spring. The temperature will get close to 70 today, so the 250-pound sow will be alert and could become agitated if disturbed.
The half-mile hike to the site takes us into the middle of a recent timber harvest. Piles of slash – left-over tree tops and limbs – dot the landscape. The pings from the directional antenna grow louder and more frequent and we spy the den – a cozy cavity of dry leaves and branches in a slash pile.
Jeff is first to stealthily approach the den and peer cautiously inside, hoping for a glimpse of cubs. The sow is 17 years old, the oldest documented in Missouri. She is cinnamon-colored, which is a rarity here. Jeff creeps back to the group and offers us each an opportunity to tiptoe up for a look inside the den. I get within 20 feet or so, close enough to see that the sow has her back to the den’s opening. She knows I am there and sleepily cranes her neck to get a look at me. Just then a cub’s head emerges behind the sow’s abdomen. The little guy is testing the air with his short, brown nose. After it drops back out of sight I hear the high-pitched half purr, half chuckle of nursing cubs. It’s impossible to be sure, but to me it sounds like more than two.
After everyone has had a close-up look at the den and glimpses of its inhabitants, Jeff creeps right up to the entrance to check on the collar and see if he can count the cubs visually. This apparently is a little too close. The sow suddenly lurches in her den and utters a sharp “WOOF!” to let Jeff know he is at the edge of her comfort zone. Even at a safe distance, I flinch at this gruff warning. Jeff, on the other hand, remains calmly hunkered down at the den entrance. He has too much respect for these animals to think he is a bear whisperer, but he knows enough to tell the difference between a warning and a serious threat.
The shift of position enables Jeff to get a good look at the sow’s collar, which, sadly, is still a good fit. So our encounter ends early and uneventfully. Turkeys are gobbling on a nearby ridge as we make out way back to the truck. It’s only mid-morning, and I ask Jeff what he will do for the rest of the day.
“Oh, go back to the office, I guess,” he says, his voice betraying more than a little regret. When a day starts with being close to one of North America’s largest furbearers, it’s impossible not to feel let down at the prospect of sitting in front of a computer. But knowing that this particular black bear is out there raising another generation of Missouri bears is some consolation.