I didn’t have to think twice when Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer emailed me last week, asking if I’d like to accompany him on a trip to Howell County. He was winding up two days of checking on denned black bears, something I had never done before.
Jeff is in the first year of a seven-year study aimed at answering some important questions, including how many bears Missouri has, where they live, how much and what kind of habitat they need, how rapidly or slowly they are multiplying, and how genetically diverse they are. The information will guide the Conservation Department’s decisions about how to ensure that bears continue to thrive in Missouri while minimizing conflicts with people.
At this time of year, Jeff’s field work consists mainly of checking on radio-collared sows to see whether and how many cubs they have with them. This also gives him a chance to check to be sure their tracking collars are neither too loose nor too tight. Adjusting a collar requires sedating the bear to refit the collar. It also creates the opportunity to count, measure, and weigh cubs (now going on three months old) and collect DNA and hair samples from the little ones so they can be identified in the future and added to the genealogy that is emerging from the collection of DNA by various means.
Much more important from my point of view, would be the chance to handle a live adult bear and her cubs. That is a thrill not many people experience. As we hiked the half mile across USDA Forest Service land to the den site, I have my fingers crossed that the sow’s collar is too loose. The other three Conservation Department workers in our party clearly share this hope.
When Jeff goes on this sort of bear hunt, he needs a few extra hands to haul gear – GPS unit, directional antenna to locate the bear’s collar, dart gun and supplies to sedate the bear if necessary, and gear for gathering biological samples. One person serves as official recorder for the event. My job as writer/photographer earns me a pass on packing duties. Our crew for the day includes Outdoor Skills Specialist Brian Flowers, and Wildlife Management Assistants Clinton Prenger and Justan Blair.
As we set out, Jeff cautions his entourage to be as quiet as possible when we get close to the den site. After all, this is the second day of 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.