Cool, damp spring gave bears an edge over biologists

Posted July 29, 2011, at 7:29 p.m.
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Randy Cross poses with Tank, a 342-pound black bear, that was sedated and released unharmed as part of the state's ongoing research project on black bears.
Courtesy of Lisa Bates | Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Randy Cross poses with Tank, a 342-pound black bear, that was sedated and released unharmed as part of the state's ongoing research project on black bears.
Wildlife biologist Randy Cross holds a syringe pole as Tank, a 342-pound black bear, begins a charge toward the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist during the DIF&W's spring trapping season. Tank was successfully sedated and released unharmed as part of the state's ongoing research project on black bears.
Courtesy of Lisa Bates | Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Wildlife biologist Randy Cross holds a syringe pole as Tank, a 342-pound black bear, begins a charge toward the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist during the DIF&W's spring trapping season. Tank was successfully sedated and released unharmed as part of the state's ongoing research project on black bears.

In Randy Cross’ world, some days you beat the bears. You snare two or three, fit them with radio or GPS collars, take some other measurements and send them on their way. Life is good.

And some days, despite your best effort to enlist new bruins into the state’s ongoing research project, the bears beat you.

Cross, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist and the research project’s field crew leader, admits that during this spring’s snaring season, the bears confounded his team’s best efforts on a regular basis.

“It was painful to go through,” Cross said with a chuckle earlier this week. “The last 20 days of our trapping was just really slow. We made 27 captures, which doesn’t sound too bad, maybe, to some people, but we expect to average two bears a day out of that study area.”

Cross and six crew members spent 40 days in May and June trapping near Howland in one of three of the state’s study areas. The goal: Gather data that can be used to recalculate the population density in the study area, which will be used to extrapolate density figures for a portion of the state that the study area best represents.

Cross has been trapping bears for a long time and has become quite efficient. But there are times when the bears simply hold an advantage that is difficult to overcome, he said.

This was one of those times.

May and June were cool and damp, which led to an abundance of vegetation that the bears love to eat. And when natural food is plentiful, the bears are less apt to seek a free lunch, Cross said.

“When they’re not hungry they’re not willing to take the risk that they know is associated with human activity, and they’re not willing to play the game with us so we can’t catch them no matter how good we are,” Cross said. “If they don’t come to our baits, we don’t have any chance of catching them.”

Cross said the capture of 54 bears over 40 days was the lowest success rate the crew has had in at least 10 years. In all, 37 different bears were captured, including 10 that were new to the study.

Cross said that typically it’s easier to catch a bear for the first time than it is to catch it on subsequent occasions.

“Those ones that have some experience with snaring are a lot harder to catch than the ones that have never been down that road and never experienced that, being tied to a tree,” Cross said.

Even so, there are times when the field crew’s efforts pay off on bears that should know better.

“Every so often you’re going to catch a bear that you should never catch, a bear that could set the snare for you,” Cross said. “Of course, it makes you feel like you’re quite a trapper whenever you do that, but I personally feel like there’s a lot of luck involved in those types of captures.”

Cross said the lower-than-normal success rate of the crew (or, if you prefer, the higher-than-normal success rate of the bears) grew a bit tedious at times.

“We’re typically working 13-, 14-hour days in a lot of uncomfortable conditions, between the bugs and the heat. There’s different forms of misery, but you have rain, too,” Cross said. “But it’s easy enough for everyone who’s really obsessed with this when you get into it. Even when you’re doing a six-bear week, which is a real poor week, each one of those bears becomes a little more of a victory.”

A few of the victories: Cross and crew succeeded in capturing 14 of the 23 females known to inhabit the area that they trapped, and they also caught two male bears that weighed in at more than 300 pounds.

One was a 342-pounder the crew refers to as Tank, and another was a 352-pounder they call Kimbo.

“Those are special bears when you get one like that,” Cross said.

To provide a little context, while a 300-pounder is quite large, the bears that the crew caught will do nothing but grow even bigger until they go into their dens in the fall.

“We’re seeing them right at the lightest they’re going to be. Their six months [of hibernation] starts and ends well before we catch them, but they continue to lose weight after they come out of the den,” Cross said. “We see most of these bears that we catch in the spring are close to 200 pounds heavier by late fall.”

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