Life in the Wild for Biologist Gary Alt Means Grin and Bear It

updated 04/29/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/29/1985 01:00AM

On a cold gray morning in a wooded area near Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, an excited crowd gathers to watch Gary Alt work. "We'd better hurry," he whispers. "She's pretty nervous." Fifty yards off the road, a net is draped over a small hole among some stones. Two men—dart guns in hand—position themselves on the surrounding rocks. Then, down on all fours, Alt slowly inserts a long steel rod capped with a needle into the black abyss. "Got her," he says. Fifteen minutes later a 171-pound black bear is pulled drugged from her den. Next to appear are two cuddly male cubs, each 4.9 pounds, who are gleefully passed around for snapshots.

The sedated bear is weighed and measured, her radio collar is changed and blood and milk samples are drawn to be sent to researchers for further study. Vital statistics of the cubs are noted, and they let out yelps as their tiny ears are pierced with ID tags. An hour later the bears are returned to their den in the same positions they were found. A touch of Vicks VapoRub is dabbed in the mother's nose so she won't detect the lingering human scent. Then it is more snoozing for mama bear and baby bears until spring, but Alt still has miles to go before he sleeps.

As head of bear management and research for Pennsylvania, wildlife biologist Alt, 33, has probably laid hands on more black bears than anyone in the country. In the past 10 years he's tagged more than 2,000 of the creatures in an effort to discover how they live. "Someone has to be responsible for the control of wild animals," says Alt. "If we don't study them, we aren't going to know what's going on or if they're in trouble."

By mixing science with showmanship (up to 75 people accompany him on his spring den investigations), Alt has raised the bear consciousness of Pennsylvania. He's particularly busy at this time of year, crawling into some 60 occupied dens in an attempt to mark the bears and study the mysterious process of hibernation. Before entering their dens, pregnant females, gorging themselves on 20,000 calories per day, will bulk up from a normal 180 pounds to a prehibernation 300. When not breeding, a female's weight will fluctuate only about 40 pounds from August to December. How does the bear's body regulate its appetite? Science—not to mention the billion-dollar diet industry—wants to know. During hibernation the bear does not eat, drink or excrete for five months. Burning 4,000 calories daily, it lives off accumulated fat, but how does it rid itself of urea and other toxins that would quickly kill humans?

Alt's work may yield answers, but the 5'7" scientist is a whimsical sort who also wants to know why the bear went over the mountain. "Bears are pretty nifty animals," he says. "Even though they are strong, they don't like to step on loose sticks. That's how we get them to enter a snare trap. But once they're caught, the next time they see a trap they'll eat the bait leading to the entrance, then go around back, smash it, walk inside and eat the bait. Once they've decided to do something, you might as well figure it's done."

Such determination is backed up by strength that's downright bearish. Alt has seen a bear disembowel a 150-pound pig with a casual swat, and hang from a tree limb by its canine teeth alone. Still, Alt is quick to pooh-pooh bears' bad rep as ferocious man-eaters. "If black bears were as aggressive as the American public thinks, we would have died a thousand deaths," says the never-mauled Alt. "There hasn't been a recorded black bear related fatality in the eastern U.S. this century. And that's with people in parks trying to ride them and feed them candy bars." (Things are different with the unpredictable grizzly, Alt concedes.)

By early May Pennsylvania's 6,000 black bears (second in the East only to Maine's 18,000 ursine population) will be leaving their dens for a summer of foraging. In a state with some 11.8 million humans, the bears have adapted amazingly well. "Bears are called carnivores, but actually they are opportunists," Alt says. "They'll eat anything that gets in front of them. They eat a lot of greens in early spring." He boasts that Pennsylvania black bears are the largest (males average 468 pounds), breed earlier (at 2½), have larger litters (five cubs are not uncommon) and live longer (up to 20 years) than any others in North America.

A small part of their well-being may be due to Alt's efforts, though he would scarcely take credit. An innovator in his field, Alt was the first to develop a large scale "adoption" program, whereby surrogate mothers raise homeless cubs. Since he began his work in 1974, he has used radio telemetry to track his bears. He is aided by his father, Buck, who flies overhead in his Piper Cub. Once the bears' radio-collar signals are heard, Buck can guide his son within minutes to the animals' dens, which Alt has found near interstate highways, in drainage pipes under railroads and even in the midst of woodland housing developments.

Though he grew up on a rural dairy farm (he now lives next door) in Moscow, Pa., Alt's familiarity with bears is relatively new. A poor student, he preferred hunting to school, graduating in the lower half of his 1969 high school class. He was admitted to the nascent wildlife program at the DuBois campus of Penn State, graduated third in his class and is now working on his Ph.D. at West Virginia University.

Though he'd hunted bears as a boy, Alt never saw a live one until he was a graduate student. George Matula, 43, who then headed the state's bear project and now does similar work in Maine, invited Gary to tag along with him the summer of '74. "He ate, drank and slept bears from that point on," says Matula. In 1977 Alt was offered his current $28,000-a-year job, which he describes as "the best in the world." Divorced, he regularly brings along his children, Garrick, 7, and Lindsay, 5, who rides atop her dad's shoulders during his expeditions. Alt expects even more workouts this summer. Once bears start moving around, he gets frantic midnight phone calls. Several times he has been asked to retrieve wandering bears who have climbed trees in Scranton. Once he heard from a hysterical woman who had a bear ambling on her roof, peeking into windows. (Alt removes them with nets and tranquilizers.)

Despite his dedication to bears, Alt supports Pennsylvania's annual two-day bear-hunting season, in which 20 percent of the bear population is killed. (The $5 license fee goes toward funding his $250,000-a-year project.) "If you just let the bears live in peace and harmony, they'll wipe out the crops and people will start looking at them as a menace," warns Alt. "But you've got to take some caution and hunt the right number in the right area." Matter of fact, Alt himself is an accomplished bow-and-arrow hunter of deer and elk. There's one animal, however, that he no longer stalks. For Gary, such hunting would be almost sacrilegious. "Someone once asked me how good is bear meat," Alt says. "I said it depends on how long you've known the bear."

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