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Keith Weaver: from tagging, tracking and naming, he knows the bears of the Tensas River Basin

Keith Weaver posing for a photo in uniform in front of a mountainous landscape
The Service’s Keith Weaver enjoys time in the great outdoors, away from the trappings of modern office life.

Back when Keith Weaver was a wildlife biologist at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, the Louisiana black bear was mostly a mystery in the area.

“We knew bears existed on the national wildlife refuge and in the Tensas River basin.,“ he says. ”But that’s all we knew … this was really ground-breaking work to just understand the life history and ecology of the bear.”

The year was 1987, and Weaver collected data to help determine if the species qualified for listing as endangered or threatened. This involved everything from collecting blood and tissues samples from bears, to tracking them with collars, to tattooing numbers on their inner upper lips.

It was very unusual to ever see one back then, he recalls.

“I can remember we bought 10 radio collars when we started out, and being worried we wouldn’t be able to catch 10 bears.”

In fact, between 1988 and 1991, Weaver and his colleagues trapped, released, and studied a total of 24 bears.

“It was pretty amazing,” Weaver says. “You had this bear in hand, and after you released it, you still had a relationship with the bear – so to speak – because you were following its activities.”

Weaver confesses that, although it’s frowned upon in some scientific circles, he and his co-workers gave the bears names in alphabetic order, by when they were trapped. His favorites were “Betty Bear,” and “Xeres” – the last one caught. They never made it to Z.

Even though almost 30 years have passed, Weaver remembers how he felt catching the first bear for the endangered status assessment.

“We’d been trying to trap a bear for about a week, without any luck,” he says. “We had had a couple of snares that had been sprung, so we were a bit discouraged. And, of course, expectations were high. People were waiting. The pressure was on.”

He says he came around a corner on the trail riding an ATV – and there was “Alpha.”

“I felt a mixture of relief, of elation, of success,” he recalls. “We were off to the races!”

“Bears are very charismatic creatures,” Weaver says. “ They have characteristics that people can relate to. They seem to be very gentle with their clubs, but they can at times be strict disciplinarians. Plus they can stand up on two legs, which reminds us of us.”

A major difference is that, luckily for them, their lives don’t revolve around computers, phones and meetings.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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