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From Here to Kingdom Come
Wildlife biologist wants bear and elk research to reach wide audience

by David Wheeler

Talking to Dave Maehr, you get the impression that he's always on the job. There was the time not too long ago, for example, when the wildlife biologist and UK associate professor of forestry was in bed recovering from hip surgery, taking strong pain medication. But he had also just begun a study on black bear recolonization in Eastern Kentucky and wanted updates from the field. Mike Orlando, a graduate student at the time, obliged. He took time to call Maehr in between tranquilizing bears and putting radio collars on them to track their movement.

Photo of mother bear with radio collar comforting her cubBlack bears left Kentucky in the 1800s due to hunting and deforestation, but they began to resurface a few years ago in Kingdom Come State Park in Eastern Kentucky. By putting radio collars on the bears, Maehr and his team are determining the size of the bear population, the area of their habitat, and the landscape features they seek out.

Photo credit: Dave Maehr

"One morning around 7:30, the phone rang, I reached over in my drug-induced stupor, picked up the phone, and heard blow-by-blow details of the bears they had caught," Maehr says.

He sits back in his swivel chair and continues. "Mike was whispering, 'Now Dave, there's a big male bear, looks like about 400 pounds, walking down the hill right now. We've got the dart rifle ready; we're going to go in; we're going to shoot him. Wait … wait … quiet ….'"

Pop.

"There's a lot of rustling around, and then, 'We got him. Dave, I gotta go now.'"

Not long after that conversation, Maehr was back in the field.

He is not only dedicated to his work; he is also successful at it. Under his leadership, researchers are helping two species of large mammals flourish in a state where they had been extinct for more than a century. And according to Maehr, helping the animals means helping ourselves.

A bear of a project

Black bears left Kentucky in the 1800s due to hunting and deforestation, but they began to resurface a few years ago in Kingdom Come State Park in Eastern Kentucky. They have now been sighted in at least 20 Kentucky counties.

Black bears nearly overrun Maehr's office—photographs of them, anyway. But Maehr doesn't need the photos to visualize them; when he talks about the bears, you can tell by the look in his eyes that he is picturing them perfectly.

"The bear recolonization happened under the radar," Maehr says. "It began with males that trickled into Kentucky. It took an occasional female to make it over and meet up with a male or two in the Pine Mountain area close to Cumberland, and actually start producing cubs, before the population started to take off. That happened seemingly without anyone knowing about it. We can’t pinpoint a year where suddenly females were producing cubs and remaining in Kentucky their entire lives. It may have been anywhere from the early to late 1980s."

Maehr says the growing bear population is definitely a good thing. "What is so obvious to those of us who are in this field is that a healthy environment and all the attributes that go with it—the species, the processes, the competitive interactions that are out there—make for stable, healthy ecosystems. Those are very important to us, because that's where we came from. We evolved as a species in competition with lions and bears and hyenas and diseases and parasites. But I think technology has really separated us from that, and as a result of that separation we have allowed ourselves to become so much less appreciative of the environment that we easily degrade it. And that's problematic for our future as a species."

For conservationists, the bears' return is a positive development, indicating that Kentuckians have made their forests hospitable to the animals again. For tourists, the bears are an exciting reason to visit the Cumberland area.

Others, however, fear that bears pose a danger to residents. A June 2004 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal sums up the tension with its headline, The bears are back: Animals are an attraction, but can pose problems, too. "Just as bears can potentially hurt humans, the opposite is also true: Humans can hurt the bear population, out of fear or ignorance," says Maehr. Keeping both the bears and the people happy and safe is where his research comes in.

Photo of Dave MaehrMaehr was one of 20 academic environmental scientists in the United States selected to be Aldo Leopold Fellows. Recipients are chosen based on scientific qualifications, leadership ability, and an interest in communicating environmental science to a wide audience.

"Some people who live in areas where bears roam fear the animals because these people think bears will get into their garbage, scare their kids, or cause other kinds of damage. While this does happen occasionally, I think these fears are largely overblown."

Such a problem illuminates the scientist's true task, Maehr says. "I think that our ultimate challenge here is not so much to write papers and go to conferences, but to actually make conservation actions work on the ground."

Maehr launched a formal study of the bear population in 2002 with funding from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. By putting radio collars on the bears, Maehr and his team are determining the size of the bear population, the area of their habitat, and the landscape features they seek out.

One of Maehr's first findings was that, contrary to the perception of some residents, the bear population was not in the hundreds. "Within a week of capturing these first few animals, we started recapturing them. And it became increasingly clear that just a handful of animals was being seen in a lot of different places, giving the impression that there were a lot of bears." Over time, Maehr will be able to develop a more accurate estimate of the black bear population. For now, he hesitates to give a number.

