Visiting a black bear den

Feb 21, 2012

Black bears are doing really well in Michigan. The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 black bears in the state. They’re mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula. But in recent years... bears have been heading south and pushing into new territories.

Bears have been spotted in the Thumb, and around Flint, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Lansing.

Dwayne Etter is a bear researcher with the DNR.

“We’re trying to understand better how bears are using these habitats, how they’re moving through the landscape, if there’s corridors they’re using.”

To do that, they trap bears, put GPS radio collars on them, and let them go. On this day, they’re checking on an 11 year old male bear in Oceana County. They’ve invited a lucky few to tag along as they go right up to the sleeping bear in his den.

“The only access is right at him, so there’s no sneaking up, he knows you’re there. The other issue we have is that our wind is blowing right into the den, so he’s getting to smell us too.”

Bears are not true hibernators. They’re sleepy this time of year... but they can wake up quickly. Dwayne Etter says that’s especially true this winter because it’s been so warm. So Etter sends us civilians up to the top of a ridge to watch from a distance. He and two other DNR staffers approach the bear from a meadow below.

“See that hump down there? That’s his den.”

Mike Wegan is a wildlife technician with the DNR. We watch as the guys make their way through the valley below us.

“They’re going to come in, and dart him from the opening of the den.”

They dart the bear. It takes a couple minutes for the drug to set in.

“Sometimes they’ll kinda poke it with a stick to see if it responds at all. Once they determine it’s out and it’s safe, they’ll reach in there, give the bear a tug on the arm, and then we’re good to go.”

(walkie talkie beeps): “You can go ahead and bring everyone around.”

We hop into trucks, drive around to the meadow and hike up to the den. A couple of the biggest guys climb into the den and haul the sleeping bear out.

He’s jet black... and he’s smaller than I expected.

“Do you have a thermometer? Yup.”

They take his temperature and they cover him with coats to keep him warm. They swap out his old radio collar for a new one, and give him an overall checkup.

DNR wildlife assistant Dan Moran points out this bear’s got a few battle scars.

“He probably fights, but he’s probably the boss.”

Then, the guys roll him carefully into a tarp, and attach a scale to a big stick they found in the woods. It takes four guys to lift the bear.

(men grunting) “He’s not off the ground guys, sorry.” “Ugh, set him down.”

They try a couple times... but the scale’s not working.

“He’s heavy, how about that?” (laughter)

They estimate the bear weighs around 300 pounds.

When they wrap up their work, they pull him up the hill and put him back into his den.

“Butt first, butt first!”

Dan Moran brushes snow off the bear’s head and arranges him with his head peeking out of the den.

(Moran to bear): “There you go. That’s better, yeah.”

“Because he’s still under the drug we want him lying so his airway and nose are clear. We don’t want his nose stuck in the mud or snow or dirt.”

Then Moran tests the new collar to make sure it’s working.  Later, they’ll download data from the bear’s old collar and find out where he’s been.

Dan Moran says bear encounters will be rare and there’s nothing to fear. He says bears will probably run away before you even see them.

“Bears are pretty reclusive, pretty shy, they travel mostly at night so you don’t see them a lot. Respect the animals, you know, but don’t be afraid of them, enjoy them.”

You can learn more about the southern Michigan bear study from the DNR.