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Pa. biologists enter bear dens to help manage population

If bear-to-human ratio is too great, hunters will reduce their numbers.

Published March 18, 2007


MILFORD, Pa. - Mark Ternent squeezes his bulky frame into the narrow opening of a bear den and shines a flashlight into the eyes of a 200-pound female. Two black bear cubs are suckling, and their mother looks back at Ternent, alert but relaxed. It is early March, and these bears won't come out of hibernation for six weeks.

The wildlife biologist shoots a tranquilizer dart into the mother's rump. Once she's out of it, Ternent goes to work, dragging the bears from their den.

By the end of March, he will have visited some 30 bear dens around the state, tagging, weighing and taking the vital signs of hibernating mothers and their offspring as part of an effort to gauge the health and size of Pennsylvania's bruin population.

As caretaker of the state's 15,000 black bears, Ternent must figure out the optimal ratio of bears to people. That number will determine how many bears need to be killed by hunters to keep the population under control.

Bears are not a problem in remote areas of the state. But here in the increasingly populous Pocono Mountains, complaints about nuisance bears are rising - especially among recent arrivals from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, who tend to have little experience with bears.

Pennsylvania has had perhaps 20 bear attacks over the past 30 years, none of them fatal or serious. Black bear encounters are rising in Pennsylvania and in other Eastern states because the species is increasing in number at a time when more of their habitat is being lost to development.

Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calls the Poconos and northern New Jersey, where bears have made a dramatic rebound, the "epicenter" of black bear-human interaction.

In New Jersey, rising complaints about bears prompted officials in 2003 to allow black-bear hunting for the first time in more than three decades.

In Pennsylvania, hunting has long been used to control the bear population, which quadrupled in the 1980s and '90s.

Now Ternent is aiming to come up with a bear population objective for various parts of the state, taking into account factors such as human population density, forest cover and the availability of food.

The den Ternent visited in early March, a cavern formed by two large rocks, is surrounded by houses, and you could walk past and never know it was there.

After the bear is sedated, Ternent pulls her squawking, squirmy cubs from the den. Then he fastens a rope to the mother's front legs and they drag her out, too. For the cubs, born the first or second week of January, "this is the first daylight they've seen out of the den," Ternent said.

Their fur is remarkably soft, and they smell clean and fresh - much better than your typical family dog. They struggle mightily, but at only 6 pounds they are no match for the humans, who are careful to avoid the cubs' long, dagger-like claws.

Ternent and his team take the mother's vital signs - respiration, heart rate, temperature - fit her with a new radio collar, and tattoo her inner lip with a serial number.

She weighs 197 pounds, about 30 percent less than when she entered the den in November. But she has a soft, pillowy feel, her bones aren't sticking out anywhere and her fur is in good condition. She is in fine health.

It is the sow's first litter, and her cubs are weighed. Ternent tags them, then pushes and pulls their mother back into the den. He snuggles the cubs against their mother, covers the den's two entrances with pine branches, and departs.

[Last modified March 18, 2007, 00:57:45]

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