With the Bears in Winter

Back in the 1980s, while I was a member of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, Anne and I were allowed to take part in a black bear research study in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The project was led by Dr. Michael Pelton, a zoology professor at the University of Tennessee. We had met Mike on an earlier project re-introducing river otters into Abrams Creek, so he was comfortable with having us come along on the bear project.

The study would begin during the warm months of summer and fall, when Mike and his staff would trap female black bears and fit them with radio tracking collars. Then, in late winter while the bear was still hibernating, they would track her to her den for examination. The project had been going on for several years before Anne and I got involved.

The winter tracking was done on icy mornings in late January or February. One of Mike’s staff would lead the way into the mountains following the signal of a radio tracking antenna. The forest was vast and steep, and on the north side of the mountain crest the snow drifted deep. The route would depend entirely on the direction the signal gave us, leading us into the most wild and inaccessible terrain of the Park. It was hard going– up steep ridges, down plunging ravines, across ice sheets and water courses, and through tangled rhododendron slicks. I had done plenty of cross-country hiking before, but Anne had not. Still, she stuck right with the crew.

The mountains in winter were a revelation as we climbed, revealing sharp contours of rolling gray ridges we’d never seen before, their crests crusted with snow and fog. As we climbed we passed through stands of huge, arrow-straight poplars and hemlocks– virgin timber so remote that the loggers of the last century had not reached them.

We pushed on all morning until the radio antenna finally led us to the bear. The den was buried in the hollowed base of a large oak tree under a tangle of downed timber. After we had cleared the entrance,  Mike crawled in quietly with a flashlight. In hibernation, bears are suspended in a light sleep, and they can be easily roused. So Mike moved slowly, a few inches at a time.

A few minutes later, on Mike’s signal, his assistant pulled him back out, covered with leaves, ice, and snow. He knelt in the snow and said he had found the mother bear, safely asleep. Then he rummaged through his pack for a hypodermic which he fitted to the end of a long collapsible pole. He measured out a safe level of tranquilizing anesthetic, filled the hypodermic, and slid back into the den to gently inject the sleeping mother. Then he crawled out and we stood around the tree and waited for the anesthetic do its work.

After about fifteen minutes, Mike said the bear should be safely anesthetized, and he slipped back into the den to loop a rope around the bear’s feet. Then we slowly hauled her out into the snow. It was a treacherous moment, but the bear never batted an eye.

The emerging bear was astonishingly beautiful, sleek and thick-coated, with a wonderfully sweet smell. We stood, awestruck, as the bear slid out. And almost immediately we began to hear the thrilling sounds of mewling and crying as the infant bears slid out with her, clinging to her coat. The cubs had been born during the winter hibernation, and they were the size of healthy puppies, their eyes not yet open, with thick coats and long beautiful claws.

Carson Brewer, Naturalist

We took the cubs from their mother and held them under our coats to protect them from the cold as Mike did his work. The experience of holding an infant bear under your coat, feeling it snuggle against your body for warmth, is unforgettable.

Mike weighed and examined the mother and cubs, took hair and blood samples, and plotted the location of the den on a map to record the bear’s course from the time she was initially collared. The plot showed the long and wandering trail the bear had left as she foraged through the mountains.

Before we left, Mike and his staff gently returned the mother to the den and tucked the cubs in under her. We waited for a while until Mike was sure that the bear had come out of the anesthesia and returned to her hibernation sleep.

Then we closed the entrance and slipped away, bushwhacking down the ridge in the gray afternoon,  seeking an easier route back to the trucks.


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