Kyle Spurr

(UM News Service) The grizzly bear is more than a mascot at the University of Montana.

For wildlife biology students, like Ruby Schipf, the large mammal is a source of research and inspiration to pursue a career in the wilderness.

Schipf, who will graduate May 11 with a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in French, spent the past two summers in the northern Sapphire Mountains south of Missoula to monitor grizzly bear activity. She worked as a field technician assistant and helped set up trail cameras and hair corrals, a technique that uses a ring of barbed wire and a lure to draw a bear close enough to leave a small patch of hair.

The work is part of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Program, a coordinated effort between UM, and its W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s been a huge part of my undergraduate career,” Schipf said. “My favorite part is when we check the trail camera photos right at the sites. It’s fun to go through the photos and look at what the bears had been doing even earlier that day.”

This summer, Schipf will be a lead technician stationed near Priest Lake in Idaho. She will help oversee a DNA hair snag study focused on identifying population of origin for southwest Montana grizzlies. She will start the work May 13, two days after graduation, and work 10 days on and four days off throughout the summer.

“I will graduate and move in the same weekend,” Schipf said.

Paul Lukacs, a UM professor in wildlife biology and senior associate dean of research and graduate studies in the Franke College, supervised Schipf’s senior thesis.

Lukacs said Schipf’s enthusiasm and work ethic led to her graduating from the program and earning the position of lead technician this summer.

“She’s been building her skills, and this coming summer she is going to be a crew leader,” Lukacs said. “She worked from having basically no experience to being in a leadership position.”

The wildlife biology program encourages students to go in the field and get hands-on experience. Students work directly on projects involving plants, fish, deer and elk, among other wildlife. Recently, a group of students went to Norway on an exchange program, Lukacs said.

“We require experiential learning for all of our students,” he said. “They all have to get outside.”

Schipf used data from her summers in the northern Sapphire Mountains to support her senior thesis, which analyzed the misidentification of black bears and grizzly bears in photos.

“I was looking at observer experience and photo quality,” Schipf said. “Overall, novice observers had lower accuracy rates compared to professional biologists, which makes sense but it’s something that hadn’t really been looked at in black bears, specially.”

The similarity between black bears and grizzly bears is nothing new, Lukacs said, but the amount of variation hadn’t been thoroughly evaluated.

“There is a lot of general opinion about what a black bear and grizzly bear look like without digging into the details of how much they overlap,” Lukacs said. “Ruby was able to evaluate the level of overlap.”

Growing up in Bozeman, Schipf always enjoyed the outdoors and remembers sometimes seeing black bears. She developed an interest in bears and found an outlet at UM, where the Grizzly Bear Recovery Program has an office.

“It worked out really well that not only was she interested in it, but the resources are right here too,” Lukacs said.

Schipf plans to pursue graduate school in wildlife biology and hopes to establish a career working for an agency that is involved with wildlife.

She is grateful for the experiences and connections she’s made while earning her undergraduate degree. UM also opened doors to other interests, including a chance for Schipf to study abroad in Chambery, France.

Whether she was in the mountains of Montana or near the French Alps, Schipf said, she’s felt supported at UM.

“I really enjoyed UM’s community,” Schipf said. “I think it’s a really supportive environment that allows you to grow in a lot of different areas.”