Student receives grant for research into black bear impact on agriculture

DUBOIS, Pa. — Alec Baker has had a lifelong interest and passion for the outdoors and its inhabitants, especially black bears. This passion set the Clarion native on a path to enroll in the wildlife technology degree program at Penn State DuBois, and eventually led him to earn the Erickson Discovery Grant from Penn State's Office of Undergraduate Education.

The grant has provided $3,500 in funding for an independent undergraduate research project Baker is conducting this summer. His focus is on the impact black bears have on agriculture in Pennsylvania, and to discover solutions that will help to minimize crop damage caused by the animals.

"It's just a species I was fascinated with as a child," Baker said, recalling his motivation to pursue research on bears. "Pennsylvania has one of the best and largest populations of black bears in North America, and that's just interesting."

The size of that population, however, can come with some inconvenient consequences for some, including Pennsylvania's farmers. Baker is especially interested in studying the impact bears have on the state's corn crop, including how extensive the damage is that they inflict, as well as what times of year the largest impact is made.

His hope is that answering these questions will help farmers and game managers to better prevent crop damage, and to fill in some holes in crop protection information regarding bears, whose impact on corn crops have not been studied as extensively as other species.

"I would like to find some of the missing pieces we don't know about bear-related crop damage. We know a lot about crop damage caused by deer, but not much about bear," Baker said. "This will benefit farmers as well as the general public, so we can better understand how bears influence agriculture, and implement better management tactics using the results."

Baker will conduct his research primarily using Clarion County as his study area. He has obtained nuisance bear reports for crop damage from the area, dating back to the year 2000. He will chart trends in the data through these years, mapping sites using GIS software, and monitor sites for continued activity using cameras. Solutions for prevention of further damage could include the trapping and relocation of nuisance bears by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Baker is among 83 students from all Penn State locations who received the Erickson Discovery Grant this year, out of 219 who applied. The students will use the funds to immerse themselves in original research, scholarship and creative work under the direct supervision of a faculty member. The experience provides active, hands-on learning for students, helping them to prepare for careers in their chosen fields.

Baker, for instance, just completed his sophomore year in the wildlife technology associate degree program, and will go on to earn a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fishery science. Graduates of these programs often find successful careers in wildlife management, environmental conservation and reclamation, and more. As an undergraduate student, Baker is performing work during this project that is often undertaken by professionals already working in these fields. To be funded through a research grant, Baker said, makes the honor to have this opportunity even greater. He recalled getting word he'd received funding, saying, "It was just mind-blowing. I feel very accomplished."

Senior Instructor in Wildlife Technology Keely Roen is serving as Baker's faculty adviser on the project. She said earning this grant was a great achievement, and speaks to the importance of the research, as well as Baker's diligence during the application process.

"I didn't doubt Alec was a great candidate and that his work was grant worthy, but knowing how competitive the grant process is, it's really exciting to see that this deserves such merit," Roen said.

Baker has volunteered with the Pennsylvania Game Commission since 2013 to trap and study black bears. He is also working this summer as a whitetail deer biologist aid with the Game Commission, trapping and relocating bears in areas where they may pose a threat to deer populations. He will monitor sites for his current research project through October.