Dave Garshelis has all but disappeared into the bear den. He has gone in headfirst last Saturday morning, bearing only a small flashlight, looking for a sow and her cubs in the dark world below.
Only his feet and lower legs remain visible, and they flop and flail from time to time as Garshelis, bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Grand Rapids, inches farther down the hole.
Presumably the sow and her cubs are still in a state of hibernation. That’s what Garshelis is counting on. He’s down there for several minutes, trying to discern one black, furry blob from another.
“It takes a while to see who’s who and what’s what,” Garshelis had said before his descent.
He ought to know. He has done this more than 1,000 times, he says.
The den itself, located on land owned by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is entirely nondescript. It’s little more than a subtle opening in the ground beneath a thicket of lilacs in what appears to be an old dump. Rusted portions of cars or other metal objects protrude from a gentle rise in the landscape.
Finally, Garshelis surfaces. He has found the radio-collared sow, No. 5005 in DNR research records, and her three yearlings. Garshelis knew that the sow had four cubs last year, but one apparently has died during the past year.
The den initially was located by a DNR pilot using radio telemetry while flying over the area in recent days. Garshelis homed in on the den on Saturday by walking through the woods with a telemetry receiver that pinged when it picked up transmissions from the bear’s radio collar.
Collared for class
Over the next hour, assisted by DNR bear research biologist Andy Tri, Garshelis anesthetizes first the sow, then the three cubs, by inoculating them with a syringe affixed to a cut sapling. One by one, the three cubs and then the sow are hauled out of the den, limp as dish rags.
The bear researchers are doing all this as some 23 University of Minnesota students and a handful of other observers look on. After 10 days straight of extracting bears from dens for DNR research purposes, Garshelis and his crew are doing this one primarily for educational reasons.
Assistant professor James Forester and students in both fish and wildlife and veterinary medicine at the university use the collared bears — out of hibernation — to perfect the students’ radio-telemetry tracking techniques. But some previously collared bears have been lost to hunting and other causes, and now the university is down to just one — No. 5005 — and her collar’s battery soon will expire.
DNR biologists, with the help of the students, will replace the sow’s collar and put new, expandable collars on two of the three cubs.
“We’ll be able to have more animals on the air to track,” Forester said.
Up they go
When the three cubs are all immobilized, Garshelis hands them up to Forester and willing students, who carry the drowsy young bears to a waiting tarp on the forest floor to be worked up. The 10-year-old sow must be hauled up by three volunteers pulling steadily on a heavy rope.
On the tarp, the biologists work quietly for nearly three hours. One of the cubs snores softly. Their anesthetic will last for three to four hours. Students help apply ear tags to the cubs and fit them with the expandable radio collars.
“It’s a pretty awesome opportunity,” says fish and wildlife undergrad Michael Ocasio of Cottage Grove, Minn. “No one gets to do this kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons I did this major — to interact with bears a few times. This is my first time with cubs. It’s pretty exciting.”
Veterinary medicine graduate student Nicole Wanner agreed. “We deal with a lot of domestic species, but this is really special to see wildlife of our area and see veterinary medicine used in a conservation context,” Wanner said.
The cubs, all females, are weighed — 29, 36 and 44 pounds. Mom comes in at 190 pounds.
The biologists take body measurements of the bears, assess the amount of meat on their bones, take blood samples, check paw wear.
No. 5005 has been through this a few times — not that she would remember. She was first collared in 2007 as a 48-pound yearling. She had her first litter of three cubs in 2011, two more in 2013 and four last year. Just 5 percent of sows have four cubs in a litter, Garshelis says.
After the biological work is finished, Garshelis conducts a short question-and-answer session with the students while standing amid the peaceful bears.
Then it’s time to put them back in the den with their new necklaces and ear tags. For that, the DNR biologists use a sheet of plastic on which bears, with gravity assist, slide downhill easily. The sow, toted to the den by several volunteers, goes down first. Garshelis follows the sow down into the den and nudges her into a comfortable position with his feet. Students hand down the three cubs, and Garshelis arranges them near their mother.
Someday soon, all four bears will emerge on their own, three of them unwitting contributors to higher education in Minnesota.