Bear den checkers get a rare ‘double-header’

By Steve Griffin

Field Editor

Oscoda County, Mich. – Dan Moran was relieved. He’d found the
Oscoda County den of the 3-year-old sow bear he’d radio-collared
last summer, and heard at least one cub crying there, as cubs
do.

DNR wildlife technician Moran, in the early stages of
tranquilizing the mother, stood back quietly to observe.

That’s when he heard cubs nursing, a sound he says is ‘a
distinctive sound, like an aquarium pump.’ The ‘pump’ was ‘running’
less than 20 feet away.

But behind him.

‘That’s when I knew it was going to get complicated,’ said Moran
of this day and its most unusual back-to-back bear dens.

A DNR team had gathered to tranquilize the winter-sluggish
mother bear they’d trapped last year, perform maintenance on her
radio collar, check her condition and that of any cubs, and judge
her qualifications as a foster mother.

They’ve been working for a couple of years to enlist a squad of
about 16 mother bears – eight in the northeast Lower Peninsula and
eight in the Upper Peninsula – with which they can place cubs that
are invariably ‘rescued’ by people when the cubs are either
actually or apparently orphaned.

The U.P. is a natural choice, since about 90 percent of
Michigan’s 15,000 to 19,000 black bears live there.

Northeast Lower Michigan, too, makes a logical place for foster
placement because of its multi-county bovine tuberculosis
status.

Unlike cattle and deer, bears aren’t afflicted by the disease,
said DNR furbearer and bear specialist Dave Bostick, but they can
carry and spread it. For that reason, bears cannot be moved from
the TB area to other areas of the state. But there are no
restrictions on moving bears into the area. So, foster mothers
there can accept orphans from anywhere in the Lower Peninsula.

So far, four cubs have been placed in the region, Bostick said.
‘That is likely to go up as we now have more mother bears in the
program thanks to this year’s den work.’

Generally, cubs would be placed with foster moms in the region
in which they are found. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule.
Priority one is getting them in a new family.

‘We figure that on any given day, we can find at least one of
the 16 foster mothers,’ Bostick said.

Finding even a radio-collared bear is not always easy. The
collars emit VHF radio signals. That’s a line-of-site transmission,
blocked by hills and other obstacles.

The most reliable method is using a radio in an aircraft to find
the spot, create a GPS waypoint, and send the ground crew off with
a mobile GPS unit. Once they get close, the radio becomes more
reliable.

This mother bear, trapped last summer and fitted with a
temporary radio collar, would be the sixth northern L.P. bear if
she proved to be what biologists call a ‘good’ mother – one that
could teach her cubs where and when to find natural foods, and how
to avoid troublesome contacts with people.

But before that could be determined, Moran radioed the rest of
the large crew of biologists, technicians, conservation officers,
reporters, and local folks.

‘I think we have a second den,’ Moran said.

‘That complicates things,’ said Bostick, echoing Moran’s instant
appraisal.

Moran and biologist Mark Boersen carefully surveyed the lair of
the first bear, and then followed the sounds of the second. She was
nestled deep within a thick snarl of blown-down cedars, difficult
to see and difficult to reach.

They decided they’d do a full work-up on the first bear, and
then do a quick sedation of the second and simply attach a
collar.

‘That way we can find her next winter and do a full work-up,’
Boersen said.

Before long, the first bear was sedately sprawled out on a
canvas, being examined and measured. Mild wounds were treated, the
collar repaired. Her single cub watched from within an observer’s
coat. Moran and Boersen kept constant watch on the mother bear’s
vital signs. 

It’s serious medicine, and there’s always a risk, as human
patients preparing for surgery are told. A team lost a bear this
year, only the fourth animal to die of the hundreds of bears
drugged during more than a decade.

Biologists sometimes mount a several-year, intensive bear survey
project. Several hundred bears often are examined.

But between those projects, winter den-check programs continue.
That’s important, said Bostick, to maintain the foster-mom list. It
also is a great way to educate people on bears, and a way to
maintain bear-handling skills within the DNR.

While Boersen and Moran administered a muscle relaxant and a
sedative to the first bear, using an injector stick (blowguns also
can be used), Bostick mused about the double-header.

‘This is really a bonus. We’ve had them (denned sows) close,
within a mile or so, but not like this. We’ve been doing this for
about 20 years, and I just don’t think we’ve had anything like this
before.’

At day’s end, both mothers and their cubs – the second bear had
a pair of 31/2-pounders, and she may well have been the mother of
the first – snoozed in their near-condo dens again.

And the list of potential foster-mother black bears had received
a solid enlargement.

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