A simplified overview of a day in the life of a Pennsylvania black bear can be described as, “They can go wherever they want, whenever they want, because they can.” The description is accurate for the most part. However a disclaimer needs to be applied, in a word, it’s hibernation.
Hibernation in bears more closely resembles resting than the deep torpor characteristic of other species. During this time bears are alert and capable of fleeing or defending the den. The bear’s body temperature is not drastically reduced, but respiration and the heartrate declines some. Bears do not urinate or defecate while dormant. On warm, late-winter days, they might emerge and wander nearby. Also it is the time when sows give birth. And it’s when some high profile research takes place.
Black bear numbers have increased substantially in Pennsylvania, from an estimated population of about 4,000 in the 1970’s to around 18,000 today. The dramatic increase in the overall population provides more opportunities for wildlife watchers and sportsmen alike.
Within that same timeframe a number of management programs have and continue to be set in place relating to black bears. One program employs the use of ear tags. The tag(s) are fabricated from aluminum and has a number on it. When a PA black bear is handled for the first time, ear tags are affixed to each ear. The bear is examined, the encounter documented, and finally the bear is released.
Hunters, through the purchase of hunting licenses and bear hunting tags, pay for the research. All black bears harvested must be examined. A great deal of data continues to be extrapolated from ear tagged and radio collared black bears. Recently a number of bruins in the region were and are being tagged for yet another reason.
Today the range of black bears covers nearly every portion of the state. This increase in bear numbers and range brings with it an increase in conflicts. Bear den disturbance from construction, vehicle collisions, along with a wide range of other problems, can and are likely to occur.
One of the more high profile incidents that arises is when a cub or cubs become orphaned. Through research that began decades ago by Dr. Gary Alt, the black bear team, and dedicated Game Wardens created an ingenious and highly effective method for reintroduction of an orphaned cub to a new mother, and importantly, a receptive mother.
At first the reintroduction program yielded researchers with a situation they did not expect. When a “new” cub was left outside the den area, it was often taken in.
However, as the sow and cubs became mobile, the situation changed.
When attempting to introduce an older cub, the sow would smell the cub, realize it was not her own, and kill it.
However that situation has changed. Researchers developed a plan to fool the sow by using a common aromatic product called Vicks Vapor Rub. Here’s how it works.
Prior to introduction, when a sow and cubs are outside the den, the mother is tranquilized. The sow and cubs are checked. The next step is to apply some Vicks Vapor Rub on and around her nose. If the situation deems necessary, the “new” cub also receives a treatment of the same, only in the case the Vicks is applied to the cub’s body.
Before the effects of the Vick’s wore off the sow, the new cub has time to take on the scent of its “new” mother, and will become accepted as her own.
In January sows give birth to between one to five cubs. The newborn cubs are blind, toothless, and covered with short, fine hair that seems to inadequately cover their pink skin. Cubs begin nursing immediately after birth and are groomed and cared for daily by the sow. At birth cubs weigh about 10 ounces. By the time they leave the den they can weigh as much as 10 pounds.
Right now a number of bear tagging and research projects are taking place.
However, locally a number of sows that had been previously fitted with radio collars are being checked for adoption purposes.
Along with the black bear research team and Cameron County Game Warden Wayne Hunt, a group of individuals including my granddaughter and I observed how the bears were processed and examined.
As Game Warden Hunt explained, “If the need arises we want to have a location(s) in which an orphaned cub can be placed. Right now we have a number of dens that can be used for re-introduction. This sow and others are equipped with radio collars. This is done to enable us to locate the sows after they leave their den sites.”
Most cubs stay with the sow for a little more than a year. While doing so they watch her every move and learn by imitating her. Cubs are playful, regularly romping and wrestling with their littermates.
The sows are very protective of cubs, sending them up trees if danger threatens. The family group disbands when the cubs are about a year and a half old and the sow is again ready to breed.
It was great to watch the members of the PA Game Commission in action. It is sportsmen’s dollars at work, often done behind the scenes, to protect a resource many often take for granted.
q q q
Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net