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Biologists enter dens to manage bears

Mark Ternent with the Pennsylvania Game Commission reaches into a black bear den in Milford, Pa. Wildlife biologists are attempting to gauge the health and size of the state's bear population.
Mark Ternent with the Pennsylvania Game Commission reaches into a black bear den in Milford, Pa. Wildlife biologists are attempting to gauge the health and size of the state's bear population. Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mark Ternent squeezes his bulky frame into the narrow opening of a bear den and shines a flashlight into the eyes of a 200-pound female. Two black bear cubs are suckling, and their mother looks back at Ternent, alert but relaxed. It is early March, and these bears won't come out of hibernation for another six weeks.

The wildlife biologist shoots a tranquilizer dart into the mother's rump, but the dart goes into fat, not muscle, slowing absorption into her blood. Ternent waits 20 minutes, but she is still awake, so he shoots a second dart. This one does the trick — she's completely out of it.

Ternent then goes to work, dragging the bears from their den.

By the end of March, he will have visited some 30 bear dens around the state, tagging, weighing and taking the vital signs of hibernating mothers and their offspring as part of an effort to gauge the health and size of Pennsylvania's bruin population.

As caretaker of the state's 15,000 black bears, Ternent must figure out the optimal ratio of bears to people. That number will determine how many bears need to be killed by hunters to keep the population under control.

Bears are not a problem in more remote areas of the state. But here in the increasingly populous Pocono Mountains, complaints about nuisance bears are rising — especially among recent arrivals from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, who tend to have little experience with the animals.

"They see a bear in their backyard and they panic, thinking that the bears are going to take a couple of their children," says Tim Conway, an information and education supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Pennsylvania has had perhaps 20 bear attacks over the past 30 years, none of them fatal or even serious. But black bears have killed people in other states, and can inflict significant damage on crops and livestock.

Black bear encounters are rising in Pennsylvania and in many other Eastern states because the species is increasing in number at a time when more of their habitat is being lost to development.

It is such a topic of concern that bear biologists from around the eastern United States and Canada are meeting in West Virginia next month to discuss ways to manage conflict between bears and people.

"I think most states are becoming more aggressive in managing these populations, and it's a direct result of human-wildlife encounters," says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He calls the Poconos and northern New Jersey, where bears have made a dramatic rebound, the "epicenter" of black bear-human interaction.

In New Jersey, rising complaints about bears prompted officials in 2003 to allow black-bear hunting for the first time in more than three decades. But last year's hunt was canceled amid protests from anti-hunting groups, and New Jersey's top environmental official said non-lethal ways of dealing with bears need to be explored.

In Pennsylvania, hunting has long been used to control the bear population, which quadrupled in the 1980s and '90s. As a result of an extended rifle season and the introduction of an archery season, the number of bears killed through hunting has risen from 1,796 in 1996 to 3,122 in 2006.

Now Ternent, the bear biologist, is aiming to come up with a bear population objective for various parts of the state, taking into account factors such as human population density, forest cover and the availability of food.

Among other things, he wants to know how many cubs are out there, the ratio of males to females and the condition of the mothers. He will use the information to estimate the bear population.

Black bears sleep deeply when they are hibernating but wake up to give birth and tend to their young. They can be easily roused.

The den Ternent visited in early March is surrounded by houses, and you could walk past it and never know it was there. Only the sow's radio collar, put on her during a previous visit, betrays her location: a cavern formed by two large rocks.

After the bear is sedated, Ternent pulls her squawking, squirmy cubs from the den and hands them off to colleagues. Then he fastens a rope to the mother's front legs and they drag her out, too. For the cubs, born the first or second week of January, "this is the first daylight they've seen out of the den," Ternent says.

Their fur is remarkably soft, and they smell clean and fresh — much better than your typical family dog. They struggle mightily, but at only 6 pounds they are no match for the humans, who are careful to avoid the cubs' long, dagger-like claws.

Ternent and his team take the mother's vital signs — respiration, heart rate, temperature — fit her with a new radio collar, and tattoo her inner lip with a serial number that can be used to identify her if her ear tags come off.

She weighs 197 pounds, about 30 percent less than when she entered the den in November. But she has a soft, pillowy feel, her bones aren't sticking out anywhere and her fur is in good condition. She is in fine health.

It is the sow's first litter, and her cubs are weighed in plastic drawstring bags imprinted with Smokey Bear. Ternent tags them, then pushes and pulls their mother back into the den. He snuggles the cubs against their mother, covers the den's two entrances with pine branches, and departs.

"They are a charismatic species, no doubt about it," he says.