Recycling conflict: Euthanized grizzlies become tools for education

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Brannen and Katie Rogers stand with a Kodiak bear the couple shot in Alaska and then mounted themselves. The Kodiak and grizzly bears are very similar, both being subspecies of the brown bear.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Two months ago, two young grizzly bear brothers were euthanized in Central Montana. The decision, informed by state and federal agencies, came less than a day after the pair killed orphan calves on the Hutterite colony west of Stanford.

The loss of livestock and wildlife marks the conflict for many, but those ends also created a beginning: Euthanization was the first step towards a career in education for the two grizzly bears.

 

Rare bears

From sightings to politics, grizzlies have been a Montana news item this year. Their endangered status generated some of the biggest headlines, and while it’s true the Yellowstone National Park population was delisted, this pair did not come from Yellowstone. The brothers were part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population, a group in the northwestern part of the state still listed as endangered.

The two grizzlies were headliners before the incident near Stanford. Public sightings allowed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to track the pair’s route across north-central Montana, included a Missouri-River crossing. The eastward trek was unprecedented in the last decade, according to Grizzly Bear Management Specialist Mike Madel.

When the two clashed with livestock on June 24, their endangered status put them under the authority of the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

After hearing recommendations from the two responding agencies, FWP and USDA’s Wildlife Services, Fish and Wildlife ordered euthanization. While the order was quickly followed, there weren’t any instructions beyond that, according to FWP Region 4 Supervisor Gary Bertellotti.

The situation left Bertellotti with an opportunity. There were two fresh grizzlies carcasses in perfect condition, one of the most difficult things to find for FWP’s collection of education tools. Bertellotti knew hands-on displays such as hides were some of the popular items with children and classrooms.

“If we [preserved] everything, we would be broke,” he said. “But…, for a few iconic species that are hard to acquire, we find the money.”

Bertellotti knew the grizzly brothers were worth the budgetary scramble.

“These two bears, going from the Rocky Mountains to a place they hadn’t been in 100 years, it was a success story,” he said. “I look at it from the standpoint of an endangered species, and the success of that species.”

Piece by piece

Bertellotti found the money and his staff found the taxidermists: Brannen and Katie Rogers of Rogers Taxidermy. The couple has mounted big game in Great Falls for 11 years, working occasionally with the FWP for nine of those. A job is a job for the couple, but Brannen admitted this set of circumstances was at least a little unique.

“Brannen was excited to get to tan them,” Katie said. “He was like, ‘How many chances do you get to skin a Montana grizzly bear?’”

Not many, according to the couple. The Rogers’ showroom displays several full-size mounts, including a Kodiak bear the couple shot in Alaska. Their portfolio lists grizzly mounts and rugs, but all from Canada or Alaska.

Brannen jumped at job. Summer, however, put him under a tight deadline to start. Seasonal heat accelerates decomposition, and Brannen worried the hour drive from Stanford to Great Falls would ruin the grizzlies.

“You get bacteria in the skin, and then hair slips, or falls out: It’s the rotting process,” Katie explained. “Treat the skin the way you’d treat meat you’d consume.”

Which means, according to Brannen, keeping it cool and getting it to the taxidermy shop as soon as possible. He skinned the bears in the FWP parking lot. Brannen didn’t rush though, and kept the animals intact from ears to feet.

The skins were salted to remove moisture and then sent to a tannery. For a flexible hide, the Rogers wanted a “garment tan,” a tanning method that preserves the hide while keeping it soft and pliable.

“We do some of our tanning here, but we do it for taxidermy so it dries hard,” Brannen explained.

Most taxidermists could do garment tans, he continued, but the longer process requires several additional steps.

“Taxidermists don’t have time,” Brannen said.

FWP wanted the hides, which the couple was happy to do, but they also wanted the skulls. The husband and wife work with skulls, but don’t clean them. For that, the pair sent the grizzly heads to the beetle colonies of Wild Things Preserved Taxidermy.

The bare bones

Bones are Bernie Smith’s domain, in large part due to his background. He’s kept colonies of flesh-eating dermestid beetles in one form or another for roughly three decades.

“I’ve had small colonies since college in the 80s,” he said.

Bernie owns Wild Things Preserved Taxidermy with his wife Dorothy. While she focuses on plant preservation, he focuses on animals. The beetles get the bones.

From the pinhead larvae to the quarter-inch, hard-backed adults, each stage of the dermestid beetle life cycle eats different things. Bernie knows when a colony’s cleaned a skull, it’s removed each piece, and type, of flesh.

