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Burping for bears



A historic grizzly bear population study got underway June 15, ranging from Glacier’s northern border to the Blackfoot River basin—a region approximately the size of Austria.

U.S. Geological Survey scientist Kate Kendall, project leader, says the epic study aims to determine whether the status of grizzlies has improved since they were listed as a threatened species in 1975.

“There’s been so much effort into managing grizzlies, but we’ve had no way to measure whether policies and regulations have been effective,” Kendall says.

Kendall’s team will count bears by sampling DNA from bear hair caught on barbed-wire snags. Luring the bears to the snags requires bait, and that bait, it turns out, is one of the most foul concoctions imaginable. Interns Pat Olson, a University of Illinois student, and Nick Anhorn of the University of Victoria ready the potent “bear’s brew” in a barn on the outskirts of Columbia Falls.

On Wednesday, June 9, the pair wore white suits akin to those found in nuclear power plants and carefully “burped” (to let air pressure out) hundreds of bottles containing congealed cow’s blood from a nearby butcher shop and liquified fish that have been allowed to rot for six months. This recipe—which smells so putrid that volunteer and UM student Sam McKay almost vomited upon one barrel-opening—is an attractive scent to bears.

Anhorn and Olson have already completed the unenviable task of sifting maggots out of the rotten fish. Now they let rank air out of the bottles, one at a time, as flies descend upon the hideous feast. Upon some “burps,” the maroon gunk inside starts to gurgle up and ooze out of its container.

“See, that’s what we’re trying to stop,” Olson says.

But one gets desensitized to the stench after a while, right?

“No,” says Olson with deadpan resignation. “It’s torture, but it’s all for the bears.”


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