His eyelids were flickering, I noticed, as I shifted his limp body in my arms. Spruce bark and frozen leaves stuck to his thick, black fur. His body radiated warmth and a subtle earthy scent.
The 31-pound black bear, just one year old, was unconscious and would remain that way for another half hour or so. As I looked at the animal’s disproportionately large paws (and claws), I imagined what one swipe of his arm could do.
I was a lucky girl – to be able to cradle a black bear in my arms with no fear of being clobbered, bitten or bowled over. A black bear is a wild animal, after all, and though they generally try to avoid humans, they will (and can) defend themselves if cornered.
My good fortune was the result of my editors assigning me a story to join the Bear Crew of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife during their “den season,” when they track down approximately 80 radio-collared bears hibernating in winter dens in order to gather information about the status of the Maine bear population.
On Feb. 19, 2013, BDN visuals editor Brain Feulner and I were invited to join the Bear Crew in tracking down Lugnut, a 9-year-old female black bear that became famous on January 2012 when a live-streaming video camera was set up in her winter den in northern Maine. That winter, people around the world watched her hibernate, along with her two newborn cubs, on the internet.
A year had passed since Lugnut’s three months in the spotlight, and the Bear Crew needed to track her down by radio collar in order to gather information for the black bear monitoring program, which has been in existence since 1975.
Lugnut had found a new den, about four miles away from her previous winter den, and she wasn’t alone. One of her yearlings had survived the summer and was hibernating with her for the second winter, as yearlings will do. The BDN story and video of the experience ran Feb. 22 on the BDN website.
If you want details about why the heck the Bear Crew tracks down bears, tranquilizes them and pulls them from their winter dens, read the story and visit the black bear monitoring program page on Maine.gov. Basically, the information they gather from 80 female bears (and their young) help them determine whats going on with Maine’s entire black bear population, currently an estimated 30,000 black bears! The information is not only educational, it helps the government make informed decisions about black bear hunting and land management.
I was mostly a fly on the wall during the entire operation. Who wants to get in the way of people dealing with black bears? I mean, it can’t get much more serious than that.
To me, it seemed to be a pretty slick operation — probably due to their expertise. The crew leader, Randy Cross, has been a part of the study for the past 30 years and has handled black bears an estimated 6,000 times. And Lisa Bates — the one who usually crawls into the dens to tranquilize the bears and haul them out — crawled into her first den in 2008.
After both bears – mom and son – had completely conked out, they were measured, weighed and examined. Lugnut received a fresh radio collar, and her son was assigned a number in the study, 0-194, which was tattooed on his inner upper lip.
Then they allowed me to hold him. Maybe it was a silly request – to hold a wild animal like a baby – but it’s one of those things I’ll never forget.
I only held him for a moment. And honestly, 31 pounds of dead weight was pretty tiring for my arms.
The crew then tucked both bears back into the den (a hollow tree), where they’d wake up within the hour, reposition, and go back to sleep for the rest of the winter.
Um… Maybe it goes without saying, but don’t try this at home.
A bit about black bear hibernation:
According to a February 2011 National Geographic News story: “Hibernating black bears can dramatically lower their metabolism with only a moderate drop in body temperature, a surprising new study says.
“The North American mammals generally slumber about five to seven months without eating, drinking, urinating, or defecating, and then emerge from their dens in the spring none the worse for wear.”
Yet when the Bear Crew found Lugnut, she woke up and responded to Lisa Bates by blowing air at her.
According to a 2000 story on PBS.org, “Black bears keep their heads and torsos warm enough that they can wake if disturbed, though some may take awhile to do so.”