Volunteering for the SNP Bear/Wildlife Mitigation Patrol

This past summer I had the greatest honor to work with the Shenandoah National Park Bear Techs (Biological Science Technicians – Wildlife) and American Conservation Experience Wildlife Management Interns under the management of the SNP Biologist, Rolf Gubler.

The purpose of this program includes assessing nuisance black bear and white-tailed deer behavior in developed areas and keeping people and animals safe. Other duties may include assisting with wildlife monitoring, integrated pest management, forest pest management, and peregrine falcon restoration work. Every season, the Bear/Wildlife Mitigation Team works to separate people from wildlife by hazing or relocating bears and other animals. When bears become too comfortable around people, they can become aggressive. Our team uses non-lethal aversive behavioral conditioning tactics such as yelling, air horns, paintball guns, bean bag rounds and cracker shells to chase bears out of developed areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas or alongside Skyline Drive. This reduces the likelihood that they will become conditioned to human food or garbage. The goal of aversive conditioning is to re-establish the natural fear of humans in wildlife, which ultimately minimizes human-wildlife conflicts.

While bears are the primary interest of the team, we are called to handle any and all critters in the park. On my first day we removed a copperhead snake from a picnic area. I’ve chased bears, assisted in conducting opportunistic Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) testing of road-killed deer (severing a deer head for testing), helped remove and relocate a raccoon from a wayside office, and helped set raccoon traps and black bear culvert traps.

We’ve been handed a hummingbird with a broken wing, rescued an injured turkey poult, deactivated a yellow jacket nest at a campsite, stood watch to prevent a bear from getting into a grease pit at Skyland, pulled dead wildlife out of the road and relocated problem bears.

The Bear Tech Program also provides education to park attendees and employees on Bear Safety and Bear/Human Contact Mitigation. A very important part of our work is monitoring the campgrounds and picnic areas for food and micro-trash. As we sweep these areas, we are constantly in contact with park attendees, educating them on why we are picking up this trash and asking them to support our efforts to protect the bears from human conflict and keep their areas clean and their food properly stored. If we find unattended coolers/food, we impound these items into bear-proof storage units or within the ranger huts.

Often there are SARS (Search & Rescue Services) events requiring the help of the Bear Tech Team. As a volunteer on the team, I’ve provided response services to assist in the carry-out of a wounded hiker on a litter (transport stretcher). This event required 17 people and five hours to transport a patient 1.5 miles down the trail after dark. It was an amazing experience to work with one of the highest rated search and rescue teams in the national parks. There are few days in the park during the busiest times when the SARS team can take a day off.

Fortunately, I was asked to return for the 2021 park season. My first day back we chased off a sub-adult bear from a picnic ground and helped the SARS Team rescue a 13 y/o girl who had fallen over Dark Hollow Falls.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season which will go through the end of October. This work is hard, fun, educational and extremely rewarding, and more than anything, I get to experience the awe and wonder that Shenandoah National Park bestows upon me and every visitor fortunate enough to experience this amazing treasure.

– Pam Gray, Cohort VI, May 2021

Photo at top: Left to right: Jenifer Mallinoff, Bear Tech, Pam Gray Bear Tech VIP Volunteer, Kai Schafer, Bear Tech – holding paintball guns used in aversive behavioral conditioning for black bears

Photo below: Left to right: Jenifer Mallinoff-Bear Tech, Reese Taylor & Laurel Glover both American Conservation Experience Wildlife Management Interns, Kai Schafer- Bear Tech – holding paintball guns, air horns and bear spray used in aversive behavioral conditioning for black bears

Above photo: Reese Taylor, American Conservation Experience Wildlife Management Intern perched atop Franklin Cliffs at the PEFA hack box preparing food for the peregrine falcons under care in the SNP Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project

More about being “Bear Wise” from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources HERE.