Tagging Bear #44

HOUSTON COUNTY – It’s hot in the Oaky Woods, but a nice patch of shade lies just ahead of us. 

There’s a bear in that shade.

A bear who’s probably wondering how a little snack of corn with grape Kool-Aid has led to this:

Forepaw caught in a wire loop, a group of curious humans gathering and one of them approaching now with a stick.

One sharp jab and it’s sleepy-time for the bear.

She doesn’t know it, but she’s just been labeled #44.

As her breathing deepens, the scientists move into the shade and begin their work.

It’s year two of the Middle Georgia bear census, which is being conducted by the Department of Natural Resources with assistance from several college graduate students of various wildlife disciplines.

This is the end of a busy day for the group. Bear #44 is the third capture of the day, an unusually high number in a survey that can go weeks without a capture.

The trapping season runs from April to August, and every summer weekday wildlife technician Jeff Bewsher makes the rounds of his traps, of which there are 20-30 at any given time, scattered across the survey area of Houston, Bibb, Twiggs, Bleckley and Pulaski counties.

More often than not, this amounts to finding nothing more than untouched bait.

And why, by the way, is that bait corn soaked in grape Kool-Aid?

Old farmer’s trick, says DNR wildlife biologist Scott McDonald.

As McDonald explains it, while the team was trying to come up with a good bear bait, they talked to a wild hog trapper who said there is one bait he avoids (corn soaked in grape Kool-Aid) because the bears won’t leave it alone.

Aha. Bear bait.

Back to the bear at hand. 

First, the entire crew works to roll #44 into a weighing net then gently lift her to the tripod-mounted spring-scale.

136 pounds.

Then it’s on to the sampling.

Ray Jones, manager of the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area, draws a little blood and takes a biopsy, afterward coating the wound with a coagulant antiseptic.

Stephanie Kirk, a student field technician from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, takes a few loose bear hairs and tucks them into an envelope.

She then begins the lengthy (and widthy) process of measuring the bear while Vivia Exum, Bewsher’s fiancée and bear study volunteer, records the measurements.

Bewsher meanwhile checks the bear’s teeth, then extracts a rear tooth, which will be used to accurately age the bear.

Afterward, he uses a special clamp to make a series of pinprick marks on the inside of the bear’s lip. After he rubs a little ink into the marks and wipes away the excess, the tattoo is visible: 44.

This mark will enable the researchers to easily identify the bear, should she be recaptured later in the study.

There have been a few of those so far this summer, Bewsher said, including one of today’s trio: #21.

For the immediate future, however, #44 will be easily identified by the radio collar Bewsher fits around her neck.

The device includes a GPS (global positioning system) tracker, which periodically stores the bear’s coordinates and will enable the census takers to track her movements for about a year.

About that time, a “break-away” segment of the collar should have dry-rotted, leaving the bear free of the device before her neck might grow enough to make it uncomfortable.

And once the scientists note the collar is no longer moving, they can recover the fallen device, refurbish it and fit it to another bear.

All these direct collection methods fill in a great deal of data on the local population, but they are not the entirety of the study.

Jamie Skvarla, a doctoral student of wildlife ecology at the University of Georgia, explains some less invasive data-gathering projects she’s been working on.

Bear “hair traps” – little twists of wire strategically placed to snag hairs as bears brush past the trees they’re mounted on – and motion-sensitive cameras are a couple of these methods.

The DNA data gathered from the hair traps gets logged with that collected from direct encounters, and all the information slowly piles up to frame a better picture of the bears in Middle Georgia.

It’s still very early to say much about that picture, but here’s one conclusion that fits the data gathered today: This is immense fun.

As the group withdraws from the bear, leaving her snoozing in the shade, they compare this capture to the others today, they chat about bears from before, they smile and laugh and enjoy this morning in the Oaky Woods.

Soon #44 will wake and wander away, maybe a little wary of the next free lunch she comes across, but otherwise hardly the worse for her part in the study.