FROSTBURG, Md. (AP) -- When George Durner took his new job tracking polar bears in Alaska for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he didn't know he was filling the shoes of someone who never returned from the mission.
Biologists John Bevins and George Menkens disappeared with their pilot, Clifford Minch, during a research flight over the frozen Bering Sea in October 1990. Searchers flew over thousands of square miles of open water and pack ice but never found any trace of the trio or their plane.
"They just flew out and never returned," Durner said.
He admits being a little on edge about the position, but he said the four-year scientific assignment will be more challenging than the problems of getting around the arctic region.
"Ever since I was knee-high and watching 'Wild Kingdom' on television, I've wanted to do something like this. It's like a dream job," he said.
Durner, who graduated from Mercer Community College in Trenton, N.J., and East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, arrived in Frostburg in 1987.
He recently completed a master's degree in wildlife management through a joint program between Frostburg State University and the Appalachian Environmental Laboratory, a University of Maryland research center housed on the Frostburg State campus.
Durner begins his new job Oct. 16 by reviewing polar bear data at a federal laboratory in Anchorage. He is to start field work in the spring.
"The overall goal of the work is management," Durner said. "They would like to maintain the (polar bear) population at levels at which it could sustain itself."
Durner said various factors, including trophy hunting polar bears from planes, have affected the population. The trophy hunting, which began in the 1940s, was banned in 1972. Only native Americans in Alaska are allowed to hunt polar bear, under the 1973 federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The research team that disappeared was on a mission to tranquilize polar bears and attach radio collars, allowing scientists to track the bears with space satellites. By monitoring their movements, scientists can learn more about the range of the bears' habitat.