear,? and if she turned or responded, he knew the drugs had not kicked in yet.

    Heward said getting the bear to fall asleep is one of his favorite parts of the research. He has to get really close to the bear to drug it and nothing stands between him and the bear.

    He said he always knew he wanted to pursue a career that would allow him to work in the mountains. Originally he thought he would be a goat herder, but now he is a ?bear herder,? he said.

    As a student at BYU, Heward interviewed Black for an English class project and ended up volunteering to do lab entry data and eventually began to participate in the research.

    ?A huge part of what I learned as a student was out in the field,? Heward said. ?Now, as a teacher, I try to bring experience in the classroom.?

    Black said all the graduate students who have helped with the research have been from BYU. He said they had to have integrity, be fast learners and be inventive. Heward, Auger and Harding have been researching the bears with Black the longest and continue to come back and help without pay.

    ?It wouldn?t work without them,? Black said.

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