Thursday, March 22, 2007

how I ended up holding a bear

My bear adventure attracted more attention than I thought it would! It was a fun little field trip. It was part of my Large Mammal Seminar course, which is a graduate student course offered by the Fisheries and Wildlife department. We drove up to Cloquet Minnesota to find this bear that some students had radio collared this past August. Apparently she was a pain to trap, and they only got her to go into the barrel trap after cooking some sausages over an open fire right next to the trap, then throwing the grease and sausages inside it.

So anyway... We got up to Cloquet and met the researchers that had been working with this bear. They knew the general location of the den, so we drove as close as we could, then got out and turned on a radio receiver. You take a big antenna and make sweeps baaack and forth, listening to the *beepbeepbeep* coming from the bear's collar. You try to figure out where the beeping is loudest, and walk in whatever direction your antenna is pointing.

We crunched through knee-deep snow, following the person with the receiver, until she got to a place where she was following the signal around in a circle. It didn't look there was a bear den nearby, but sure enough with a little looking, we found a hole in the middle of where we'd been circling. Our researchers enlarged the hole until it was big enough to peek in to. Apparently while bears are hibernating, they don't usually care if there are strange humans peeking into their dens. The researchers found our big bear way in the back of her den, so they decided they'd need to use a dart gun to sedate her instead of the syringe-on-a-stick method that works if the bear is closer. So they did, and waited a while, then peeked back in. Big Bear was out, which allowed the researchers to look behind her and see that she had a yearling cub. They sedated the cub next, and when *that* bear was out, they found another yearling behind him! One more round of sedation and the whole family was snoozing.

Now that the bears were safely sedated, we could start helping out. We helped to pull the two cubs out first, and then looped some ropes around Momma Bear's legs to pull her out. She weighed nearly 200 pounds, so it took lots of people to get her out of the den! The cubs, one male and one female, were born last January. The female weighed about 40 pounds, the male about 50. They'll get kicked out on their own this summer, and Momma will have another litter of cubs this coming January.

We got to work doing what biologists do best- collecting data. We collected hair samples, measured nose-to-tail length, weight, canine tooth length, heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, you name it. We also took some measurements to help estimate how much fat the bears had, which indicates how easy or hard of a year they had. Our bears seemed relatively chubby, especially since they were at the end of their hibernation period, so they probably had a pretty easy year.

After all that, Momma Bear got a new radio collar with a fresh battery, and Little Girl Bear got one too. Little Boy Bear didn't get one, as they only collar female bears. Males do enough wandering that the risk of loosing a collar when a bear leaves your study site is too large to bother putting a collar on them.

Finally, we all took some pictures with Momma and cubs, which is how I ended up holding a bear. Then all the bears got to go back in their den and we tried to replace all the snow we'd had to dig away from the entrance to their den to keep them cozy until they wake up.

Yay for field biology :-)

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