Missouri Black Bear Project, Part II- Or, Is That A Squirrel On My Head?

Let's see, where did we leave off? May. The month of May was devoted to setting hair snares for the bear project. In all, we set just shy of 350 snares ("we" being a team of eight! go us!). The above photo was captured by a Cuddyback camera and shows the size and shape of one of our snares (that is bear spray in the holster on my hip). Setting these snares involved determining probable bear habitat using topographic maps, knowledge of bear behavioral ecology and historical habitat selection, and then searching out the private landowners once the public land snares had been set. But mostly, this required talking to people. Communities are the heart of conservation. Non-scientists love nature too, and it never ceases to amaze me what we can accomplish together when biologists share knowledge and incorporate the public. I most recently discussed this issue at the Montana Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology's Research Symposium, but that will take another posting entirely. For me, the Missouri Black Bear Project really brought home the importance of talking with the public. After all, wildlife doesn't discern what is public and what is private property, and if we are going to save this one planet, we really need to work and talk and laugh and discover together. For the bear project, this required all sorts of public speaking skills, people-reading skills, and occasionally trying to not get shot (you think I'm kidding). I had many an interesting experience standing in someone's house ("should we actually go in? the lights are off..." or "why yes I will have a pop and some homemade cookies!"), having someone's dog (or goat) wanting to kill me, and wondering if the property in the back of the woods was actually a meth lab (Mark and I most definitely knocked on the door of a marijuana house. I almost cried). Perhaps the most memorable was one woman searching for 'something' in her home as we were standing in her living room discussing the bear project. We immediately determined that she did not own the property we were hoping to set a snare on. Power line corridors are often used by wildlife, as people rarely use them and they are excellent trails for animals to travel long distances and exert little energy. We were trying to find out who owned the property next to one such corridor, as setting a snare in the woods near a corridor offered a great chance to draw in a bear: the wind would carry the scent along the corridor and was easy to find for both bear and biologist. The woman was paying no attention to her very upset and very large dog, who had decided he wanted to rip off our faces and was showing us, with precision, each of the teeth he planned to do it with. We were trying to politely sneak out without losing our appendages to the dog, as we had a very long day ahead of us (finding landowners when county ownership maps are outdated is very difficult), when suddenly another woman emerged from under a blanket on the couch we were standing next to. She wasn't really a fan of bears, which I didn't mind, or of being woken up at noon by strange bear scientists; from here she echoed the sentiments of the dog. At the same time the first woman continued to mutter to herself about finding that 'something' to show us.

Well, 'something' literally appeared out of nowhere.

With a flash of brown and an explosion of dust from the curtains,  a very small 'something,' more commonly known as a squirrel, launched herself onto my friend's head. No one can truly be prepared for this, not even a biologist (and I will proudly say that we are prepared for many things). Poor Ryan stood still as a statue, not knowing exactly what was on his head, and calmly asked me, "Is there a squirrel on my head?" The chirping and frantic scratching on his scalp must have given it away. The woman patted the squirrel (still on Ryan's head) and told us the elaborate story of how she had rescued the poor thing from her cats (she did have fourteen on the porch. I counted). A great heart with a love for animals, this woman had scratches up and down her arms from this juvenile adult squirrel, whose name might have been Maude. She loved her squirrel, and she loved that there might be bears in her back yard (her sleepy friend did not. The dog at this point had shifted his focus to the squirrel). Squirrels make horrible pets, but neither Ryan or I had the heart to bring this up, as this woman had spent most of her life rescuing animals or tending to orphaned and injured wildlife. Maude seemed pretty content to use our bodies as living race tracks anyway. Ryan and I were admittedly mesmerized by this tiny, neurotic creature, who didn't bite yet left little scrapes up and down our arms as she darted between us, performing Spider Man-like acrobatics on Ryan's back and trying to make a nest in my hair. However, since collectively we still had more than 200 snares to set at this point, we couldn't hang out with the dusty squirrel or the killer dog for too long. Upon depositing Maude back to her owner at least three times ("she just loves your hair!"), we bid our new friends farewell and politely declined adopting one or three of the kittens on the porch. Out of all my experiences this summer, I like to think that there is one more lady who now talks about bear conservation when shocking her guests with her pet squirrel.

We see a lot of things in this field. We meet people who hate animals, who dislike certain species or find no value in the sanctity of life for native or endangered species. We encounter the remains of wildlife shot by humans, or find ourselves in nervous situations in the woods where there might be illegal steel traps set on the ground before us. We met people who don't like bears, who wanted nothing to do with the project, or who didn't want strangers on their property. Two of our guys got barricaded from leaving a driveway by a gang of bear poachers, and I was harassed on two different occasions by strange men when I was alone in the woods. I even narrowly avoided the flying bullets from some kids doing target practice directly into the woods where I was working. The point is, people are way more crazy than Maude the squirrel. We face problems every day in conservation, and some days it seems like a losing battle. But then we meet the people who rescued Maude from starving to death, or the landowners who find joy and pride in knowing there are bears with cubs on their property. We meet Master Naturalists who want to help us set snares and learn about the project, or tell us their stories about wildlife encounters. We laugh together about the time someone literally ran into the side of a moose, and we share websites and paintings and news stories with biologists and the public alike. The most important thing anyone in this field can do is keep talking. Knock on doors and not only get landowner permission, but get landowner passion. Building relationships (and yes, not getting shot or contracting rabies from unvaccinated animals) is the key to accomplishing any goal, and in the fight to save wildlife populations or connect corridors for wildlife we have to remember to share our passion with everyone, regardless of age or degree or affiliation.  I learned so much and saw so much just by knocking on the doors of private landowners. I was shocked, amused, disappointed, encouraged, fed, yelled at, laughed at, laughed with, hugged, ignored, and enlightened. Mostly I talked about bears, but I also learned about the different ways we can work together to save bears, squirrels, and the world. Not a bad side effect of such a cool project.

Measuring the height of the snare for consistency (bears hopefully leave hair samples when going under or over the barbed wire to get to the scent lure pile at the center).

Mark pretends to construct a snare for the purpose of this photo.