TOWNSHIP 11 RANGE 8, Maine — “I can smell the bear,” whispered Lisa Bates, placing her index finger to the side of her nose.
Crouched by a hollow spruce on Tuesday afternoon, Bates scooped snow away from the tree trunk until she found an opening — the entrance to Lugnut’s winter den.
Of the estimated 31,000 black bears in Maine, Lugnut became famous last January when the nonprofit Wildlife Research Foundation — founded by brothers and Maine registered guides Bert and Hank Goodman — placed a live-streaming video camera inside the mother bear’s winter den. Five days later, she gave birth to two cubs, and for the following three months, the hibernating bears were broadcast on the Internet.
Approximately 280,000 people worldwide followed the bear family through the winter, including 150,000 Maine residents and 10,000 people living in Japan. But viewers had to say goodbye to Lugnut and her cubs in April, when the bears left the den for a summer of foraging in the northern Maine woods.
Fortunately for fans, that wasn’t the end of Lugnut’s relationship with mankind.
On Tuesday, the “Bear Crew,” a group of biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, tracked down Lugnut at her new winter den, which is located about 4 miles north of last year’s den and 20 miles north of Ashland, as the snowmobile flies.
How’d they track her down?
Since Lugnut’s birth in 2004, she has been an unwitting participant of the DIF&W’s Maine black bear monitoring program, a project that began in 1975 to gather data regarding the status of Maine’s bear population. Each winter, the Bear Crew finds Lugnut — along with 80-100 other female bears — using signals emitted from tracking collars.
The 2013 Bear Crew is led by Randy Cross, who over the past 30 years has handled Maine’s black bears an estimated 6,000 times. Working under Cross is Bates (whom he nicknamed “Kid”), John Wood (“Lobster”) and Phillip Adams (“Griz”). Cross also nicknames the collared bears. Practically, it’s easier for him to remember a name than an ID number. For example, Lugnut is the daughter of a bear he calls Hubcap.
“Some of the bears we have are the seventh generation in a family we began tracking in 1975,” Cross said. “You really get to know their family lines.”
A female black bear typically gives birth to a litter once every other year, and her cubs stay with her for 15-16 months, if they survive. Each newborn black bear has a 25-30 percent chance of dying within its first year of life, according to Cross.
“Cub survival is one of the most important variables we’re able to estimate based on this den work through yearling counts,” said Cross, referring to bears who live to be one year old.
Before heading out to Lugnut’s den, Cross prepared his crew for the possibility that Lugnut’s two baby bears — the tumbling fur balls that brightened the moods of so many viewers — may not have survived the summer.
“[Lugnut] could be in there alone,” he had said. “We don’t know what we’re up against today.”
It was Cross and his crew who helped the Goodmans install the camera in Lugnut’s den in 2012.
“It was bold,” said Cross. “I was really impressed that they wanted to raise money for wildlife research.”
Despite Lugnut’s popularity, public donations didn’t cover project expenses. In the end, the Goodmans contributed approximately $30,000 out of their own pockets to keep the camera running for viewers. Therefore, the foundation didn’t have the funding to continue the project this winter. Yet they’re currently working to find funding for their next project.
“If we could secure the funding before the end of fall this year, we could put the live cam back up on the Internet,” said James Cote, a consultant the Goodmans recently hired from Farmington. “We’d like to go back up with that project, and they’re exploring a menu of other opportunity for wildlife research projects.”
Back at Lugnut’s den, Bates shined a flashlight into an opening — just big enough to fit a hand through — and illuminated a patch of thick black fur. Lugnut.
The team worked with boot, ax and branch to chip away the wall of frozen leaves and mulch that the bear had used to block the entrance after entering the den in October. They needed the hole large enough for Bates to fit inside.
Bates crawled into her first bear den in 2008, and now she’s the team’s “mole” — the person who wriggles into small dens and tranquilizes the bears — the mother with a syringe at the end of a pole and the yearlings by hand. Newborns aren’t drugged, simply scooped up and tucked inside a coat until all the information is gathered and the bears can be tucked back inside the den.
“It’s quite a challenge to overcome claustrophobia,” Bates said.
So why does she do it?
“They’re just really incredible animals. They’re fascinating,” Bates said. “They have really amazing behavior and physical capabilities. They’re like all-time athletes of the woods. And they’re phenomenal mothers. Just everything about them is really incredible, so I’m just obsessed with them, I guess.”
For example, when a black bear tucks away for winter, its body goes into a special state to conserve energy. Its body temperature drops. Its heart slows. It doesn’t eat or defecate for 6 months. Yet the bear is acutely aware of what’s going on around it. Not only can it wake up, it gives birth during hibernation. That’s why the team wears wool clothing and wooden snowshoes to minimize unnatural noises that might alert bears.
“No other animal hibernates like a bear,” Cross said. “That’s why there’s a debate over whether it’s even hibernation.”
Squirming forward on her stomach, Bates eased into the hole with her pole and tranquilizer. Lugnut turned her large head toward Bates and blew out air with a whoosh.
“Black bears blow at you, they don’t really roar much like you see on TV,” Bates explained.
“You’ve got to respect the bears and you have to know what you can and can’t do,” said Cross. “You always put a flashlight around a corner [of a den] before you put your face out there.”
It took the better part of an hour for Bates to ease Lugnut to sleep and for the team to haul the 158-pound bear out of the small hole. And she wasn’t alone.
As the team laid Lugnut on a sleeping bag, Bates dove back into the den.
One of Lugnut’s two cubs had survived to hibernate with his mother for a second winter. Successfully tranquilized, the yearling was also pulled from the den and weighed in at 31 pounds.
“We are able to measure the relative quality of the 6-month feeding season based on the weight of the yearlings,” said Cross, who says that 31 pounds indicates that last summer wasn’t a good feeding season. Other yearlings they have weighed this year tell the same tale. In contrast, last winter’s yearlings weighed in at 50-70 pounds, indicating a good feeding season.
Quietly and quickly, the crew worked together measure both bears and note any scars or characteristics. The healthy yearling, with lush black fur and a grizzled chin, was entered into the bear study database as bear 0-194, a number that is displayed on his new ear tags and fresh tattoo on his inner upper lip.
“She looks really good,” commented Bates as they examined Lugnut’s teeth and ran fingers through her thick coat to check for injuries.
In the spring, Lugnut and her son will part ways. And next winter, she might give birth to another litter.
After fitting both bears back inside the small den, Wood and Adams laid Lugnut’s head on a pillow of spruce boughs, which is pretty much what a black bear smells like — evergreen combined with something warm and earthy.
Lugnut’s deep, steady breathing could be heard as the team snowshoed away.
For information about the Goodman’s Wildlife Research Foundation, visit wildliferesearchfoundation.org. To learn about the Maine black bear monitoring program, visit maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/species/bear/BlackBearMonitoringProgram.htm.
In a previous version of this story, a photo caption incorrectly identified Lisa Bates as a Bear Crew volunteer.