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A bear's life -- spring to hibernation

The four basic requirements of wildlife, not to mention our own, are food, water, shelter and space. If any of the elements of survival are missing, then the ability to exist is not possible. It is no different for the American black bear.

Right now, throughout Minnesota's forests, any given black bear is on a feeding binge. Bears need to gain as much weight as possible from now until den-up. Hazel nuts, acorns, berries and fruits of all kinds, tubers, roots, herbs, grasses and sedges are just some of the many items on a black bear's menu. And though the diet of black bears is primarily plant material -- up to 85-percent -- bears won't snub animal protein in the form of ants, grubs, bee larvae, beetles, fish, small mammals, white-tailed deer fawns and even carrion.

One such bear, an old male, lives right here in the Northwoods. Let's follow along behind this mature male black bear, or boar as he is also called, as he emerges from his deep winter slumber within the cedar swamp he's sought refuge in for many years. It's part of his breeding territory, or home range, that encompasses nearly 100 square miles.

On a warm spring day in mid-March 2008 he crawled out from the tangled root mass of a prostrate old cedar tree. Years ago, in the summer wind storm of 1995 that flattened towering pines, spruce and fir, aspen and even a few shallow rooted cedar in a great swath across parts of Hubbard and Clearwater counties, one giant cedar could resist the winds no more. Several months earlier, the boar cub was born 10 miles southwest on a cold January day underneath a white spruce root-mound at the edge of a tamarack swamp.

The old cedar tree fell to the ground on that fateful July morning of 1995, its roots pulling with it large chunks of earth and rock and leaving behind a crater where the soil once supported the tree vertically. When the boar -- old and wise at 13 years old today -- was almost 3, he literally stumbled into the ideal den site while hopelessly chasing a half-white snowshoe hare in the late fall of '97.

As the young clown-of-a-bear followed aggressively behind the fleeing hare, he suddenly tumbled into the root cavity in a heap of tired muscle and fur. After being foiled by the hare's escape route, the bear walloped one of the cedar's roots in disgust. To add to the bear's misfortune, the root, which still had the springiness of a newly strung bow, slapped him harshly on the tip of his nose, causing him to bawl loudly in pain.

But the old boar gave up chasing hares long ago. He learned that expending energy on such small meals was not worth the effort, especially as he grew to such immense proportions. At more than 500 pounds and counting, he simply was unable to maneuver like he could in his youth.

Even so, the old bruin could still run 30 miles per hour if he had to. After all, it was just last September when he got lucky and caught a four-month old fawn. Not only did he employ the stealth of a seasoned hunter, he needed to be fleet of foot and have a burst of incredible speed to close the gap between him and the deer.

When the sting of the cedar's smack against his tender nose finally subsided, the young boar began to take solace in the comfortable depression he regrettably found himself inside. Exhausted from the pursuit, he fell asleep, hungry, but content nonetheless. He awoke an hour later, but made a mental note of the deep hollow in the ground, below the uprooted cedar tree, at the edge of the swamp. It sort of reminded him of his natal den, and he liked it.

That was a long time ago. The cedar swamp, from that ill-fated day forward, became the old boar's winter domain. But why it hadn't already been claimed by another bruin is any bear's guess; still, over the years other male bears ambled through the cedar sanctuary only to discover a great bear had made the swamp his own.

Subordinate male bears knew this, or those that didn't soon did. Upon evaluation of both scent and sign, other bears quickly learned of his telltale presence. No other bear smelt as foul or could reach as high on the "mark" trees as he.

Standing at full stature on his hind legs and reaching as high as he could, the old boar could scratch and claw a cedar tree nearly 10 feet up with the long claws of his front pads. And though he knew he was the biggest bear in the woods, from time to time he'd stand on a root or other handy debris so he could reach even higher. He's a smart bear, to be sure. For effect, he'd also bite deeply into his mark trees to visually demonstrate to would-be challengers the width between his impressive canines.

The old boar, now an aged and haggard 13 in March 2008, crawled out from his tried and true winter den in awful shape. Two successive year's worth of drought and meager natural foods had nearly killed him. In the autumns of both 2006 and 2007 he stayed active into the second weeks of November, foraging on what he could find. If it wasn't for the gut piles he found from human harvested deer scattered throughout the woods, he might not have made it through either winter.

But make it he did, though the mild wintertime temperatures of '07-'08, coupled with extreme weight-loss (well over 40 percent of his autumn bulk), were probably what aroused him earlier this past March than he normally would have awakened. He simply had to find something to eat . . .

Next week, the old boar continues his life in the Northwoods.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at