Studying black bears in the wild

Today we’re hearing from Anthony Ortiz and Tanya Lama, of the University of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation and Pathways Biological interns with the Division of Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration, about their recent experience studying black bears in the wild. 

Tanya with cub_close up

One of the authors of this blog, Tanya Lama, with a female black bear cub. Credit: USFWS


In late March, staff from the Northeast Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) were generously invited by Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) to tag along on a black bear den visit. For many folks, even those with 25+ years of federal service, it was a first!

We gathered mid-morning to caravan together to the undisclosed location of the bear den – information which was picked up by MassWildlife via a GPS telemetry collar attached to the mother bear. GPS tracking has long been a part of black bear research and conservation in Massachusetts. Each collar is capable of recording the location of a bear over the course of two years. This highly valuable data helps biologists determine where bears spend their time foraging, rearing young, and hibernating.

Anthony Ortiz holds another black bear cub. They were only a couple of weeks old! Credit: USFWS

Anthony Ortiz holds another black bear cub. They were only a couple of weeks old! Credit: USFWS

Upon arrival at the site, we waited in our vehicles while a small team of highly experienced biologists and game wardens approached the den. The mother bear was safely and temporarily sedated from within the den, and mother and cubs were carefully removed to collect biological data on sex, weight, age and health. At this time, our group was called in and escorted about 500 yards to the den site.

The bear den, nestled in a landowner’s backyard woods, lay under the tangled root mass of a large multiflora rose. Hidden from view, the space within the den was ample and insulated by heavy snow cover. Each bear was weighed and sexed – three female cubs, each weighing in at about five pounds in comparison to their 178 pound mother! The cubs were estimated at about six weeks old, and until then had never left the den.  Exposed to the crisp air and bright sunshine, the cubs held tightly to our bodies and tucked their faces into our warm jackets while they awaited their return to the den.

Black bear research and the associated den visits are part of the longest standing Wildlife Restoration projects supported by the Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration. Federal funds, administered through the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Grant Program have enabled States to carry out black bear conservation work since the mid 1980’s. Black bear projects in the region include studies of wind turbine effects in Vermont, stable- isotope diet analysis in Massachusetts, and spatial ecology throughout the region.

The objectives of these studies have generally examined habitat use, home range, survival of adults and cubs, sources and rates of mortality, important landscape corridors and genetic profiles of bear populations.  Maine, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have the longest running bear monitoring projects in place, tracking bear movements via radio collars for the past 30 years. Information collected during den visits is used to write statewide management plans for bears and to adjust hunting season regulations.  Black bears are classified most often as a big game animal in the Northeast Region, but sometimes as a furbearer elsewhere.

There are regulated hunting seasons in the fall, and most states have over 15 regulations in place for bear hunters.  Black bears are sought for their meat, for their pelts, as rugs, taxidermy mounts, claw and bone jewelry, and the fat is used in cooking and in water proofing leather. The sale of bear meat is prohibited under most state laws – a reminder that we value our wildlife intrinsically and not for profit.

As students of wildlife conservation and part of the WSFR team – it was a pleasure to witness some of our federally funded conservation work on the ground. Many thanks to the MassWildlife biologists and environmental police officers for sharing their knowledge and experience with us!

Credit: USFWS

Credit: USFWS

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