When Brigham Young University student Kim Yeoman's environmental biology class was invited to study bear populations in the Utah mountains, she was eager to participate but knew it would be a challenge. Yeoman, who has spina bifida, knew she couldn't handle the rugged terrain in her wheelchair.
"She told me 'I want to go,'" said BYU professor Hal Black, who has been studying Utah black bear populations for the past 14 years. "I didn't dismiss it but I had to think about it for a minute. I've always subscribed to the motto that the world is our campus and Kim simply wanted to visit a part of the campus that others got to see."
Impressed by Yeoman's enthusiasm, Black came up with a plan to help her see the bears—with help from a few Cougars. After getting equipment from the Utah County Sheriff's Office, he called BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall to see if the team could provide muscle to transport Yeoman up the mountain. Mendenhall immediately offered his support and asked the team for volunteers.
"He mentioned going out with bears and helping a girl out and we had an opportunity to serve," said Dustin Gabriel, one of five players who left at 5 a.m. to make the five-hour trek to eastern Utah. "We wanted to do it."
Gabriel and his teammates met Yeoman and the research group at the Book Cliffs where the researchers had located a radio signal from one of the bears. Once Yeoman was outfitted with a helmet and strapped into a search and rescue sled, the players pulled the sled through the snow, at times lifting it over rough terrain, and followed the radio transmitter group to the den.
"Search and Rescue got her strapped in and all we had to do was be directed and kind of be the muscles. They just whipped us to it and we pulled her through the snow," said Brett Cooper.
"The trip up was really good," said an enthusiastic Yeoman as they reached a rocky base near the den location. "It was pretty crazy with all of the hills and the snow and with lifting me up things and down things. It's kind of like a big sledding adventure."
"We (pulled sleds) yesterday in practice," remarked cornerback Kayle Buchanan. "So this is actually easier than most of the workouts we do."
The payoff for Yeoman came when research assistant Josh Heward emerged from the den carrying a sleeping, 24-pound yearling black bear. "This is awesome, amazing," she said with a smile, as the tranquilized bear was placed in her lap.
Yeoman and her group examined the bear cub, marveling at its leathery paw pads and substantial claws and petting its shaggy fur. "It's like a big teddy bear. I've never seen anything like it before," she said.
The research team located the yearling with his mother, a 20-year old bear named Heidi that BYU researchers have tracked for 14 years.
"It's easy to be fond of this bear," said Black. "She was caught the first year of the study in the summer of 1991 and we've been to 14 dens of hers. She's tough, she has made it 20 years, she's a survivor."
Once they were anesthetized, the mother and cub were both weighed and examined, and the researchers took blood, urine and hair samples for analysis. The research team also collected some samples of exhaled bear breath as part of a new study that uses a breathalyzer to reveal information about animal diets. The BYU research is used by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to monitor black bear health and habitats.
While tracking bears is routine for Black and his students, he said the experience was especially memorable this time because of Yeoman's involvement.
"We're excited that she had this experience and it might encourage others to not be timid and to look for opportunities to be involved," he said.
Black said the group was also grateful for the assistance of the football team and even opted to name the yearling bear cub "Bronco" to honor Coach Mendenhall and thank him for the team's support. He assured the group that the cub was "robust and aggressive" when he encountered the researchers.
"That's what we expect out of Bronco and his football team next year, robustness and aggressiveness," he said.
After carrying the sled back down the mountain safely, the players reflected on the experience and voiced their admiration for Yeoman.
"She has a great spirit and was happy and positive about the whole thing," said Gabriel.
"It was an opportunity of a lifetime," said Eric Watterson. "I'll remember this one for a long time."