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Oregon’s Bear Tracking Program

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Where Sleeping Bears Lie

Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, Dave Immell, has been gathering ‘bear facts’ for over sixteen years.  He is the lead supervisor for Oregon’s “Bear Den Project” and works tirelessly to gather information for the betterment of Ursus Americanus.  Upon learning about the existence of this program from ODF&W biologist Clayton Barber, I telephoned Mr. Immell and he agreed to let me tag along on a field outing.  On March 3, 2005 I accompanied Dave and two other wildlife biologists, Jacob Kercher and Zach Turnbull, on a trek into the forests of Oregon’s Cascade Mountain Range.

The Cascades extend throughout Washington, Oregon and northern California.  Some mountains in this volcanic chain have elevations stretching from 9,000 to over 14,000 feet.  Its tallest peaks are recognizable across America and around the globe.  Most common among these are Washington State’s -Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, Oregon’s – Mt. Hood and northern California’s – Mt. Shasta.  The general topography of the Cascade’s will vary from 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.

Our destination that morning was a mountainside about forty miles northeast of Roseburg.  During the drive from his office, Dave explained how they go about locating a sleeping bear within this enormous geographical area.  With a topographical map in hand, an ODF&W employee rides shotgun in a helicopter.  The pilot flies over the general area in which a bear had been released wearing a transmitter affixed to a sturdy collar.  Each transmitter is programmed with a broadcast signal assigned to an individual bear.  Using receiving equipment, a biologist waits for a signal and directs the pilot’s movements until the animal is pinpointed.  The biologist simply marks the bear’s location on the map.  On the ground, Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management roadways are utilized to drive as close as possible to the den site.  Using this technique, anyone possessing the map and an appropriate receiver, should be able to find that particular bear and its den.

Upon our arrival on the mountain, Dave dawned the portable tracking equipment and quickly located a signal.  The men determined our best approach, and off we went.  Walking cross-country in the Cascades is difficult.  The terrain is rocky, steep and laden with fallen timber.  Thankfully the bear’s den was relatively close to our starting point.  It took only an hour to reach the site.  But, naturally, we were forced to hike up and over several ridges in our journey down the mountainside.  The forest in this area is comprised of fifty to one hundred-year-old Douglas fir trees.  This was one of the driest and warmest winters on record in Oregon, so although there was no snow to contend with, we were forced to make our way through some islands of heavy brush.

Dave, Zach and Jacob could easily have a second career as tightrope walkers in the circus.  Rather than slide and slip to the bottom of deep ravines, they high-wired across them by walking on the trunks of fallen trees.  I was dumbfounded to watch Dave as he crossed these logs, some of them thirty or more feet above the ground.  He was wearing earphones, carrying a chest pack containing the receiver, holding an antenna above his head with one hand and concentrating on the directional meter he held in his opposite hand.  Jacob and Zach, both aged in their mid-twenties, ran from one end of these logs to the other, and then leapt off onto the nearly vertical slopes of the ravines.  I held my breath and teetered along, praising my good fortune when I reached the earth some 50 to 100 feet from where I started.  

Ultimately we located the den site.  With no previous invitations to the winter home of a black bear, I’m not sure what I had expected.  I knew it would not be a two-story condo in the wilderness, but I was somewhat surprised at the rudimentary nature of its choice for such a long nap.  The bear’s den was found under a fallen tree, on the upper edge of a deep gully.  The tree was quite large, possibly 42″ to 48″ in diameter.  Covered with moss, salal and ferns, it was obvious this old-growth fir tree had met its fate many years prior to our arrival.

The wad of upturned roots was still firmly attached to the base of the tree’s trunk.  Just in front of this root-wad, moving toward the top of the tree, the bear had dug under the log.  Belying the size of its animal creator, the entrance to the open space under the log was no more than an eighteen-inch oval.  Dirt was pushed upward against the log for approximately six to seven feet down its length.  On the opposite end of this earthen/log structure was an elongated opening only one-foot high and two-feet wide. 

One of the men hurriedly removed his backpack and lodged it into the entrance at the root-wad.  From the opposing end, Dave shone the beam of a flashlight inside the pitch darkness of the den.  Peering over his shoulder I could see the movement of black hair only inches from Dave’s hand.  Fighting an initial reaction to back away, I was fascinated to be no more than three feet from an adult bear, who was very much awake and aware of our presence.  Straining to see further into the dark recesses of the den, I moved in closer.  Suddenly a small nose, muzzle and face appeared within our view.  Thrilled beyond description, I knew there was an adult female and at least one yearling cub inside the den.  Both exits were blocked with backpacks and the biologists set about preparing injections, which would safely immobilize the bears.  I attached my video camera to a tripod and began filming.

