Monday, March 18, 2013

Black bear den season: part II

In my previous post, I shared with blog readers that I was afforded a very unique opportunity. I was invited to attend 3 black bear den visits where biological information is taken, and live bears are handled. I am VERY fortunate and very happy to share what I learned.

I’ll begin by explaining WHY we want to visit black bear dens and handle the bears. I had a very outdoorsy and wildlife saavy friend write to me and say “Not trying to be a buzz kill but this is a wild animal. Why are we handling them like a child or a pet? makes no sense to me that they are exploited to human touch and then hunted, killed skinned and eaten!” I will admit that at first, I got hot. Here’s a man who sticks out in my mind as a conservationist, and a life-long hunter and trapper…and yet he can’t understand that what I’m participating in is important to conserving wildlife?

Den #1 was located within the township of Almond, NY
Click to enlargen
In Western, NY and specifically the Finger Lakes region, black bears are moving Northward from Pennsylvania. Over the past 10-12 years they’ve really made a comeback. A combination of factors have influenced this. Many farms are being abandoned, and land is reverting back to how it was historically wooded instead of wide open agricultural fields. This is allowing the bears, and other animals, more cover and suitable habitat. I also think that bears are particularly adaptable. They are similar in feeding and human interaction habits to raccoons. Many people have preconceived notions that bears are vicious. ALL wild animals have tendencies to be vicious. Deer mice can act vicious, cottontails, foxes, and yes bears can act vicious. But black bears don’t TEND to be vicious, unless they are sick, wounded, or given reason to be defensive. I liken them to raccoons because often the most they are to humans are annoying. There are a lot of summer homes and hunting camps in the Finger Lakes that are seasonally used. Bears looking for a place to hunker down may break into these camps. And they love bird feeders, grills, garbage, cars with coolers, and all sorts of other treats that people living in this newly reclaimed “bear country” forget to put away. They’re really just like a 200 pound raccoon. Of course bears are capable of greater damage, so they’re often feared more than ‘coons.

Ok, so all that being said, since bears are moving back into “our” territory, the biologists of the Department of Environmental Conservation Wildlife Division strive to learn as much about their habits and movements as possible. The easiet and least invasive way of doing this, is to place a collar of sorts on certain bears. In Region 8, for example (which is where I visited dens), the biologists are monitoring approximately a total of 7-15 adult bears. Also, with some of those adults are cubs or yearlings…but those are not individually monitored. There are a lot of human-bear interactions, and also there is an interest in hunting black bears in New York State. They are considered “big game” , and to help control the population, there are hunting seasons, which you can view here: Deer and Bear Hunting Seasons.

To address a word that my friend used…”exploiting” the bears. I do not look at handling these bears and cubs as exploiting. Yes, we take pictures with them. But for them, it’s a moment in time. As Art Kirsch, Senior Region 8 Wildlife Biologist, told me that “the science obtained from monitoring these bears, far outweighs the inconvenience they experience”, which is very true. The adults are always immobilized with a cocktail of drugs. There is no safe way to handle the adults without them being immoblized. The cubs though this time of year are quite small and easy to handle. There is no reason to impose unnecessary risk (there's always risk with use of chemical immobilizers- bear, dog, cat, human) by immobilizing the cubs. The largest cub I think I handled was just around 6 pounds, and the smallest was 3.2 pounds. If any memories of these interactions with the bear biologists are remembered, it’s not of terror and panic. The animals are treated with respect, voices are kept low, and the adult bear’s eyes are covered to further keep it calm. Cubs are kept in fleece bags to keep them warm and secure.

A question I’ve been asked since I shared that I handled bear cubs is “Won’t the mother reject them with your scent on them?”…no! Please keep in mind that the protocol for these visits has the bear's health and safety as the first priority. The mother is handled the same as the cubs, her den is entered by biologists when she’s removed, and so everything and the whole bear family have human scent. Everyone is required to wear gloves, and “nuzzling” is prohibited. The team does not want the other people at the den visits, to "Disney-fy" the bears. Really there is nothing cuter than a 2 month old bear cub, but these are wild animals who are returning to the wild. They are not pets or cartoons. We do not name them, or kiss them, and hugging is ONLY allowed to keep them warm.We are handling these cubs to obtain data from them, as well as keep them warm while mom is being processed. They've never been out of then den before, and have never been away from mom's side. If for some reason the mother can not be handled (she runs off, for example), the cubs are not handled. It’s all of them or none of them. That way, everyone smells the same.

