L. David Mech "Dave"

Wildlife Research in the Old Days

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Zap! An anesthetic dart from a biologist in a helicopter hits the fleeing bear in the rump. A few minutes later, the animal flops down, and not long after, it stumbles off wearing a GPS collar. Every few days the animal’s whereabouts shows up on the biologists’ computer screen.

Pretty nice, but it wasn’t always like that. Take 50 years ago. There were no radio-collars of any sort, and no safe drugs for intramuscular use. Instead of darting an animal, biologists had to first catch it, then tie it up, and inject it by hand into the body cavity. Not into the gut, mind you, but the celoem. I got pretty good at it, even as an undergraduate. So did my colleagues at Cornell University as we spent our summers trapping and studying black bears in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. During the summers of 1956 through 1958, Fred Knowlton, Howard Erickson, Dave Austen, Kermit Rinnell, Jay Eisenhart, and I worked from dawn until midnight seven days a week as field assistants on a research project for graduate student Hugh Black. In an attempt to learn whatever we could about the movements of bears, we trapped them, drugged them, and ear-tagged them. Then, if we retrapped them, or if someone shot them or they were hit by a vehicle, we’d at least gain information about how far they might travel.

Imagine – all that effort hoping to obtain 2 locations for a few bears. However, at that time, even 2 locations for a single individual produced new information.

Trapping the bears required setting and checking as many No. 4 ½ steel foot traps as we could in a day, at least on our wilderness traplines. Around open garbage dumps, logging camps or other areas where bears were a nuisance, we used culvert traps on wheels. With the latter, we sprayed ether into the traps to anesthetize the bear. Bears caught in the foot traps, required a more involved process. One person would approach the bear with a long lead pipe having a chain loop at one end and a T-shaped handle on the other. The operator looped the chain over the bear’s head and twisted the pipe until the chain tightened around the bear’s neck, thus allowing the technician to control the animal’s head. Once that was secured, other technicians would catch a loop of rope around each of the bear’s hind feet, pull the rope around a tree trunk, and stretch the bear’s legs out, so it was spread-eagled on its back. Catching the loose front foot and tying that out similarly completed the task. The other front foot, of course was snagged by the trap.

Once the bear was tied out on its back, we could safely inject the animal in the body cavity with sodium pentobarbital. The only drug available at that time that could have been administered into the muscle with a dart or a jabstick as is done routinely today was succinylcholine hydrochloride. However, it was not an anesthetic but rather merely a muscle relaxant – that is, it did not knock the animal out but just paralyzed it. Thus the creature was conscious throughout; the other disadvantage was that that drug caused heart damage.

Once we had the bear drugged, we could ear-tag it, weigh it, measure it, paint it for visual recognition, and even remove one testicle for histological studies. (The local lumberjacks thought we were trying to cut the bear population in half!) If the bear was female and had cubs, we’d catch them by hand using heavy gloves and process them similarly.

One of the measurements we took was the neck circumference. Even in the late 1950’s we had an inkling that radio-collars were being developed so future scientists (us!) would need to know neck sizes of various species.

Indeed, it was only a few years later when these collars did become available. See www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/wildlife/radiotrk/radiotrk.pdf. Drugs that could be used in darts or jabsticks were tested in the late 1960’s, and wildlife research was soon to undergo a technological revolution. Never again would a researcher have to tie up a bear just to drug it. Never again would one have to rely on ear-tags and be thankful to get merely a second location for an animal.

Still, when I look back, I realize that despite the hard work and relatively primitive methods, those still were the Good Old Days of wildlife research.

View a slide show of the early days of wildlife research.