PLUMMER, Minn. — Brent Hemly probably will never look at bears the same way.
An avid outdoorsman from Plummer in Red Lake County, Hemly has spent the past decade assisting bear researchers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with a study to learn more about bears in the northwest part of the state.
As a helper with the study, Hemly live-trapped five bears in the Plummer area, including three that were fitted with radio or GPS collars so the DNR could track their movements. He also worked as a liaison, of sorts, between the research team and local landowners to get permission to access private land where bears were denning and set several trail cameras to monitor the collared bears.
A transition area between the prairie and the big woods, northwest Minnesota is on the fringe of traditional bear range, but it’s an area the animals are doing well.
The northwest Minnesota study, which the DNR launched in 2007, officially ended Saturday, Feb. 29, when a crew led by DNR bear biologists Dave Garshelis and Andy Tri of Grand Rapids, Minn., and Paul Iaizzo, a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and Medtronic professor of visible heart research, removed the radio-collar and heart monitor from bear No. 4087.
The University of Minnesota and Medtronic, a medical research firm based in the Twin Cities, partnered with the DNR on the study. The partners implanted heart monitors in some of the bears to learn more about their physiology.
The “Plummer Bear,” as she’s known in these parts, was the last bear with a tracking collar in the northwest study. Hemly caught her in a cage trap in 2011 when she was a yearling. Since then, she’s had four sets of cubs: three in 2013, three in 2016, four in 2018 and four this year.
“This is the end of it,” Hemly said. “I’m really going to miss it just because I call her the Plummer Bear.”
The bear’s range is about 5 miles by 3 miles, with the exception of the spring of 2015 when she didn’t have cubs and ranged a few miles farther, he said.
“That’s where the GPS collar was so fun,” Hemly said. “That was her range, that’s where she went, and it was fun to follow her. I kind of got an addiction now to game cameras just because I got a bunch of them to follow the bears, and now it’s just kind of stuck with me.
“The farmers, the landowners around Plummer, were really great about letting us on their property.”
About 30 people, including the research crew, friends and family of Hemly and area DNR employees on hand to observe, visited the den site of the “Plummer Bear” to officially conclude the study.
The research team used a long pole with a syringe on the end to sedate the bear before taking her out of the den to remove the collar and heart monitor; her four wide-eyed cubs were a hit with those on hand.
When the work was complete, 4087 and her cubs were returned to the den, where they’ll emerge for the season sometime in the next few weeks. Through tracking collars and trail cameras, Hemly has had a window into the life of a bear in its natural environment that few people outside the field of bear research ever will experience.
“It’s been great, a once-in-a-lifetime deal where you get into something like this,” Hemly said. “I really enjoy this sort of thing.”
Mark Ditmer, a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Michigan, worked on the northwest study as a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota and recruited Hemly to help catch bears.
Hemly’s efforts in catching and monitoring bears provided valuable information to his research, Ditmer said, but none more, perhaps, than the “Plummer Bear.”
“That bear not only collected a ton of GPS locations, provided hair samples that were used to understand the diets of bears in the region, but also carried a heart monitor that was part of my studies understanding bear physiology and stress,” Ditmer said. “Despite the relatively small area of forest that this bear lived in, she was extremely healthy and often produced several large cubs.”
Garshelis, the DNR’s lead researcher on the bear project, wasn’t available for comment on the now-complete northwest study. But Ditmer shared several highlights from his years studying bears in the northwest.
“The bears moved across enormous areas, the largest for any population ever studied,” Ditmer said. “They used areas that had little forest cover, unlike most bears in Minnesota.”
Because northwest Minnesota bears cover such a wide area, Ditmer said the researchers decided to focus on the Plummer area and other locations south and west of Thief River Falls with less typical habitat to learn more about where bears went.
Being able to rely on Hemly was a big time-saver, Ditmer said.
“Brent was very diligent and communicative with us and was simply a real pleasure to chat with whenever he reported any activity at the trap site,” Ditmer said. “His work paid off multiple times.”
That work produced some memorable moments, Hemly said, such as the time he went out to close the doors on a couple of cage traps because the DNR researchers wouldn’t be available for a few days, only to find one of the cages held a bear.
So, there he was, alone in a stand of 3-inch popular saplings next to a bear not at all happy about its situation.
His only option was to raise the door of the cage and free the bear.
“I opened the door, and this bear runs out, and it looked a lot smaller in the trap than it was,” Hemly said. “When it ran off, about 20-25 yards, it turned around and stood up and looked at me.”
That got the blood flowing, he said.
“I said to myself, ‘You are so dead. If that bear comes back, you’re history,’” Hemly said. “My heart just kind of dropped as it turned around, went down on all fours and took off.”
Close calls aside, Hemly was a “great ambassador” for the bear project, Ditmer said. Whether it was inviting people to see the research firsthand, visiting with landowners where bears had dens or providing trail camera images, “he made our lives so much easier,” Ditmer said.
“While most people in the area have been welcoming and understanding of the importance of the research, Brent really made it much easier in several cases with people who were not the biggest fans of the DNR,” Ditmer said. “It was always great to have Brent along or to chat with him on the phone or over email because he was really curious about wildlife ecology, especially bears and our research.
“It always feels great to see the public engaged in your work, and Brent was especially dedicated to providing a helping hand.”
With the study wrapped up, Hemly says he’ll continue to watch for the “Plummer Bear” as best he can, though she won’t be easy to spot without a collar and only the small tag that’s now in her ear for identification.
“I’m going to miss the program,” Hemly said. “I had a lot of fun working with those guys. During coffee table talk, so to speak, we all know everything. But until you actually go out there and see the actual research, it kind of gives you a little different look on it.”