Dave told me this sow had been wearing a tracking collar for over ten years.  Her health and status as a mother had been checked in each of the previous nine winters.  In 2004 they discovered she had given birth to two healthy female cubs.  The men had hoped to find both cubs with her on this visit in 2005.  Dave explained the missing cub was more than likely killed by another bear or maybe even a cougar.  There were other possibilities; she may be alone in a different den, she could have been struck by an automobile or died from some other mishap or accident.  But, the single highest cause of death for black bear cubs is being killed by an adult male bear, perhaps even their own father.  Male bears will sometimes kill cubs hoping the female will then become amenable to breeding.  But generally, they kill cubs in order to consume them. 

Chemicals were carefully measured and placed into syringes.  The syringe tubes are affixed to long poles enabling biologists to reach into the den.  The cub was injected first and was quickly napping peacefully.

Attempting to get a fix on the female’s location, Dave removed the backpack on the root-wad end of the den.  In order to look inside, he had to lay prone and push a flashlight forward into the tiny cavern.  Just as he got into position the adult female decided it was time to leave!  In spite of Dave’s presence in the small oval exit, she lowered her head and charged forward.  Dave scurried backward to get out of her way, slamming to a stop with his back against the root-wad.  Mother bear turned to her right and ran a short distance into the brush.  I was standing only a few feet from Dave.  When the bear was out of sight he turned to me with a wide grin on his face and said, “Well now.  That was a bit of a surprise.  I guess she isn’t sticking around for the show.”

Zach was able to pull the forty-pound cub from the den only ten minutes after the injection had been administered.  He carefully laid the forty-pound cub on a folded tarp.  Within seconds, Jacob placed a salve on the tiny bear’s eyes in order to prevent dryness and to make it more comfortable.

At this point all three men were busy with well-practiced tasks.  Dave removed a collar and transmitter from his pack and set about placing it on the cub.  Zach retrieved a journal of sorts, making required entries related to the morning’s events.  Jacob completed a form where he noted the frequency of the collar’s transmitter and other necessary data.  Assisting one another, Zach and Jacob affixed identifying tags to the bear’s ears.  For these men, it was just another day at the office. 

Its mother did not abandon this youngster.  Throughout the fifteen to twenty minutes we spent with the cub, the sow was never far away.  Dave kept track of her with the receiver, which showed she moved back and forth in a half-moon pattern on the mountainside above us.  It was a bit eerie hearing her move through the brush no more than fifty yards from our position.  For me, her presence simply added to the excitement.

Without transmitting collars, bear’s movements are invisible throughout their habitat.  There are over one-dozen bears wearing tracking collars within this general study area.  Dave told me this cub would be located and visited once a year.  Potentially, the cub would be visited every winter for the remainder of its life.  Critical information gleaned by this project, is simply impossible to gather by any other means.  The biologists will know at what age she first has cubs of her own.  They will know the age, sex and mortality rate of her offspring.  Knowing how far bears travel from their place of birth is critical to determining their need for space. 

Bears are solitary creatures, primarily living within a loosely defined geographical location.  Their intrusions into the home range of another bruin can be lethal.  Now, in the 21st Century, available space is limited for all wild animals.  Knowing the number of bears which can coexist in a specific region is crucial to the determination of hunting seasons, timber harvests, certain recreational activities and a myriad of other wildlife related issues.  Dave Immell believes continuation of this “bear den project” is critical to evaluating the over all health of Oregon’s wild places.

With the collar in place and all required data collected, Zach returned the cub to the den.  It had begun stirring to consciousness while lying on the tarp.  Equipment was gathered and we began our uphill climb to the forest service road.  I felt exhilarated and privileged to have shared in this important endeavor.  I came away with a much better understanding of the need for wildlife research. 

I could not have been in better company.  These three biologists truly enjoy their chosen profession, and believe me; they know how to have fun.  I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to participate in this trip to “where sleeping bears lie.”

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March 19, 2008 - Posted by | Bears, Cats and Claws, Hunting Stuff

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