“They eat everything but the bone,” he said.

This, according to Bernie, is why taxidermists prefer using beetles to other cleaning methods, such as boiling. The beetles and larvae will eat all the flesh without damaging fine bone structures, including nasal cavities.

“Beetles, by far, are accepted as the best way to clean with no bone damage,” he said.

As a result, Wild Things gets busy when hunters bring in their trophy animals.

“By about November, we’ll have three tanks that are 3 by 8 feet, and six more that are 2 by 6 feet,” he said.

While Bernie has cleaned entire skeletons, the grizzlies are a smaller project. Already nestled into Bernie’s colonies, the beetles will take less than 90 days to clean the skulls. Then Bernie will take over, removing the one thing his colonies couldn’t: fat stored in the bones. Animals can store a surprising amount.

“An average deer skull will have about three to four ounces of fat in its skull,” he said.

Fat is problematic for display pieces: It will eventually turn bone yellow. Bernie will chemically degrease the bones. Then he will whiten and seal them, making the final product strong and impermeable.

The Smiths, like the Rogers, see FWP as just another customer. Their backgrounds, however, invest them in the outcome of these two particular skulls. Both taught for 25 years in Colstrip, Dorothy in math and chemistry while Bernie covered biology.

“We used to do a science club when we taught,” Bernie said. “The students are much more enthusiastic when you can teach hands-on.”

The Smiths can see the story behind these skulls providing a lesson for adults, too.

“I think it’s important that people realize that animals are never wasted, within the constraints of money and the condition of the animal,” Bernie said.

Bringing the grizzly to life

FWP Administrative Assistant Laura Hajek has lots of jobs. From her office in Great Falls, she answers calls, sells hunting and fishing licenses and schedules tours of the regional headquarters.

“My work really depends on the time of year,” she said. “Our main business here is the sportsmen, so my schedule revolves around our licensing schedules.”

One of Hajek’s tasks is education. How often depends on the season, but Hajek gives programs at schools and hosts tours of Region 4’s headquarters. She also develops and maintains the tools FWP depends on for year-round education: educational trunks.

These play a key role according to Bruce Auchly, FWP information officer.

“The idea behind the trunks is there’s a never-ending demand from schools for people to talk about animals, but there’s only so many of us,” he said.

Each of the 24 plastic totes has a different focus, and all sport a mix of tools. This almost always includes a touchable aspect: The snake trunk has several mounted skins to touch, and the feet trunk has 34 different animal-track stamps.

Hajek grew up in a family that was embedded in the school district. When her career track put her in charge of the trunks, she revamped the handouts and lesson ideas for each one. She also doubled down on the hands-on aspect.

“All of our trunks are made for people to use,” she said. “We want people to touch them.”

Hajek encourages teachers to pass out the hides, skulls, and other displays, letting them know it’s ok if worn items break. As the trunk collection has grown and improved in the last several years, demand has increased.

“It’s a great outreach for the youth, and even adults,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have a way to touch a grizzly bear hide, or even a black bear hide.”

The increased popularity brings more wear and tear. Hajek is happy to replace pieces as needed, but displays for some animals, including the grizzly, can be hard to find.

“Grizzly bears are a little bit different because they’re endangered,” Hajek said. “A lot of this other stuff is easy to get because those animals have a hunting season.”

Hunters sometimes donate animals or parts. Found soon enough, road kill can become hands-on hides. Most often, the animals in the trunk are created from confiscated animals, according to Hajek.

Even with a variety of sources, grizzly bears are hard to come by. Hajek is eager to add the young grizzly brothers to her bear trunk. She’s found kids not only love the bears, they love a good story.

Revisions

The two hides will take four to five months to tan, according to Katie. From beetles to Bernie, the Smiths expect to finish the skulls in three months. Once all the pieces arrive, though, Hajek expects a long life for the pair. Even if the hides wear out and skulls are chipped, she has mastered the art of upcycling.

The hides will become sample squares for classroom presentations. The skulls will give way to teeth that, when held up to a student’s face, will help them see how big a grizzly really is.

“We try to use the displays as long as we can,” Hajek said.

That may be decades, that may be years, although Hajek suspects the hides and skulls of the two bear brothers will be among the more popular items.

“It’s nice to have hides with a little bit of a history,” she said. “People, especially kids, ask where this bear came from. That’s what really piques their interest. It gives them a connection to that animal, too.”

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