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?
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.