Passion seeks out the ‘black ghosts of the forest’
Jordan Pederson is writing a book about black bears in Utah, and it’s about time. During a 36-year career with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as a wildlife biologist, Pederson devoted more than two decades to studying black bears. After locating hundreds of bear dens and crawling into enough to know better, he’s finally putting it all down on paper. "Black ghosts of the forest," he calls them. It’s quite a story.
Retired now, Pederson lives comfortably in Kamas with his wife, Aurelia, and his two horses. He was born in Chicago and moved with his parents to Salt Lake City at age seven. He grew up in Sugarhouse, attending Irving Junior High School and graduating from South High. He says he’s always loved animals and had guinea pigs, fish and other "critters" growing up.
Pederson got hooked on horses in high school, a diversion that was to create great consternation in the family. "I started college at the University of Utah when I was 18 years old and flunked out pretty quick due to lack of interest. There were horses to ride, buy and sell, so I went into business with a friend and hit the road. My mother thought I was a goner," recalls Pederson.
The romance of the open road and a cowboy’s life soon faded. Pederson returned home and worked the next three summers at the YMCA camp in the Uinta Mountains along the Mirror Lake Highway. "I worked with Roger, the old man himself, who they later named the camp after," recalls Pederson. "I took care of the horses and helped build the lodge that’s still there at Camp Rogers." He fell in love with the High Uintas during those years.
Pederson met his wife there and they married in 1960. They set up housekeeping, went back to school at BYU and had their first child, Linda, before they both graduated. Daughter Mary Ann came along a few years later.
Pederson received a bachelor’s degree in animal science from BYU in 1964. He took a temporary job with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in the fall of 1964. "After that I knew I’d found my life’s work. I wanted to be a wildlife biologist or a conservation officer and that’s just what I did. The worst day I ever had with that outfit was great," he says.
Pederson began working with black bears early in his career. "I’d seen my first bear in Yellowstone when I was 12 years old," he remembers. "One stuck its head in our car. While my uncle was trying to figure out his fancy camera I stuck my Brownie Hawkeye in its face and clicked — picture came out perfect."
Pederson says the timing was right when he entered the wildlife management field. "I came along at a good time with wildlife. New things were coming along like radio telemetry, tranquilizing drugs and remote sensing devices. It was before environmental impact statements where you got all tied up with the paperwork," he says.
Over the next 20 years, Pederson carried on pioneering work in Utah on black bear populations, distribution, food and habitat preferences and more. He continued his work into the mid-1990s, rising through the ranks to the position of state mammals program coordinator in the Salt Lake office. When not in the field chasing bears, he published many landmark papers and earned a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from BYU.
In the mid-1980s, Pederson built a home near Elk Run in Pinebrook. He says he enjoyed his time there, before commercial development took off in the Basin. He’d always kept a horse or two but didn’t like the long drives to stables to feed and work them. In the late 1990s he transferred to the Springville office and bought a home there, with suitable pasture nearby.
Pederson moved to Kamas, his wife’s hometown, when he retired. She still has a lot of friends there and the town is horse-friendly. "My horses are in my backyard now. I can see them anytime I want and I don’t have to haul hay," Pederson quips.
Ask Pederson if he misses anything about living in the Park City area and he fires back quickly. "No! I get lost and scared over there now — too much traffic and too many lights. Get anywhere east of Park City and things quiet down. Kamas is right where I want to be, near my mountains."
He does note the changes even there though. "There’s a lot of residential growth and we added a second stop light a while back." He acknowledges that the town needed it. "Things used to get pretty crazy on a Sunday afternoon when everyone was coming back from camping and fishing," says Pederson.
Since retiring, he’s continued his bear research with a DNA hair sample study on 100 square miles of the Uinta Mountains from Kamas to Soapstone Basin. Results of the study have been surprising, says Pederson. ‘There are a lot more bears up there than we thought. We’ve documented 21 individual bears, nine males and 12 female in just that 100 square mile area over the last three years," he says.
The veteran biologist will gather another season of data this spring and summer. Ironically, Pederson says he has yet to actually see a bear during countless hours walking and driving in the study area. "That’s why they’re still here. They don’t want to be seen."
Pederson has plans for more research on bears, perhaps even polar bears in Alaska. He’s also working on his book.
Pederson sums up the priorities in his life: "When you get right down to it, three things are important to me — my family, my horses and my bears." At this, his voice catches a bit and his eyes well up briefly. Clearly, these are his passions.
What’s his favorite thing do in the Kamas area? Pederson says it’s still saddling up his horse and riding into the High Uintas. "It’s home," he says.
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