This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wild Bears Thriving in Massachusetts

I LOVE STORIES LIKE THESE. It seems amazing that we were down to about 100 bears in 1970 here in Massachusetts, and now we have 3000-3500. I think that's the best news I heard all week! The annual bear census, undertaken by Massachusetts Fish and Game, was held last week. Here's the story from the Boston Globe. I've never had an enocunter with a bear-- unless one can count the time we were hiking Mt Chocorua in New Hampshire during hunting season, and a bunch of hunters were heading off the mountain with a dead bear-- which more or less made me sick...nice to know their numbers are rebounding. Here's the story:

Making house calls to count state's bears

Making house calls to count state's bears
Comeback may be result of proximity to humans
By Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff February 22, 2008
RUTLAND - Dave Fuller is not your typical clipboard-carrying census taker.
When he tromped out to a little home in the snowy woods yesterday, Fuller toted a 10-foot pole with a tranquilizer-laden dart on the end. He was flanked by two colleagues brandishing rifles. Once he calmed down the head of one household, Fuller and his colleagues made a happy discovery: month-old triplets, who were duly counted, weighed, registered as two boys and a girl, and determined, along with Mom, to be in fine health.
All the precautions were necessary because the mother, in this case, was truly a Mama Bear type, officially given the less-than-poetic name Worcester County Bear by state wildlife biologists who each winter since 1970 have conducted the state's annual bear census.
One of 13 Bay State mother bears that wildlife workers have tagged with collars that emit radio signals, the Rutland bear, estimated to be 5 to 7 years old, is a key participant in the survey through which officials track the health, growth, and geographical spread of the local black bear population.
Their numbers dwindled in Massachusetts to barely 100 by 1970, as a result of aggressive hunting, residential and commercial development, and highway construction that broke up their natural forest habitat.
Today, officials with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit estimate that the state has 3,000 to 3,500 bears, almost all in Worcester County and Western Massachusetts. A few occasionally appear in Essex County.
This week, officials are about halfway through the process of trying to track down all 13 collared bear sows to determine how many cubs they have produced this winter. They use both high-tech signal receivers and low-tech trudging through woods and up mountains to dens. In Massachusetts, bear dens are usually cozy spaces under fallen trees, like the Rutland bear mother's home in a little stand of laurel under a toppled red oak and maple.
Joining the wildlife specialists for the sedation and inspection operation yesterday was the state's top environmental official, Ian A. Bowles. He sent his aides waiting on the edge of the woods near Route 68 a quick confirmation, using his Blackberry device, when it was safe to enter: "Dart is in. Good action." Bowles later got the honor of hoisting each of the three cubs into a MassWildlife ski hat suspended from a scale and calling out their weights. All were within a few ounces of 5 pounds.
Bears, like bald eagles and osprey, have bounced back in Massachusetts, thanks to human help. But while it was the banning of egg-destroying pesticides that restored the eagles and construction of nesting platforms that helped the osprey, it is humans unwittingly providing a food supply that has most helped the bears, officials said.
Jim Cardoza, a 38-year MassWildlife veteran and leader of its bear research programs, said the biggest factor in the 30-fold increase in bears since 1970 is construction of new houses in rural areas that bring birdfeeders, compost piles, and garbage cans, along with corn and other crops grown on farms. "They can get nutrition in ways that they couldn't get it before," Cardoza said. "In some ways, I'm not sure this is good for them."
The Rutland bear, who sometime in the last year chewed the antenna off her radio collar, reducing the distance its signal carries, has been eating well. As she dozed yesterday, five MassWildlife staff members rolled her into a net and suspended it from a scale attached to a hastily-chopped maple limb. They determined that she has gained 16 pounds in the last year and now weighs 176 pounds.
"If they go into the den fat, that means more cubs on the other end," said Cardoza, adding that researchers see more and more 3-year-old sows birthing litters, a year sooner than they did in the past.
Getting briefly stunned and handled by humans, as the mother and cubs in Rutland were, does not harm bears, officials said. They put an antibiotic ointment on the mother's eyes, to protect them during the typically two to three hours she is not blinking while sedated, and workers are careful to snuggle the cubs inside their coats before and after weighing and checking them, to keep them warm. "We've never had any ill effects from it," said Ralph Taylor, a MassWildlife district manager.
Fuller and the other employees were careful to put the mother and cubs back into the den in the same position they found them, in hope that the mother bear would wake up and never know what hit - or, at least, fondled - them.
"Most of the time, though," Taylor said, "I do think they wake up and wonder what the heck happened."
Peter J. Howe can be reached at


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