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Into the bear's den: Biologists check out mother bear and her three cubs

OLEAN – Last year biologists trapped a mother bear near a person's home in the Olean area.

This time they went to the mother bear's home.

It was possible to find because of the radio transmitter on a collar they put on the bear last year.

The state biologists tracked the bear to a remote hill near the Pennsylvania border – about a 20-minute drive from Olean – where she was denning for the winter with her three male cubs.

“I’d say she picked a great spot,” said Ryan Rockefeller, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

State biologists have begun entering dens across the state as part of an annual assessment gauging the health, habitats and populations of New York State's black bears.

The den is hidden under fallen trees and brush capped with about a foot of snow in a hilltop forest owned by a logging company.

Her den is also far from humans, a good thing, biologists said.

Black bears increased their range farther northward over the last decade or two as more agricultural fields are filled in by forests.

State biologists now consider the entire western Southern Tier to be primary territory for black bears. The DEC estimates about 1,000 black bears live here.

State wildlife officials aim to keep a buffer between black bears and more densely populated upstate areas.

“The goal is to not really have a bear population in those areas,” said Kenneth Baginski, the DEC’s regional wildlife manager. “That’s because of the human population – it’s just not compatible.”

The mother bear and her cubs in the den before DEC wildlife biologists enter the den to do some research last week in Allegany. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Bear’s den

Approaching a bear’s den requires caution – and patience.

On Thursday, an eight-person team of biologists quietly pulled a sled of tarps and tools through about 18 inches of snow to the place the mother bear rested in a dormant state with her cubs.

Armed with an air pistol, one of them crept to within a few feet of the mother bear and shot her in the hind quarters with a dart of telazol, an anesthetic.

When biologists determined about an hour later that the mother bear was sufficiently sedated, the team entered the den.

“She did not put up any sort of struggle or aggression,” Rockefeller said. “Sound and touch did not cause her to react.”

First, they shackled the mother bear’s front paws, then collected her resting cubs one-by-one for examination.

“Being able to track a sow to her den in the winter, we’re able to see how many cubs she has,” Baginski said.

They found three.

The cubs – nestled under their warm, furry mother bear – squealed when lifted into the chilly air.

They quickly settled down after being wrapped in insulated white terry-cloth sacks and held tightly to the bosoms of assistants while several biologists lifted the mother bear onto a plastic tarp just outside of the den for examination.

She was still wearing one of two plastic identification tags affixed to her ear during her run-in with officials last July and the special radio-frequency neck collar that led biologists to her den.

One part of the team kept close monitor of the mother bear’s vital signs, including her heart rate, respiration and body temperature, and made sure her head was positioned properly to assure she could breathe while others assessed the cubs.

“We need to make certain that the animals we handle are given the utmost care and attention to ensure they are not harmed by our actions to the best of our abilities,” Rockefeller said.


Larry Bifaro, a big game biologist for the DEC's Region 4, that encompasses the northern Catskills and Capital region, holds one of the three male cubs. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A cub’s life

The cubs were weighed, measured and inspected for any signs of disease. Then, each was affixed with a color-coded and numbered plastic ear tag.

That will enable wildlife officials to identify the cubs if their paths should cross again.

Each cub weighed roughly 5 pounds and was about a foot long.

Biologists estimate they were born sometime in late January or early February, and hadn’t yet been outside of the den.

“The cubs appeared to be in great shape,” Rockefeller said.

The mother bear weighed in at a robust 230 pounds, more than 60 pounds heavier than she was in last summer’s encounter with the DEC.

When it was time to let the bears have their den back, the biologists fashioned a portable hammock out of mesh netting and carefully hoisted the mother bear back into her den.

Then, the cubs were placed back in the den next to their mother.

“They quickly find warm spots up against her,” Rockefeller said. “The cubs stay close ... for warmth and milk.”

Rockefeller said his team will likely check back on the den in coming days to make sure all returned to normal.

"We also placed a trail camera at the den site so that we know when they leave," he said.

That probably won't be for another month or two.

The mother bear and her three cubs will probably linger around the den for a few days after emerging in late April or May and then leave for good to roam the forests of the Southern Tier and northern Pennsylvania.

The cubs will stay close to their mother throughout this year, learning and growing – up to 60 pounds by this time next year, biologists said.

After a second winter and spring with their mother, she’ll shew off the yearling cubs next summer.

“The mother will push them out,” Rockefeller said.

Then, she’ll mate and start the process all over again, he said.


DEC scientists prepare to assess the mother bear. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Bear tracks

Over the last two decades, the DEC has tagged 470 bears across New York State, including 64 in Region 9, which encompasses Erie, Niagara, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

About 35 to 40 percent of those bears are now confirmed to have died due to euthanization, nuisance permit kills, hunting harvests, vehicle collisions or natural deaths, the DEC said.

“Tags allow us to identify individual bears in the future from mortality events,” Rockefeller said. “The tags we used are distinguishable enough that we can also identify them from live observations such as trail camera photos or from citizens.”

[Black Bears in New York, a state Department of Environmental Conservation report]

Rockefeller said the tags can be useful when trying to identify offending nuisance bears who get into dumpsters, garbage cans, bird feeders and other populated areas.

The crew planned to visit a second bear’s den in Cold Spring last week, but snow conditions on the seasonal road to the site impeded their progress.

Officials said they were alerted to the den in recent weeks by a grouse hunter whose dog found the den.

“The dog saw the bear, and backed out of there,” Baginski said.

Then, the hunter notified the DEC’s Region 9 office – a practice biologists encourage.

“That’s the biggest thing,” said Emilio Rende, a wildlife biologist. “We rely on the public to give us reports.”

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