To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. -Theodore Roosevelt

Bear Necessities

A $1 million endowment revitalizes a landmark black bear study in Wisconsin’s North Woods

Excerpt from Spring 2024 Fair Chase Magazine
By PJ Del Homme 
RIGHT: Christine Thomas, Boone and Crockett Club Professional Member, Dean Emeritus, College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Only a handful of people know what the inside of a bear den smells like in January. Cady Sartini is one of them. In Wisconsin’s North Woods around Clam Lake, Sartini has been headfirst in an occupied den more than a few times.

“It smells earthy but doesn’t smell bad,” she says. “I think it smells really good. I don’t think my husband feels the same way.” Sartini is an associate professor of wildlife at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point (UWSP) and is in charge of one of the longest-running bear research studies ever conducted. She and her students have been in their fair share of dens to capture, collar, weigh, and examine black bear sows and their cubs as part of the Wisconsin Black Bear Research Project.

The project started in the 1970s, and since then, professors and graduate students have produced numerous papers and studies focused on Wisconsin’s bears, including data used to set state hunting regulations and plans. In fact, 60 percent of the literature cited in Wisconsin’s 2019-2029 black bear management plan came from the project.

“The most important thing about this project is the experience that it gives the students.” — Dr. Cady Sartini, associate professor of wildlife at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point

“How many of our students are going to be writing the next plan or writing similar plans for other states?” asks Sartini. “That’s what I’m excited to see. This is the future of the program.”

Until recently, though, funding for the program has been in doubt. Money for research has always been an issue. In the past, funding was cobbled together with grants and donations from various groups. “It’s hard to come up with money for bear research. It’s not like waterfowl, where there are federal programs that support them,” says Club professional member Christine Thomas, retired dean of UWSP’s College of Natural Resources. As an associate dean, she got involved with the project in the late 1990s. At the time, there was talk about shutting down the bear research project. And then Thomas went into her first bear den.

“It was a really emotional experience,” she says. “A guy from Wisconsin DNR was there and said you can’t shut this project down. It’s too big.” Thomas applied for some grants, having to get creative for funding. “We had elk research funding for a while. There were a couple of years that we did a project related to bear predation on elk calves, in order to justify the dollars it took to keep the bear project alive,” Thomas says. The department hired Tim Ginnett to run the program, and Thomas had $90,000 in grants waiting for him to spend on research. Ginnett kept the program running until he retired. He mentored a number of graduate students during that time, and Sartini took over in 2019.

Thanks to a major effort by Club members and others, the project is about to get a lot more work done.


A New Endowment

At the close of 2023, the UWSP College of Natural Resources received a $1 million endowment for the project. A combination of three funding sources, the endowment was spearheaded by Thomas, who reached out to the Stephens Family Foundation. As part of the Boone and Crockett Club’s University Programs, UWSP has offered the Douglas R. Stephens Boone and Crockett Club Fellowship in Wildlife Conservation since 2012. The family, whose son died unexpectedly while conducting bear research at UWSP, told Thomas that they would provide a match of up to $500,000. They got the match.

The endowment is comprised of three funding sources. The Stephens Family Foundation Wisconsin Black Bear Research Project Endowment will support all operations and needs of the college’s black bear research and education with their half-a-million dollar match. The Safari Club International Wisconsin Black Bear Research Fellowship Endowment will support UWSP’s black bear research and education initiatives. And the Searle-Dew-Thomas Boone and Crockett Wisconsin Black Bear Fellowship Endowment will support a research fellowship program, providing undergraduate and graduate student opportunities in cutting-edge black bear research.

“The Club is interested in training students in sound science, but we are equally interested in touching their lives in a way that encourages them to become the conservation leaders of tomorrow. We also welcome the opportunity for these students to learn about the Club and its important and historic role in wildlife conservation.” — Mary Webster, Boone and Crockett Club Executive Vice President of Conservation

New Funding Looks to the Future

“We want to see this ability to leverage smaller funds into bigger funds,” says Mary Webster, the Club’s executive vice president of conservation. “Looking at this fund, and how Chris (Thomas) has been able to leverage funds is really what we’re looking for in all of our University Programs. It’s how you get things done in the 21st century.”

“Mary is spot on,” Thomas says. “Lots of funds aren’t available if you don’t have a match. If you’re a brand new professor, where are you going to get a match at a smaller university? I think this is the future.”

Management Focus

One of the classes Sartini teaches is black bear ecology and management. Twenty students learn everything we know about black bears, including the skills needed in the field once they locate a den. The students go to the dens in advance, do the scouting, know their location, contact the landowner, and do all the logistics work. “The students run the project, which is amazing to me. That is what we’ve created this project to do. It develops their skills. They’re not just showing up and petting a bear. They are doing all of the work. This endowment was the only reason I was allowed to develop this class and put so much energy into it,” Sartini says.


The project’s scope isn’t limited to professors and students. Hunters, landowners, and future generations are all involved. The Wisconsin DNR uses the program to help fill in gaps in their research and cites their results in management plans. “We go to the bear advisory meetings, listen to stakeholders, and use that input to help direct our research efforts,” Sartini adds.

Using hunting as a management tool is a big part of the black bear ecology and management class. “We talk about hunting culture, how hunting regulations can be set up in different ways depending on management objectives, and we also go over the public input process in Wisconsin. The state’s Bear Management Plan is one of our textbooks.”

Thanks to the new endowment, generations of students will enter the conservation workforce better prepared for the trials ahead. Sometimes, that begins with an unforgettable trip to a bear den.

“As a volunteer, what I love is when a landowner accompanies the researcher out there and brings a child or grandchild along,” says Club member Tom Dew. “When you put that bear cub in a child’s arms, you can’t pry it out of them. You’ve planted a seed in wildlife conservation that will last forever.” 


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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt