June 10, 2014


black bearWhile checking a camera trap site in Big Bend National Park, Cameron Goebel thought she was the victim of an elaborate prank.

“One of our cameras had fallen off the tree, so while I’m sitting looking through photos in the other camera, I think I see a person in a bear suit, leaning against the tree, one paw on its hip, the other on the tree,” said Goebel, a Sul Ross State University junior and McNair Program scholar.

Closer inspection revealed the second camera had caught a real live bear, with the once-tree-mounted camera in its mouth.

"He (bear) tore it (camera) down from the tree,” Goebel said, adding. “that camera’s photos were pretty blurred.”

Goebel, who is majoring in Natural Resource Management with a conservation biology emphasis, is working with Dr. Patricia Moody Harveson, associate professor of Natural Resource Management, to study black bear activity. Her McNair Program project is titled “Use of Camera Traps to Determine Black Bear Distribution and Habitat Use in Big Bend National Park.”

Goebel will examine photos from cameras mounted throughout the Chisos Mountains of BBNP to determine habitat and vegetation preference, as well as a breakdown of male and female bears. The project is piggy-backed to graduate student Skyler Stevens’ research of mountain lion activity in the park. Goebel has accompanied Stevens on daylong hikes of 12-15 miles to check camera sites, download and sort photos by species.

In all, she is monitoring 14 cameras encompassing nearly 7,800 acres.

“I am using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to show where the camera points are and identify the elevations, vegetation and habitat to determine where the bears frequent,” she said.

Through the first two months of her research, 11 bears had been photographed from seven different locations.

“Cameron is doing an outstanding job on the project,” Harveson said. “The McNair program is wonderful and allows us to pair undergrads with graduate students working on bigger projects."

goebelGoebel, Boyd, and a 2011 Keller Central High School graduate, took some long strides to reach Sul Ross, changing location, major and making the transition from urban to rural. After spending two years at Tarrant County College, Fort Worth, with plans to be a psychology major, she changed her mind.

“During my last semester there, I decided this (psychology) was not for me,” she said, adding that she was encouraged to look at Sul Ross by her supervisor, Robert Denkhaus, Natural Resource Manager at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, where Goebel was a volunteer and intern.

“I had never heard of Sul Ross, and it was the last school that I visited. When I saw the Big Bend and the Trans-Pecos, I decided this was the place for me,” she said.

She hopes to participate in a second McNair project, also with black bears.

“My McNair experience has taught me a lot of self-discipline, responsibility, not to mention how hot the desert is and how dangerous it can be, as well as how beautiful this area is,” Goebel said. “It (McNair) has given me experiences I will remember the rest of my life. I feel extremely honored to be on this project. If I had gone to any other school, I would not be working on black bear or mountain lion projects as an undergraduate. There are ample amounts of opportunity out here.”

The Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program is designed to encourage first generation, low-income students and minority undergraduates to consider careers in college teaching as well as prepare for doctoral study. Students who participate in the program are provided with research opportunities and faculty mentors.

Named in honor of the astronaut who died in the 1986 space-shuttle explosion, the program was established at Sul Ross in November 2007. It is funded through the Department of Education’s TRIO programs. For more information, contact Mary Bennett, McNair Program director, (432) 837-8478 or mbennett@sulross.edu.

Visit the BRI black bear research program pages for more information on current and past projects.