The whole experience takes less than 1 hour, as that is how long we have for the drugs to keep a hold on the adult. This is not a process that drags on for several hours, but is done efficiently and safely for all involved.

Now I know if you clicked on this post, you don’t REALLY care about all that I’ve written. You came for the pictures. I will describe my experience of den #1 through the captions. Also, all people mentioned by name are from Finger Lakes Community College (unless otherwise noted) where there is a Black Bear Management course offered. John Van Niel is the professor of that course.
In this massive brush pile of dead Christmas trees and other debris, a mother bear and 3 cubs are in a cozy den. Region 8 Wildlife technician Jeb McConnell along with Region 8 Wildlife Biologist Art Kirsch and Region 9 Wildlife Biologist Tim Spierto are searching for an access point to shoot the chemical immobilizer into the mother bear. Once the drugs are administered, they must wait 15-20 minutes for it to take effect.

After the sow was stabilized, I was invited to climb up on top of the brush pile (10-12 feet off the ground) to see the entrance of the den.

The veterinarian on hand, Dr. Jeff Wyatt DVM, of the Seneca Park Zoo, went 8 feet down into the den to watch the sow's vitals. She maintained a strong and steady heartbeat, and was breathing normally through out. She was not removed from the den, due to how precarious the brush pile was to maneuver. Jeff mentioned to me while I was taking this picture that he was almost 'hot' down in the den. Lucky, we were freezing out on top!

Art Kirsch, Senior Wildlife Biologist, has the second best seat in the house. Art held his post just outside the den monitoring all that was going on, and recording data from the sow still in the den.

When cubs are first removed, the are placed into a fleece sack as seen here. This helps contain them (they are wiggly) and keep them warm. Weights are taken for each cub, as seen here. Alicia Walker is reading the scale, as John Van Niel holds it. Ben Williams and Julia Lampman record data in the background.

Here John Van Niel removes the cub from the bag for a moment so that the cub can be sexed. I think in this case, it's a girl! Grasping the cub by the scruff of the neck is not painful, this is something the mother, like many other mother animals, do to move their babies when they are too young to move on their own.

Here, I am holding the cub as Alicia continues to take measurements. There is a hair length (from the top of the head) to ear length ratio that can be plugged into an equation, which can give a fairly accurate date of birth. Jon Muller and Kevin Skryzinski watch on, while Ben records the data.

Here John is readying me for the insertion of the Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag. This is very similar to a 'micro chip' you may have put in your cat or dog. It is not an active means of tracking the animal, but if the animal is handled again in the future, a receiver can be waved over the location of insertion (between shoulder blades under skin), and the unique ID
number can be read.

Cubs are born with blue eyes, as many mammals seem to be. I do not know why this is, but with age the eyes will likely darken to brown.
Once all data was collected from cubs and the mother bear, we formed a bit of a 'bucket brigade' from the ground up and over the brush pile to get the cubs back into the den. It was easier and safer than trying to hold your balance and keep your footing while holding onto a squirming cub. Photo credit: Julia Lampman
In total, the experience was around an hour and a half. That includes walking time from the road to the den, and the time it took the team to immobilize mom, wait for the drugs to kick in, and then for all of the data collection. It was one of those experiences that I could not WAIT to partake in, and then in a blink, it was over. BUT, fortunately I had 2 more dens to look forward to. I will be blogging about those experiences soon. Hope you enjoyed!


  1. That is soooo cool. I'd love to do that one day and then I think...wait, someone has to actually crawl in there with a black bear. hmmm. I need to rethink this one. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Alyssa, this is great to read, some time ago I saw a video about this, and now know more about how it is done and why, Fleece bags were used then,the weather was freezing cold, and the mother stayed in the den. I think the people used skis and snowshoes to reach the areas. What a wonderful experience.What is Art wearing round his hat? A Gopro camera, headlight, or a thermometer??? I can see your wonderful cold weather gear with great gloves. Greetings from Jean.

    1. Hi Jean! Art was wearing a headlight for maneuvering around in the den. One of the others though did have a GoPro, I'd love to see his footage!


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