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Outdoor classroom: Students experience DNR bear field research

Kurt Dame, left, of Shevlin, watches as DNR specialist Karen Noyce draws a blood sample from one of three bear clubs that were pulled from a den north of Pinewood Thursday afternoon. A Bemidji High School class in environmental studies assisted in the tagging and other tests on the cubs before they were returned into their den. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

PINEWOOD -- Mother bear 4003 and her three yearling cubs became teachers for a day Thursday for students in the Bemidji High School environmental science class.

The students' regular teacher, Kristina VanWilgen-Hammitt, said she connected with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources bear study through Science Education Partnership for Greater Minnesota.

Last winter, DNR bear specialists Karen Noyce and Dave Garshelis invited BHS students to witness their project as they anesthetized bear 4003 and brought her and her four newborn cubs out of their den. VanWilgen-Hammitt videotaped the DNR specialists as they weighed and measured the bears and checked their health.

This year's class watched the video, and then traveled to Dave and Patt Evenwoll's woods near Pinewood to meet the mother bear and her now big yearling cubs.

"Pretty sweet - I actually got to see a bear up close," said Walker Landa, a BHS junior.

"I love it - it's different," said junior Victoria Julin. She said she has seen bears when she has been out horseback riding, but never at touching distance.

Other students took photos and video, petted the sleeping bears and examined their paws and claws.

Noyce and Garshelis explained that their main area of bear study is in northwestern Minnesota on the edge of the prairie, which is also the edge of the bears' range. They have been tracking the population dynamics and how these bears travel in their range.

"Some of them are leapfrogging from one little patch (of forest) to another little patch," Noyce said.

Radio collaring bear 4003 and keeping statistics on her and her cubs is a sideline study, they said.

First, find the bear

The project takes patience. The researchers had a general idea within a mile or two of where bear 4003's den is this winter. To locate it exactly took several hours Thursday as Garshelis walked around the snowy woods with a telemetry device. The antenna picked up beeps from bear 4003's collar, but the direction was often misleading.

Once the researchers tracked the beeps to a den located under the root ball of a downed spruce tree, the process of extricating the sleeping animals began.

Garshelis and Noyce scraped the snow away from the den opening and covered the hole with a black cloth to avoid startling the bears. They saw that the mother bear was blocking access to the cubs, so Garshelis attached a syringe loaded with Tilazol anesthetic to a long stick and put bear 4003 under.

The researchers explained that the den would be clean because bears don't produce any waste while they are hibernating. Consequently, the den smelled only of the dry leaves in the bears' bed.

After a wait of about 15 minutes, the mother bear was unconscious, and Garshelis was able to crawl into the den and anesthetize the three yearling cubs.

Cub mortality

Although last year's BHS environmental science class cuddled four newborn cubs, only three made it to their first birthday. Noyce, who has been in the bear study since 1981, said the infant death rate is about 10-15 percent in the first year. And, because bears are legally hunted in Minnesota, they are often shot in their second or third years. However, she said, some bears that learn to avoid hunters can live for decades. Her oldest bear, which is still living, is a 31-year-old female. This bear had her last litter of cubs when she was 26.

Field work

With the bears unconscious and laid out on foam mattresses, eyes covered to prevent light damage, the researches began logging their data. Students helped fill in the forms for size and weight measurements, temperatures, heart rates, fat reserves and other life signs.

As Garshelis fitted a new radio collar on bear 4003, Noyce took blood and hair samples from the cubs. She said isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the hair would indicate whether the bears were eating crops or wild plants. She also attached red identification ear tags to the cubs.

For weighing, bear 4003 was bundled into a net and suspended from a scale strung up on a balsam sapling and hoisted by volunteers. She weighed 175 pounds.

"This is the most beautiful bear I've ever handled," Noyce said. "Her gold face is really striking."

The male cubs weighed 65 and 57 pounds and the female weighed 43 pounds.

"No injury that we saw - nice healthy cubs," Noyce said.

She said the biggest yearling they ever measured weighed 131 pounds. Yearlings less than 20 pounds never survive, she said.

Back to the den

After their examinations, Noyce and Garshelis placed the bears back in their den to sleep off the anesthetic. The bears will wake up for the summer sometime next month, they said.

The researchers said the yearlings will be on their own soon after emerging from the den. Their mother will mate again in May and produce another litter of cubs next winter.

"I'm just really thankful to the DNR to do this (for students) because I know it would be a lot easier without all these eyes and ears," VanWilgen-Hammitt said of the project.

She said she uses outdoor labs such as the bear project for her classes as much as possible. They usually work outside several days a week. Because many of the students who elect to take the environmental science course are interesting in hunting, fishing and the outdoors, she said seeing DNR specialists doing research sometimes sparks an interest in careers as naturalists.