LAGRANGE, Maine — As a chilly winter wind whips across the bog, Randy Cross and his crew gather near their snowmobiles and plan their approach to a black bear den nearby.
This game is old hat to Cross, a wildlife biologist who has been studying the state’s bears for 35 years. During that time, he estimates he has visited more than 2,000 bear dens during the winter and worked with 103 different colleagues.
But the word “colleague” doesn’t really work, Cross explains.
For three months each winter, the four members of the bear crew are nearly inseparable, often sleeping in remote cabins close to the study area where they’re working.
Calling the crew “family” is not much of a stretch, Cross points out.
“Part of that is we live together. We spend 13 weeks never farther apart from each other than this,” he says, gesturing at the other Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife employees huddled around him. “We sleep on the floor of camp together, so [we’re] kind of in a forced marriage.”
Then Cross pauses and smiles at the crew he hand-picked.
“And I think because I came from a really close family, it’s natural for me to try to adopt everyone around me and treat ‘em like they’re family,” he says. “That’s the kind of loyalty we end up getting in the end. Everybody supports everybody. When we have perfect harmony on the crew, everything goes well.”
One problem: Everything doesn’t always go well, no matter how well-trained or loyal the crew may be.
Cross knows that. Two of the family members, Lisa “Kid” Bates and Jake “Jumper” Feener, learned that by working with their boss for several years. (Everyone has a nickname on a Cross-led crew.)
Their fourth, Ethan “Roach” Lamb, is quickly learning that the best-laid plan may need on-the-fly alterations.
But on this chilly day, on this expansive bog, in search of a single mother bear and her three yearling offspring, Cross wouldn’t trade this group for anything.
“We’ve got a lot of good biologists in the department, but this is really boot camp for field biologists,” he confides. “We’re outside every day for 12 or 13 weeks every winter. It’s pretty extreme. … And we’re collecting data in the woods of Maine to help manage these bears.”
So come along for a day. Hop on a snowmobile. Strap on snowshoes. Visit the state’s bear dens, where you’ll encounter angry mothers, rambunctious yearlings that can, if they choose, ruin your day — and painfully cute cubs.
Each den can offer the unexpected. Each day is guarantees adventure.
Welcome to the bear crew.
Depending on each other
On a four-person bear crew, one person crawls into the bear den to sedate the mother bear while the three others wait for fleeing offspring.
The excited yearlings may make a run for it — yes, that happens quite often — and a couple of the crew members will become runners, chasing after the bears and trying to sedate them with hand syringes.
The end goal? Subdue the mother bear and her cubs — or yearlings, if the mother bear gave birth a year ago — and gather important data that will aid biologists in their long-term research of the state’s bear herd.
By visiting more than 100 dens of female bears that have been fitted with radio collars and can be tracked in the wild, the crew can record how many cubs each bear produces and how many survive until they are a year old. They also weigh the bears and obtain biological samples that can be tested.
On this day, the crew stealthily approaches a piece of higher land in the middle of the bog, which stretches 2 miles in one direction and 1½ miles in the other.
This will be an interesting den, Cross says. The collar of a bear nicknamed “Dee” has been located, and the biologist expects to find the 9-year-old female in a ground nest — similar to a huge bird’s nest — with three yearling cubs that may weigh 50 or 60 pounds.
“No walls, no ceiling,” Cross explains. “So no matter which way we come at this ground nest, they can run straight away from us.”
The myth: Bears are sound asleep when they’re in their dens. The truth, according to Cross: The bears will know the crew is there as soon as they shut off their snowmobiles.
Bates carries an antenna that allows the crew to find the collar signal. Feener and Lamb carry backpacks and put tranquilizer darts in their rifles. Cross carries a long pole, also fitted with a syringe and sedative.
Two of the yearlings are female, and if caught they’ll be fitted with collars of their own.
Capturing the bears can sometimes get a little gory for the crew, however.
Cross’s forearms are crisscrossed with scars, most of them inflicted by rowdy yearlings he was trying to hold down and stick with a hand syringe.
Cross hasn’t bled on the job for four years, he says. But who knows what will happen on any given den visit.
None of those scars required stitches for a simple reason: The crew was too deep in the woods.
“I always had stuff to do,” Cross says with a laugh. “You heal up, you know. It’s not like I’m going to bleed out or something. It might look like it for awhile, but it’s all right. It’s just scratches.”
