Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A day with the bears

Folks, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted. This new job, which I’m about to tell you more about, is kicking my butt. It’s not physically demanding, but mentally. And the very last thing I want to do when I get home from work, is sit at my computer blogging! My eyes hurt by 4:30 pm everyday.

I’ve been working on this entry for weeks. The writing (you’ll see) is lengthy, and the picture editing, and the revisions, and I had to get the OK’s from my bosses at work, has all taken a lot of time. I am now ready to share my day with the bears.
NYS Department
of Environmental Conservation
At the end of May I began an internship at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Bureau of Wildlife in the Albany, NY main office. I am interning for Big Game Biologist Jeremy Hurst, and working on the 5th floor of the office building. It’s very different than anything I’ve done before, but very interesting work. Usually when people hear I’m interning for the DEC, they assume I’m either out in the field wrestling bears, trapping raccoons, or that I have something to do with law enforcement. I’m office-based and spend my day in front of a computer. I have to admit, this is not what I expected of a job when I began my quest for a degree in Wildlife Management. But, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I am enjoying it.

I’m primarily sorting through data that’s been taken regarding black bears in NYS. Currently I’m entering information into a database that has been collected from dog trainers. While it’s illegal to hunt black bears in NY with use of dogs, one can apply for a license to become a “bear houndsman” and train specific breeds to track black bears . It IS legal in other states to hunt black bear with the aid of dogs including but not limited to:

                -New Hampshire

However, in NY, there is just a training season. For more information about bear-dog training and black bear hunting in NY, visit: http://www.dec.ny.gov/regs/3928.html.

June 2013 cover of
The Conservationist
Another project I’ve been working on is organizing a digital archive of NY and black bear related published articles. There are articles published in the agency’s own magazine, The Conservationist, intra-agency articles written by DEC staff, and publications written by researchers and graduate students from across the state. Many of these papers are available on actual paper, but my boss would like them preserved digitally. So I’ve been skimming titles and scanning the actual articles. Some great work has been done by biologists and researchers in NY. It’s very interesting to read back on management and work being done with bears from recent years and all the way back to the 1950s!

So while all of that work is important and interesting, I can’t really call it “exciting”. In the beginning of June I was treated to a field trip to get out of the office and see some real, live, wild black bears. Some DEC staff from another part of the state were heading to yet another part of the state to retrieve 3 yearling bears from a wildlife rehabilitation facility. A yearling is a bear that was born not this recent winter, but the winter before. Most bears in NY are born in the month of January, so right now we could assume these triplets are 1 year 6 months old born in January 2012. Unfortunately these bears became orphans somehow. I don’t know their back-story, but the mother died or could not care for them. The cubs were brought to this rehabilitation center and were allowed to grow, eat, and remain safe, all with minimal human contact, until it was deemed that they could care for themselves in the wild. Since the staff going to pick up these bears was travelling through the Albany area, my boss hooked myself and his technician up with this opportunity to travel with them and assist in the pickup of the 3 yearlings.

I’ve worked with and assisted in handling live, wild black bears probably 6-8 times before this latest tripnow. I’ve been invited to “help” with several nuisance bears, and I’ve visited several dens with sows/cubs with DEC biologists in Region 8. I say help, because really I was just there observing and taking pictures. While I’m sure they all enjoyed my company, they could have successfully handled those bears without me. I consider those visits as gifts from regional DEC staff that I’ve volunteered with before, and they recognized my love of bears and my want to learn. THIS time though, I was joining the team to actually help.

This is the black bear culvert trap we brought with us that day.
Sometimes used to actually live-trap the animals, in this case it
was used for transportation.
Biologist Matt and Technician Christie picked us up in Albany early in the morning, and we made the several hour trek west to Kindred Kingdom Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Oswego County. Along the way we dragged a culvert trap on a trailer to transport the bears back in. The culvert trap is literally a large section of a culvert pipe. When trapping bears that are, for example, being a nuisance at a campground, there is a trigger inside the trap in the back that is baited. So the bear has to climb in, touch the bait, and trigger the mechanism which then releases a guillotine-style door that shuts behind it. They are contained and safe then, and DEC employees sustain no injuries trying to catch a bear on the loose. There are air holes throughout, and a little door that can be opened to check on the bears. The culvert is usually mounted on a trailer for easy transportation as well. It was interesting to watch other motorist’s faces as they passed us on the interstate as they read “Danger- bear trap. Stay back” on the side of the trap!

When we arrived at Kindred Kingdom, we were greeted by Jean and Len, owners and wildlife rehabilitators. I cannot express throughout these entries, how impressed I was by these people. I have very little experience with rehabilitators, but I always had the feeling that the wild animals were coddled by the 3 rehabbers I’ve come into contact with. Almost like they were pets. The goal, with ethical and successful rehabilitation, is to allow the animal to heal and/or fatten up to a healthy state, while keeping it as wild as possible. Of course not all animals can be released back into the wild because of imprinting or injuries that prevent them from leading normal lives. There are a variety of reasons an animal might find itself in the care of a rehabber, and I’m sure all of the rehabilitators have the very best of intentions when taking in animals. But Jean and Len do a really wonderful job at their facility of caring for wild animals and ensuring they’re still wild when released. They are almost exclusively a raptor (birds of prey, such as hawks, eagles and owls) and black bear facility. I believe that according to the DEC, and I agree, these types of animals require the most specific types of enclosures and are the most dangerous to rehabilitate. You must meet a certain standard to house these types of animals.

