BONNER — Wildlife biologist Scott Eggeman spent part of his Sunday afternoon tearing the tooth from the mouth of a bear. While half a dozen University of Montana students looked on, he squatted next to the carcass of the 5-foot black bear in the back of a pickup and read off measurements.
Unlike the other game rolling through the Fish, Wildlife and Parks checkpoint on Highway 200 for the second day of rifle season, bears get a little extra attention from researchers. After Eggeman pried the tooth out with a pair of forceps, he placed it in a small container to be shipped off to a lab to test the animal’s age.
“You don’t want me as your dentist,” Eggeman said.
According to Eggeman, who has spent the past six years operating FWP check stations during the state’s big game season, traffic has stayed fairly consistent with past seasons. He and the UM student volunteers working the station have stayed busy for the past two days asking each passing hunter where they made their kill, with what caliber of rifle and extracting the occasional tooth.
Montana law requires all hunters to pull off at game check stations once they’ve made a kill.
“Our main priority is just interacting with the hunters, to tell you the truth. Our second is getting a biological read on the area,” he said.
The data collected at checkpoint stations throughout the state, Eggeman said, help officials determine and manage elk, deer and bear populations. Because of their smaller sample size, he said, bears receive “special treatment.”
When he finished his measurements of the bear, he pulled out a map of the Blackfoot and asked Don Burnham, hunting in the area for his 47th season, where he made his kill. He put his finger near Sunset Hill, and said he used a .300 Winchester.
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“My first kill is usually an elk, but this is a pretty good start,” he said.
Burnham said he plans to turn the bear’s hide into a rug after harvesting the meat. Sunday’s kill marked his third black bear during his 47 years of hunting in the Blackfoot, and he plans on returning before the end of the season for an elk.
Tom Leonard, 18, arrived soon after, with a six-point buck strapped to his tailgate.
The UM students gathered around the deer, and peppered Leonard with questions. Ethan Antle, a wildlife biology major working the station for the first time, asked if he could cut the animal’s cheek open to get a better look at its teeth.
“I’m planning on being a wildlife veterinarian, so an opportunity like this works out perfectly for me,” Antle said after recording the animal’s sex, where it was killed and the points of its antlers.
Eggeman, who volunteered to work at check stations himself while a student at UM, said the game coming through his station so far have all shown signs that hunters in the Blackfoot will have a good season.
“Most of the animals that we’ve seen come through here have been in great condition. They’ve had a lot of fat. The winter’s started early, but it’s looking pretty good.”