After deploying the riflemen on each wing and approaching the den from downwind, Cross and Bates gloomily find that Dee’s yearlings won’t be running this time.
There’s no ground nest.
The radio signal still emanates from beneath a flat expanse of crusty ice and a layer of snow.
After some prodding with a metal pole, Lamb hits something solid.
It’s a bone. First, a femur. Then, a hip.
Cross examines it. “Yup. That’s a bear,” he says, sadly. “That’s a bear.”
After an hour of searching, the crew finds the collar about 10 feet away from the bones. Cross said a larger male bear may have killed Dee or a hunter may have wounded her. Either way, the day’s discovery is a rare one.
“We have 120 to 125 females [in the study group] each hunting season, and we see a potential ‘crippling loss’ like this once every three years,” he says. “It’s less than 1 in 300 [bears] that we’ve seen. So it’s rare.”
And though Cross wishes he’d been able to fit collars on the female yearlings, he said they’d have been mature enough to fend for themselves after Dee died, as long as a large male bear wasn’t targeting them, too.
“We might see them again,” Cross says. “We sometimes do.”
What do you learn?
Bates has been through plenty during her eight years on the bear crew. One year it got so cold that her toes became frostbitten. She lost four toenails in that incident — two on each foot.
She’s often “the mole” and has crawled into hundreds of dens, coming face to face — in the dark — with anxious mother bears.
Pro tip: After the bear has been sedated, they can serve as people warmers. “You can put your arms in her armpits and warm up a little bit, reset a little bit, then get back to work,” Bates says.
And while working on a Unity College research project, she survived a harrowing helicopter crash, dragging the injured pilot to safety and hiking through the woods to get help.
“When you get older and you fly the coop, leave the nest so to speak, you go out and you establish your own community. This has become my community,” Bates says.
In July, she’ll marry fellow crew member Feener, after a romance that blossomed while chasing bears. Feener, like Lamb, patch together a series of part-time jobs in order to participate in bear work in the winter and spring.
“What brings me back?” he asks. “Well, it isn’t the pay, because they don’t pay much. It’s working for Randy and just being around him.”
Feener said of the more than 100 people who have worked on the bear crew, only two have not been college-educated. He’s one of them, and he never forgets that someone else could have his job.
“I’m very, very lucky that I’m here, and every single day, I’m thankful that I’m here, working with these people and being around these people,” Feener says. “So what have I learned from Randy? Everything. Literally everything.”
Lamb also considers himself fortunate to work with the state’s bears. He first got a look at the research during his time at the University of Maine, and thought it looked like a good time.
“Pretty much everybody thinks that. Working with a large carnivore is pretty awesome,” Lamb says. “And [Randy] has so much knowledge. … He instills confidence in the people who work for him. You trust him because he has done it.”
One lone bear
During the den season, Cross and the crew welcome plenty of visitors, showing the media, legislators and various other interested folks what happens deep in the Maine woods. On most of those trips, Cross admits, the crew knows exactly what to expect.
Last week’s trip, however, was a bit more unscripted. The crew thought Dee would be in a ground nest, but was not entirely sure.
“This is how our days really go,” Cross says after he discovers a dead bear. “You just never know.”
But visitors want to see a bear, and the crew had more than 30 other dens in the Bradford study area. A second option didn’t pan out because the bear’s collar couldn’t be detected by the antenna. Eventually, the group settled on another nearby site that a bear named “Patty” had been detected.
With Bates handling the antenna, Feener followed her hand signals to the base of a massive red maple, where he began chipping away at ice with a hatchet.
There, under the roots of the tree, was a den. Before long, he shined a flashlight into the hole he’d uncovered.
Patty was there.
There were no cubs here — Patty is too young for that — but the crew checks on every collared bear to find out how they’re faring.
“Two-year-olds usually put themselves in really small ‘security dens’ so other bears can’t get to them,” Cross explains as Feener works to extricate the sedated bear from a small cavity beneath the tree.
After a quick workup — Patty was a bit lighter than expected, at 47 pounds — Feener and Lamb nestled the bear back into the hole and put a large chunk of ice over the hole.
“This is her first den [of her own], but hopefully it’s her first of many as we visit her each winter,” Cross says.
Then the crew gathers up the gear and heads back to the sleds.
Tomorrow is another day.
Another adventure awaits.
And so, too, do the bears.