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A Summer with the Bears

By Claire Warkentin –

The summer of 2017 took me to a place I never thought I would end up: Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota. Following my Trinity University study abroad trip with Dr. David Ribble’s Costa Rican Ecology course, the second half of my summer was spent living on the grounds of the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary. The closest sign of civilization was a solid 30-minute drive to the tiny town of Orr, population of nearly 300. There I had the internship of my dreams -- spending my days with the American black bears that frequented the sanctuary.

The story of the namesake,Vince Shute, is a popular in the area, and many similar stories can be found throughout northern Minnesota. Once upon a time, there was a man named Vince Shute who owned a logging company. The logger’s campsites were frequently visited and ransacked by the local American black bears. In response, the loggers would shoot and kill the bears. After many years, and many bear shootings, Vince decided it was time to find a better solution; he quickly figured out that these bears were not malicious, but rather were just hungry. Instead of shooting the bears, Vince and his men started placing food (pancakes were a favorite) for the bears outside of their camp and their raiding problems were solved. This was, unfortunately, breaking a pretty big rule: never feed wildlife.

Bear, Claire Warkentin, internship, Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary
One of the sanctuary's visiting bears hanging out at a feeding site enjoying the summer sun.
Time passed and eventually the logging camp was converted into a kind of park where people would pay to visit and Vince would guide them around among the many habituated bears on the old logging grounds. In the late 1990s, the American Bear Association was established in order to manage the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary and maintain the feeding situation established by Vince Shute. The Sanctuary is a center of conservation (a.k.a. a magnet for controversy) and gains a lot of attention due to the fact that the black bears that visit our grounds are fed. Previous efforts to wean the bears off of the provided food led to nuisance bear activity in the surrounding communities who had no qualms against shooting the raiding bears. In order to protect the bears, the feeding program has continued while longer-term weaning-off programs are currently in development. Meanwhile, a raised platform was constructed to keep visitors separate from the bears, and the diet was changed from pancakes and pastries to fruits, nuts, and seeds to better supplement a wild black bear’s natural diet.

An average day at the sanctuary started pretty early in order to feed the bears as the sun is rising when they are most active. Thankfully, the morning food is bucketed the previous night so we just had to be physically present and awake enough to navigate the field of bears waiting for us. We would tromp out into the “magic circle,” the only area of the protected Sanctuary grounds where the bears were given the right-of-way (elsewhere, we try to negatively condition the bears so as to appropriately fear and avoid humans), lugging 30-50 lb buckets of food. As the summer went on, more and more bears would visit the open Sanctuary grounds to get their fill of food in order to fatten up before hibernation. By the end of the internship, we sometimes started the day with an hour and a half of straight feeding before enough bears had wandered off to give us interns a chance to head in for our own breakfast.

Claire Warkentin, bears, research, internship
Claire observing Bobo the bear during morning tasks.
The work shifts consisted of a variety of jobs including prepping and mixing food, restocking the gift shop, weeding around the grounds, and, everybody’s favorite, poop scooping. One of my absolute favorite moments happened one day while I was working in the morning walking around scooping poop when I had a little encounter with a curious yearling, a young bear that has recently moved out of the house from living with mom. As a general rule, we were not supposed to leave any buckets around where the bears could steal them, but when this little yearling started following me around, I knew that was exactly what he wanted a look at. I set down my poop bucket and took a step back to let the yearling approach -- I was not concerned that he would steal my bucket. Bears HATE their own poop. If you ever see a bear step in their own poop, you will know it when you see it: they have a full-body convulsion out of disgust. They completely lose it. So this little yearling approaches my bucket and throws caution to the wind and blindly shoves his head deep down to the bottom. Oh silly bear, he soon realized his a regrettable mistake. The poor little guy picked his head up and ran away as fast as I had ever seen a bear move. It was hilarious.

In addition to the daily work tasks, a cool opportunity with the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary internships is that they allow interns to create their own research projects. In some of our free time, I led a research project with two of my fellow interns to gather observational data on black bear vocalizations and body language patterns (I am still in the process of working through all the data we collected!). In the evenings, the sanctuary hosts public hours for visitors to come and see the bears, and we interns would rotate the nightly jobs such as working admissions and parking, working in the gift shop, standing on deck and educating visitors (including giving scheduled talks on specialized topics: my specialization was black bear senses), and being on the grounds feeding the bears.

Claire Warkentin, Bear talk, Research
Claire delivering her educational deck talk.
It is hard to think of one specific highlight of the internship -- the bears are so curious and dopy that there were multiple occasions where you just had to laugh out loud at what they were doing. Another one of my favorite moments was when one of the frequently-visiting mother bears, Jade, was sitting at the base of a tall tree, gulping to call her four cubs down. Unfortunately, they were being disobedient little children and not listening to mother. Jade, one of the larger and older mothers, gave up on waiting for her rebellious little cubs and got up in the tree herself, climbing right to the top where her cubs were waiting for her. Jade began nipping at the ankles of her cubs, but they were just out of her reach and still not obeying. Jade, exasperated, climbed back down and lumbered away-- a sort of punishment like “if you’re not going to listen to me now then you just have to stay up there and you now you have to wait until I come back!” Sure enough, the little cubs waited up in the tree branches for hours until Jade returned in the afternoon. This time they listened when she called them down.

Throughout my Trinity educational career I have had the opportunity to dip my toes into the field of research through studying abroad in Tanzania with the School for Field Studies Wildlife Management Studies program in the summer of 2016, and studying abroad again this past summer with Dr. Ribble for his Costa Rican Ecology course. The Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary internship was my first move into the professional working world of wildlife conservation and research world that I plan to expand on by heading to grad school to further find my path in the wildlife research and conservation biology field after obtaining my bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry this spring.

About Claire

Claire Warkentin is a senior biochemistry major with an ancient mediterranean studies minor from Round Rock, Texas. She is the president of Alpha Phi Omega, plays the cello in the Trinity Symphony Orchestra, and is on Trinity's ultimate frisbee team Altitude. In her free time she communes with nature and bakes cheesecake.

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