By Sam Cook
Forum News Service
The world’s oldest-known wild bear has died of old age in Itasca County at the age of 39½, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Known to DNR researchers as bear No. 56, the female American black bear was first captured and radio-collared in July 1981 by DNR scientists during the first summer of a long-term research project on bear population ecology.
The bear was 7 years old at the time and was accompanied by three female cubs.
DNR wildlife research biologist Karen Noyce, tracking a signal from the bear’s radio-collar, found No. 56 on Aug. 20, she said. Noyce said the bear, judging from its condition, probably had been dead for several weeks.
“There were no signs of struggle, no broken bones,” Noyce said. “It looked to me like she had lain down and died there.”
Researchers were glad the bear’s life ended that way.
“It was satisfying not to find her by the roadside, not hit by a car,” Noyce said. “We would have loved to see her live to 40, but we were prepared for this. It was a good time to die.”
Bear No. 56 became a significant animal in the DNR research project. During a 32-year study period, she and her many offspring provided an almost uninterrupted record of reproduction, survival, movements and, ultimately, aging within a single matriarchal lineage, researchers said. Data from this bear and her offspring have contributed significantly to the scientific literature on black bear biology.
Noyce said she last saw bear No. 56 alive in June.
“The last time I saw her, it was a bit of a struggle for her to get through the woods,” Noyce said, “but she was eating normally.”
When Noyce had originally come upon her that day, the bear was sleeping.
“I came up on her from downwind,” Noyce said. “I was probably 10 feet away. She was sound asleep, taking a nap. I just spent some time and watched her. When I came around to her upwind side, probably 20 feet away, she suddenly stirred a little bit. She could smell me. She immediately got herself up and headed off. She made a big loop and headed for a trail a quarter-mile away where she had been feeding. It was amazing to me she still knew exactly where she was headed.”
From 1981 to 1995, bear No. 56 produced eight litters of cubs and successfully reared a remarkable 21 of the 22 cubs to 1½ years of age, researchers said. In 1997, at age 23, she uncharacteristically lost two of her three cubs before weaning. In 1999, at age 25, she bore and raised her last cub.
Bear No. 56 outlived by 19 years all of the 360 other radio-collared black bears that DNR researchers have followed since 1981. She also outlived any radio-collared bear of any species in the world. Only a very few individual study bears have been reported to reach age 30. The second-oldest was a brown bear that lived to 34, Noyce said.
Since 1981, the DNR has radio-collared and tracked more than 550 black bears. The next-oldest bear in the DNR’s studies included two that reached age 23, one of them a granddaughter of No. 56. Another lived to age 20.
Based on annual rings counted in teeth submitted by hunters from more than 60,000 harvested bears, a 2010 DNR reported that only three lived past age 30, one of them to age 33.
“Half the females in Minnesota don't live past age 4,” said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear project leader. “Only 5 percent make it to age 15.”