We met Jean and Len at the bear enclosures, which are set back from other buildings. Back there, the bears could truly take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. That day we pulled up to the enclosures, Jean and Len had 13 bears that were at varying ages and stages of rehabilitation. It appeared to me that the most of them were at least at the 100 pound mark, likely yearlings. The bears were split between 3 enclosures. There were two huge “buildings” that had sections within them that separated bears. They also had a smaller shed-like enclosure for a pair of cubs that were very small. The buildings were constructed of 7-8 foot tall walls made of cinder blocks. Above that was chain link fencing that went up maybe another 10 feet, and then peaked at 25ish feet tall. There was no solid roof, just chain link. The bears were under shade of trees, so no direct sun was beating down on them. This fencing allowed the bears to experience true outdoor temperature and weather conditions. If it’s cold out at night, wild bears don’t get to come inside and curl up on a cushion! They did have man-made dens though (that kind of resembled cement bunkers to me) that they could go into. The tall cinder block walls were to prevent the bears from seeing people. Yes, they could climb the walls (which they readily demonstrated while I was there), but most of the time, when they were calm and not spooked, they’d mill around on the ground. The solid wall also prevented them from fixating on a point and pacing. Jean told me to think of zoo animals, and we’ve all seen that right? The tiger is bored and has worn a path into the ground by pacing. Captive animals that do this are burning more calories in a day than they can take in. That’s wasteful of their stored calories and expensive to keep feeding them at a high volume to maintain healthy weight. So to cut down on that incessant pacing, they had the walls built solid. This doesn’t mean though that the bears are sedentary and fat! They have a variety of “toys” to enrich their lives and provide entertainment. Bowling balls and basketballs were provided, there were ladders to climb, a hammock to lie in, and a nice pool of water to lie in and drink from. I know the cinder block walls may seem severe, why not wood? Bears are excellent diggers and biters. Wood or natural flooring would be destroyed quickly. And the cement was also very easy to hose down and clean.

The outside of one of the bear enclosures.
You can see a bear has climbed up the chain link on the inside.
The bears we were going to be picking up were in the back half of one of the enclosures. Jean and Len fondly referred to them as “The Jumbos”. All siblings, they were of the exact same age. Brother weighed in at 175#, Sister 1 weighed in at 115#, and Sister 2 weighed 110#. These were big, strong, young bears ready to head out into the wild!

Region 3 Technician Christie assists in
preparing the drugs for immobilization.
Then Matt and Christie readied a chemical cocktail to chemically immobilize the bears. There are a variety of drugs that are used to immobilize animals. To be honest, I can’t remember what specifically he used that day. How the drugs affect the bears though, are generally the same: unable to move, yet fully conscious. When they’re succumbing to the effects, they appear drunk: wobbly and clumsy. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to lure 3 young, independent bears into a trailer for transport, but we didn’t even attempt! Haha! For our safety and the bear’s, they were drugged one at a time so that we could process them and load them in the trailer safely.

The biologist and technician entered the enclosure, and the bears scattered immediately. They were afraid, which is a good thing! They did not approach or act friendly. The biologist approached one from beneath, as they had climbed up. He had the dart with the chemicals in it on a “jab pole” which is about 4 feet long. He was able to easily approach and stick the bear in the meaty part of the thigh/butt. Then he they stepped back and arranged a set of thick rock-climbing type pads beneath the bear. Within 10 minutes, the bear was woozy and slid off its perch onto the crash pad.
As soon as the door slid open, the 3 yearlings scattered.
It was amazing to see how nimble they are. They were perfectly capable to maneuver that metal pipe that was maybe 3-4″ wide.
The bear above had already been stuck once, but since the bear’s weight was estimated (and the drug strength is based on weight) he didn’t receive enough. Once he was groggy, Matt entered again and dosed again. You can also see the crash pads to the left in the picture.
The part that came next was the “processing” of the bears. There were measurements to be taken, the vital stats had to be monitored, tags to be put on their ears, and other tasks on the list. THAT will have be to another entry though, this one was long enough! I hope you enjoyed this first part of my day with the bears…I certainly enjoyed living it, and them remembering it while writing.


  1. ....and your introduction into the professional sphere begins! Good luck!!

    We have bear hunting with hounds in our neck of the woods. Causes alot of heated debates....

    Great opportunity to work directly with the bears!

    1. Thanks TB! I posted this entry on my other blog that's hosted at Albany's main newspaper, the Times Union. IMMEDIATELY I received several comments from a disgruntled bruin hunter who only wanted to talk policy :) it's interesting writing this blog and being semi public in the same city with that blog. All good stuff though!

  2. This is truly so interesting, scary and fascinating all at the same time.Enjoy your internship, happy days every day. Cheers from Jean

  3. I really enjoyed looking at your pictures. I felt like I was along for the ride! Beautiful countryside Thanks..Also visit my page
    nature photos

  4. Great post Alyssa. I'll have to agree with Trailblazer. Hunting bears with hounds create a lot of discuss. I live in the heart of VA bear/hound hunting so I see it first hand. I guess I'm kind of neutral on it. I perfer to hunt alone without hounds but I have no problem with the houndsmen.

  5. Well-told story! Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to read the next installment.


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