In the future, Maehr hopes to acquire funding for Global Positioning System (GPS) technology for the bear study. He has already used such technology to study bears in Florida, and he is currently using it to study elk in Kentucky. GPS collars provide detailed profiles of movement, revealing how animals cross highways, move around human habitations, and negotiate topographical features like rivers, mountain peaks and mining areas.

"The kind of data we can get from these collars will be anywhere from two or three locations a day to as many as one location every 15 minutes for an individual animal, and that kind of data can help develop some pretty intricate movement profiles," Maehr says.

Welcoming the elk

In December of 1997, Maehr stood on a hillside in Eastern Kentucky near Robinson Forest and watched elk return to a place they had not inhabited in 150 years.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Maehr says, "standing there on the hillside with 3,000 people who had been bused in from all over, watching the door open up from the trailer and seven elk running out. This very enthusiastic but subdued cheer went out, as if everyone knew if they made too much noise it would scare the animals. They ran up a hillside together in a loose herd, stopped, turned back and looked at everybody, and then they just disappeared into the woods."

The event heralded not only the reintroduction of elk into Kentucky, but also an unprecedented research opportunity. As the principal investigator of the elk restoration project, Maehr organized a symposium and edited a book based on the project, Large Mammal Restoration. He says the large mammal work in Kentucky revolves around two questions: How capable is the landscape in supporting permanent populations, and what is the likelihood that these populations will continue to grow?

So far, the growth of the elk population has been impressive: now, an estimated 4,500 elk roam a 16-county area in Kentucky, thanks in part to elk brought in from other states. Because elk are usually the dominant species in a given area, some people were initially concerned that the animals might heft too much muscle and begin to reduce the deer population.

Photo of a group of elk runningIn December of 1997, seven elk were released from a trailer in Eastern Kentucky near Robinson Forest. The growth of the elk population has been impressive: an estimated 4,500 elk now roam a 16-county area in Kentucky.

Photo credit: Dave Maehr

One of Maehr's graduate students studied this problem and came to a surprising conclusion. "The deer had a secret weapon in defending themselves against elk," says Maehr. "This is the brain worm—the more technical term is the meningeal worm—which is a native parasite in this part of the world. The brain worm doesn't affect deer; they're more or less immune. They've developed a resistance over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. But it's rather novel to elk, and it kills them."

Despite the parasite, the elk population is expected to reach 6,000 by summer 2005. Showing confidence in a stable elk population, the state issued 41 elk-hunting permits this year. Permission to hunt not only signifies a healthy population, but also reduces the likelihood that elk will damage crops and become a nuisance to farmers.

Hopes are high that the bear population will grow in a similar way. If the bear population shows stability, the state may one day issue bear-hunting licenses again. "The best measure of successful management of the bear population will be when it, too, is able to be hunted—when Kentucky once again restores the tradition of bear hunting that preceded their disappearance back in the 1800s," says Maehr.

Projects like the elk and bear studies are particularly important because large mammals require great amounts of space, draw public interest, and act as "conservation umbrellas," Maehr says. In other words, success in protecting the large mammals in a particular area translates as success in protecting everything else in that forested system.

The environment, apple pie and motherhood

Whatever he's studying, Maehr's research has one central goal: to protect nature. "No matter what one's politics are, everyone should agree on protecting the environment," Maehr says. "The environment should be the most non-partisan, 'apple-pie and motherhood' type of issue that we have in this country."

Through his research, Maehr wants people to realize that all the components of the natural landscape are essential to the survival of humanity. Though scientists are sometimes unsuccessful in communicating their environmental vision beyond academic audiences, Maehr won a prestigious fellowship for his ability to reach the lay person: In March 2004, he was one of 20 academic environmental scientists in the United States selected to be Aldo Leopold Fellows. Recipients are chosen based on scientific qualifications, leadership ability, and an interest in communicating environmental science to a wide audience.

"Scientists are pretty good about communicating with each other, but when it comes time to influence policy, you've got to be able to deal with a legislator or an administrator, and make them understand the issues," Maehr says. "You have to take a very straightforward and understandable approach."

For a wildlife biologist like Maehr, understanding people is as important as understanding animals: "I learned that wildlife management is 90 percent people management, and that is certainly true. Everything that we do here, whether it's on black bears or elk, is ultimately linked to people, and the values they have. Education is what it's all about. We’re doing this work so that we can apply what we learn to improve our lives."