Thursday, February 23, 2012

1st LIVE black bear encounter in 2012!!!

Lame title, I know...on the way back from our adventure today, I was trying to brainstorm a clever title, and I was told that clever would not maximize my blog here I am being precise ;)

At the college I've been attending, Finger Lakes Community College (Upstate, NY), in the Environmental Conservation department, we have a variety of very cool courses. One of which is Black Bear Management, in which we learn natural history, ecology, and population management in our local region (Region 8). The course is taught by the often previously mentioned John Van Niel, and tech'd by the lovely Sasha Mackenzie. It's taught over 2 semester, fall first (2CR), and then finishes in the following spring (1CR). You must take BBM I before you can take BBM II. The 2 people running the show have a good and long-standing relationship with our region's DEC officers and biologists and technicians, some are alum of the program I'm in now! Because of this, the highlight of the spring semester is that each student in the course will have at least 1 opportunity to visit a bear den in the late winter/early spring, to see how the bears live in the winter, and to handle them, once they've been tranquilized. Primarily the biologists check sow/cubs those lucky students will be offered the chance to HOLD a cub and keep it warm while biological data is collected from Mom. The 2 dens I visited last year, the sows were wise to our game, and fled. I don't wish to complain, because I could have NEVER been offered that chance, but I was a little disappointed to not be to snuggle a bear cub!

I believe I am the only student from that class currently at the college still, all others have moved on in one capacity or another, and I'm just finishing up my studies. I've kept in touch with the  DEC "bear team" and was graciously invited along again. If it were not for Art Kirsch, a Senior Wildlife Biologist for the NYSDEC Region 8, I would not have been allowed to experience today's fun. I hope I can make that clear to any/all co-students of mine reading this. I was not offered preferential treatment by the instructors, I merely voiced my enthusiasm and passion for wildlife biology, and was remembered a year later! Squeaky wheel gets the grease....

Anyway, I got the message late last night from Dr. Van Niel that his current Black Bear Management course students, and himself, were invited to see a culvert-trapped male black bear (+1, me!). This is a large, male bear that's been visiting a private residence that currently has 20, yes count that, 20 bird feeders on their property. The bear is not being a nuisance, yet, but I forsee this bad boy getting tired of "JUST" seed and suet and apples and whatever else the landowners are leaving out in the backyard, and maybe letting himself into their shed, garage, car, etc. In NYS I believe that if a bear is caught at your feeders just once, whether you were intentionally trying to feed him or not, you must remove them. A citation may be in these people's future. They were so pleased and excited though, which I suppose is better than the opposite of them taking shots at the bear.

This is the culvert trap, and surrounding habitat.

A culvert trap is literally a section of culvert made into a size XXL live trap. The end to the right opens a door sliding up, inside all the way to the other end, a bait is hung (in this case: doughnuts and stale Hostess cupcakes..mmmm irresistable). The bear climbs in, tugs on the bait and SLAM...door shuts behind him. The team insulated the trap with straw, although it's not very cold and that bear was a BIG boy...well insulated!

This is the house with 20 bird feeders.
I was standing pretty much equidistant from the house and the trap.

The team is checking on the bear...he had been in there since ~8pm last night. This location was way down near the PA border, near Addison, NY...quite a drive for most of us who live further North. The landowner from across the street came down to check on him last night...and the bear was fine, so they let him sit til this morning. Safe, warm...well fed- that bear was living the life!

And here is our new friend, 'Washington'. Nicknamed by Matt (Cornell Masters student) for being the first bear (first president...) he collared for his study.

In this picture, he looks like he's yawning. Nope- he was huffing and puffing and clomping his jaws at me peeking in this small hole on the end of the trap. He also attempted, lazily, to do a bluff charge at me, but he really just swatted the hay. I got the picture figuratively and literally. Here's a little video clip:

Anyway, Washington-the-bear was collared by a Masters student at Cornell University, Matt, a year ago. The signal was funny or they couldn't get a signal on it I guess when they tried to track the bear, so since he was conveniently showing up at the feeder buffet, the team decided to deploy a culvert trap.

JVN snapping a pic of Washington through the peek-hole

While the tranquilizer was being prepared, as well as the rest of the necessary materials, we wandered around the trap to look for tracks. Lucky us the ground isn't frozen AND there was a wide field of soft mud right in front of the trap!

I have little experience tracking black bears, we just don't have a high density of them where I live "up north" and "out west" in the state of NY. But I've done a ton of reading on gaits, track patterns, and have been practicing applying that knowledge to other critters.

I know black bears:
  • are plantigrade walkers (they step on their whole foot like humans, as compared to a dog who's up on his toes)
  • they can direct register (back foot falls directly in place of the front, looks like a 2 legged animal has left tracks)
  • they can overstep (back foot falls in beyond the front)
  • and also understep (back foot falls behind the front), etc etc...
  • bears are also pigeon-toed!
Front - Hind (respectively)
They have 5 toes on front and back, and the smallest toe (which doesn't always register) is on the inside of the foot, conversely to our pinkie being on the outside. Someone who knows more, please enlighten me, but these are my observations about the above photo: the bear seemed to have been truly walking, at a walking pace. Perhaps direct registering? If the prints weren't so clear, I would think that for sure, but the prints are clear, so I don't see any overlap, except for the second from the top track, but maybe that's from another episode of walking? There were tracks everywhere.

Front left track- those stones are where the inside 2 toes would've left a print.

Another front left I believe.

Smudgier tracks...hard to tell both of them, but I think the one closer to my hand is a front left track again.

Ok, Washington! Your time is up...nap time!
Here Matt is preparing a "jab stick", basically a pole with a needle filled with tranquilizer to stick through a hole in the trap and give him a poke.

Matt (right) and Jeb (DEC seasonal wildlife technician on the left) are trying to jockey Washington into position, so that Matt has a clear shot at a big meaty hip. I want to ensure those reading, specifically my bear-loving aunts, that Washington was and IS fine. Yes, it probably hurt when they poked him with the needle, but don't we all hate going to get a shot?

Less than 5 minutes later and Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

And THAT is where I'm going to leave it for tonight! Been a long day for me, and I just had a 3 hour night class (Chem I), I'm hitting the hay (ha! just like Washington!) for tonight. For some different pictures and a bit more info, zip over to the Backyard Beast himself, JVN's blog : 2012 Black Bear Season Begins! Tomorrow I'll blog about what 'processing' a bear means.



  1. what an AWESOME experience. You are killing me here. I have had plenty of black bear encounters int he wild and some up close but this is something I hope to get a chance to do.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Passinthru Outdoors Blog - Sharing the Passion


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