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Shepherd University students track black bears, help biologists

By Staff | Mar 22, 2013

Twelve students in a wildlife management class at Shepherd University traveled to a site near Elkins after a recent snowfall to track and monitor black bears with a team of state biologists Monday, Jan. 28.

The trip was an effort to introduce the students to professional life in wildlife management and to show them research conducted in the field. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) staff radio tags and follows the bears to study their hibernation, health, and growth and survival rates.

The students had the rare opportunity to help professional wildlife biologists with their study. The group tracked via radio collar a 130-pound sow and her three yearling cubs to a den. During the roughly four hours on location, students performed different tasks, including measuring the bears’ snouts, tails, claws, and weight and tattooing and ear-tagging them.

“The students helped carry the cubs from the den and helped weigh the bear cubs as part of the health assessment,” said Dr. Peter Vila, assistant professor of environmental studies at Shepherd, who arranged the outing for his class. “It’s a real treat for the students to not only see the bear study, but to actively participate.”

Cody Marsh, a junior from Harpers Ferry majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in resource management, said the best part was holding a 20-pound bear cub in his arms.

It was “very much a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “However, it wasn’t all cuddly and fun; we were there to do a job that had long-term benefits for the bears.” He said the students learned about the equipment and methods used to study bear populations, as well as biology and black bear characteristics.

“We learned how to take all the measurements necessary to gauge the growth and health of a black bear,” he said.

Marsh said the hands-on labs like the bear track made this wildlife management class one of his favorites at Shepherd.

“For me, these learning experiences are invaluable and provide me with the inspiration to continue into the field I’m currently studying,” he said.

Vila said that emphasizing the experience you get as a professional in the field is where Shepherd makes an impact.

“This type of exposure helps students decide on future post-graduate careers and also provides valuable hands-on experience,” he said.

The trip came together quickly, as it was dependent upon snow, personnel, and the bears. The plan was to find the bears hibernating in their den and tranquilize them so the biologists can conduct their work. Should an untagged cub take off before the drug is administered or takes effect, the biologists can track its footprints in the snow.

Vila said safety for both the humans and the bears was paramount, with only the certified staff preparing and administering the proper tranquilizer dosages. Students were taught proper bear handling. Vila also stressed that though the bears appear cute and cuddly, they are extraordinarily dangerous animals.