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Maine Black Bear Research and Field Study Activity

By Carlton G. Brandt

Type of Entry:

  • Project

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity
  • Inquiry lab
  • Group/cooperative learning
  • Community outreach/off-site activity

Target Audience:

  • Advanced Biology (projects)
  • Environmental Studies
  • Gifted

Background Information:

The activity will help the students answer the following questions:

  • What is a mammal and what are the major characteristics of a mammal?
  • What are the life cycles of a male and female Black Bear and the differences between them?
  • What is the reproductive cycle of the Maine Black Bear and what is its influence on the cubs?
  • What is the natural environment of the Maine Black Bear and how does the bear utilize that environment?
  • What types of foods are eaten by Maine Black Bears and how do they affect its reproductive cycles and the population level of the bear?
  • Why are bear populations tagged and studied by state biologists?

The teacher will have to do the following:

  • Make contact with state biologists within their area and gather any information they can on bears (or any other animal subject they might choose). Get the cooperation of a state biologist who will be willing to work with the teacher and students in the field as well as in the classroom or on a conference call.
  • Investigate the library and insure that adequate information on the species is available in the library for the students to use.
  • Insure that the students are adequately prepared to go into the field and observe and ask questions.
  • Insure that permission is granted for the students to do field work with the biological team.
  • Arrange for photographs to be taken in the field.
  • Oversee any final report which is written and presented.

The students will be required to do the following:

  • Do research, take meaningful notes, and organize material.
  • Communicate with and learn from other students and experts.
  • Correlate knowledge gained from research to that gained from field work and draw valid conclusions.
  • Formulate intelligent questions.
  • Share their knowledge with those less informed.
  • Learn to use snowshoes in preparation for field work.
  • Preparation time the first year is fifteen to twenty hours. It is five to six hours each year after that.
  • Class time is fifteen school days for research, discussion, and training before the field work; one to two days for field work; and five days for discussion and preparation of the final presentation.


This activity involves students in a study of Maine Black Bears. It involves students in first doing academic research on the Maine Black Bear. Following extensive research and discussion, students are trained to go out into the field with Maine State Biologists, who are entering dens of hibernating bears to check the health of the bear, the presence of bear cubs, the health of the cubs, and then proceeding to tag any of the new cubs. Students do actual field work with the biologists, gathering data on the weight, age, length, and general health of the bears. They are also able to dialogue with the biologist as they work, so they come to understand what is significant about the data they are gathering.

After doing the field work, the students put together a news article for the local paper, and a slide presentation which they present to the school board and the community discussing what they have learned about the Maine Black Bear, its general status and health, and its place in the ecology of Maine.

Activity/Lesson - Maine Black Bear Study

This "bear study" activity is one which I designed to involve students in seeing that learning can take place in a number of places and involve a number of different sources of information. The project involves my class, the library, the Maine State biologists, and the school board. The materials that will be needed include access to a library with a number of materials on mammals, in general, and on the Maine Black Bear, specifically; contact with the Maine (or any other state) State Biologists; the cooperation of these biologists; cameras and film; and one pair of snow shoes for each student.

The activity includes both research and field work. It begins with general research on mammals, which involves the students in using books, up-to-date periodicals and computers. Eventually they begin centering the research on the black bear and its life cycle. Students will investigate all its life processes, paying special attention to its diet, reproduction, and winter sleep. Students begin to organize their research and formulate questions. They spend a significant amount of time discussing the life of the male and female bear.

During this time, we have been in constant contact with Craig McLaughlin, Maine State biologist and chair of the Maine Black Bear Study. When we have completed our research, he comes to class or has a telephone conference call with my students and discusses our research with us.

The next step is to prepare the students for field work. They must learn how to use snowshoes, because we are generally looking at sixty or more inches of snow by the end of February or the beginning of March, and it is necessary for the students to learn how to move easily through the woods on snowshoes. We discuss the safety precautions that must be taken as we are going to be moving into the dens and the students are told what procedures they will have to follow when they get into the field.

We will then travel about eighty miles to the Ashland, Maine area to meet the Maine State Biological Team, and they teach the students how to use the triangulation equipment. We then begin our trip into the woods looking for the bear dens where the cubs will be counted and tagged.

Usually we will find about three to four dens a day. When we find a den, a biologist will go into the den and tranquilize the female. Then my students will begin to participate in the work. They put rope cuffs on the female and remove her to the sleeping bag to keep warm. The 4-6 week old cubs are removed and put inside the coats of the students to keep the cubs warm. Other students will gather information on the mother, such as her weight, age, length etc. Milk samples are taken and students are able to assist with everything except the tranquilizing of the bear and the taking of blood samples. The students keep up a dialogue with the biologists so they are always aware of what's being done and why.

During the next few days of class, we will view several rolls of film that we took during the field work. We will discuss what we have learned. We will write a news article based on the work and supply photos for the article, which informs the public of our work. These activities also form a part of my evaluation of the success of the project as a learning activity. Students then develop a slide show/presentation which they present to the school board at the next monthly meeting. This meeting is open to the public and is usually well-attended. Also, each group creates a visual collage which is placed on display in the commons area of our school, and later is placed on the wall in my room.

Through this activity, students learn to cooperate and work together. They learn to do research and see how that research is applied, and they accomplish hands-on field work. They develop confidence in themselves as researchers, field assistants, and teachers, and have fun while doing it.

As a result of the activity, many students have become interested in doing research and field work on other species. For example, some have tackled the environmental issue of reintroducing the wolf into Maine.

The project itself can be adapted by a teacher for use with another species in another state.

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