Published April 22, 2012, 12:00 AM

BRAD DOKKEN: Hey ... I think I know that bear

I’ve often wondered how those little cubs fared. Turns out one of them, at least, is doing just fine.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

One gray afternoon in March 2010, Herald staff photographer Eric Hylden and I had the opportunity to accompany researchers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Medtronic and the University of Minnesota to the site of a bear den near Plummer, Minn.

The researchers visited the den to replace the radio collar it had attached to the mother bear the previous fall with a GPS collar that would provide detailed information on her whereabouts throughout the year. The DNR has been studying bears in northwest Minnesota since 2007 in an effort to learn more about the habitat they use in a part of the state that’s on the fringe of their range.

As an add-on to the study, the research crew also took an EKG of the mother bear. They were trying to learn more about why bears during hibernation can remain immobilized for months without any loss of muscle function when bedridden humans show significant muscle loss during periods of inactivity.

While all of this high-tech stuff was going on with the mother bear, I was fortunate enough to be one of the people tending to the three cubs to keep them warm outside the den. The little fur balls, two with brown fur and one with black, each weighed about 8 pounds at the time, and they didn’t appear to be the least bit distressed at the sudden attention. When the researchers had completed their work, mother and cubs were returned to the den.

I’ve often wondered how those little cubs fared. Turns out one of them, at least, is doing just fine.

Chris DuChamp of Erskine, Minn., provided that insight the other day, when he emailed me a series of three images of a bear photographed April 11 on a trail camera. The curious bear, seen approaching a deer stand and eventually standing on its hind legs for a closer look, has a collar on its neck and a tag that clearly shows the number “284.”

Thinking it might be one of the cubs I held two years ago, I forwarded the photos to the DNR researchers working on the project and Mark Ditmer, the University of Minnesota doctoral student who’s analyzing all of the data from the study for his dissertation.

Turns out, I might be right.

“In fact, there is a decent chance this is actually one of the brown cubs you held when you came out with us to the den in Plummer two years ago,” Ditmer writes in an email. “He was captured last fall and we put a GPS unit on him. However, when we attempted to locate his den this winter, we could not hear his VHF signal.”

Dave Garshelis, bear research biologist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., said he’s hoping to trap the bear this week to download data from the collar.

“We have no information on (the bear),” Garshelis said. “We knew where he was last August; we were doing some acorn sampling in late September and listened for him, and he was right in the Plummer area. We did three telemetry flights this winter and scoured the area, and I didn’t hear anything. Either the collar failed prematurely or he was down in a deep hole that blocked the radio signal.”

This isn’t the first time a trail camera has helped the researchers track down a tagged or collared bear. Garshelis said a hunter near Fourtown, Minn., had a trail camera photo of a bear that had been collared several miles to the west near Grygla, Minn. Without a photo ID, Garshelis said he might not have ventured far enough east to pick up the signal.

“It probably saved a lot of time,” Garshelis said. “Potentially, we would have lost the bear had someone not told us they got this (trail camera) shot.”

He said the cameras also can prevent the collared bears from being shot during hunting season.

“Hunters are able to identify it’s a radio-collared bear coming into the bait, so they’re not making a last-second decision,” Garshelis said. “They’ve already seen photos and it has an ear tag, and when it comes in, they make the decision not to shoot.”

You’ve gotta love technology.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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