Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Black bear den season: part III

It's been awhile since I've been able to write. I had a busy weekend in DC at a conference, and also my power cord for my laptop shorted out and stopped working. BUT I'm back from DC and I'm all powered up!

If you want to get caught up on my 2013 bear den experiences, check out this link: bear dens.

Site of Den #2. Click to enlargen.
On March 14 and 15, I was invited to hang out with some NYSDEC biologists and technicians while they did some bear den checks. In this entry I'll outline my experience at den #2!

Den #2 was interesting because it was located about 80 yards from the landowner's house. It was just about in plain sight from the back of the house, although it was shielded a little bit by the thick brush it was in.

If the home owner's were outside talking, or their dog barked, the bears I'm sure could easily hear them. But, the sow (or mother bear) apparently wasn't bothered, and chose that spot to have her triplets.

FLCC student Judi McDougall attempts to access the bear den to take measurements.
In the last entry I focused mostly on what happens with the cubs during a visit. This entry I'll focus on mom. She really is what the biologists are most interested in I think. How the bear team finds the den is from tracking down mom, who is wearing a collar. This collar does sometimes need maintenance, or a battery change, so while the bears are semi-stationary in the den is the perfect time to do it.

On our lunch break, Wildlife Biologist Art Kirsch prepares the chemicals (a mixture of Ketamine and Xylazine) for the next den visit. The chemicals are then put into a dart which is loaded into a low velocity pistol or a rifle powered by compressed air, a CO2 cartridge or a .22 blank. The biologists aim for the bear's hip, which has a
Accompanying us on these visits are Rochester, NY Seneca Park Zoo staff: a veterinarian Dr. Jeff Wyatt DVM, and veterinary technician Robin English. Both are there with the animal's health and safety as their first priority.

A select few members of "the bear team" approach the den first. Art, technicians, and the vets go first. It's a tense few moments as they're trying to chemically immobilize the adult bear. Bears do not truly hibernate (see this blog entry: The true NY hibernators), so if spooked, and so inclined, they can get up and run away. So the team has to move in stealth mode until he/she is darted, and they've given it time to set in. If all goes to plan, the whole process should take about 20 minutes. Then the clock starts ticking. There's approximately 1 hour of time to work while the animal is immobilized.

From left to right: Robin (with her back turned),
Dr. Wyatt, Jeb (a Fish and Wildife Technician), and Art.
Dr. Wyatt and Robin are responsible for watching the bear's vital signs. This includes heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, and maintaining good oxygen levels.

Meanwhile, the DEC team is busily checking the collar, tagging the bear (if it hasn't been already), extracting a tooth for aging (if it hasn't been already), tatooing an ID number on the gum (if it hasn't been already), and gathering other data points. If some or all of these things have been done already, as was the case this time, "processing" the adult moves fairly quickly.

You might notice that the bear is laying on a silver space blanket. This provides a buffer between the animal and the cold ground. While under "the drugs", it cannot thermoregulate, or maintain a constant internal temperature. An animal can quickly become hypthermic if this step isn't observed. Also, between Art's hands is a red and green piece of fabric. This is a fleece sleeve that they slide over the face to protect the eyes. One of the chemicals in the cocktail paralyzes all muscles, so the bear can't blink. So to keep the bright light and debris out of the eyes, they use this sleeve or sometimes I've seen them place large band-aids over the eyes too.

I once got to take the temperature of a large male bear. Not orally. :)

The little gadget see above, is a pulse oximeter. If you've spent anytime in the hospital, you may have had this thing clipped to your index finger. It measures the concentration of oxygen in the bloodstream, and this one also monitored the pulse. Without this tool, the vet must keep his fingers on an artery almost constantly to make sure the pulse is steady and strong. He also kept pressing on a mucous membrane (commonly the gums). If they're bright and pink, there's a healthy oxygen level in the blood. If the gums are ashy and gray, we've got problems. So, this pulse oximeter is not an "instead of" tool, but an "addition to" tool. It also beeps outloud in time with the pulse, so you can listen instead of totally concentrate while pressing on an artery through the skin. They've never used one before, and weren't sure if it would work. There was a strong enough pulse in the tongue though, and all were pleasantly surprised with how well it all worked out.

While the bear is "out", they allowed me to explore her a little bit. When else will I get to look so closely at a bear paw?

Because this mother bear was mom to triplets, I believe (all the visits are blending together!), she was engorged with milk. Bear nipples are set up a bit differently than our domestic pets. She only has 6 nipples. Two are down low on her abdomen, and the other 4 are up high on her chest.

Her claws were beautiful. Not made for slashing prey, but more for digging. Bears are also extremely dextrous with their digits, and can pluck berries from a vine with their paws and their lips.
Jeb (on left) is now a DEC Fish and Wildlife Technician, but he got his start at Finger Lakes Community College and SUNY Cobleskill, just as I am. Jeb is fitting the new collar with fresh batteries. The "old" collar is at right on the ground. The collar's band is leather, but does have a canvas tab on it. If for some reason, the bear team can't get their hands on this bear again in the next year to change it out, and the bear happens to be on the loose and growing, that canvas tab can be torn away and the collar removed. It's always a risk when putting a multi-thousand dollar piece of equipment on a wild animal.
Danika Van Niel (my professor's daughter) hands a bear cub to Fish and Wildife Technician Ron Newell to be placed back in the den with mom. Once all of the "work" is done, the cubs MUST go back, although we may not want them to!
Photo credit: John Van Niel
A parting shot of the happy family, back in the den.
Photo credit: John Van Niel 
Yet another FANSTASTIC experience in the field with these people. I can tell you that it doesn't get old, and I feel so very fortunate to be included. Making connections with the right people, and a little persistence certainly pays off. Stay tuned for at least one more bear entry to come!

1 comment:

  1. Alyssa, this is " sooo cool!!" to use a grandson's language. What a truly wonderful experience, and yes, it would always be a thrill to participate. I wonder why she chose her den so close to houses, would it be earier to build, a better area for her food, or safer for the cubs? Great to have it all explained, and am waiting for the next installment. Hope you have spring round the corner. Greetings from Jean


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