Last month, I hiked in knee-deep snow into the woods of Conway to observe MassWildlife biologists who were visiting a black bear den that was sheltering a mother bear and her two cubs. The expedition party also included Secretary Bowles, MassWildlife biologists Ralph Taylor, Dave Fuller, and Laura Hajduk, and UMass Amherst graduate student Dave Wattles.
It was a bright, sunny day, and we hiked about 15 minutes from the road to the site of the den, which was a large depression in the ground under a brush pile.
Ralph, Dave and Laura approached the den and immobilized the mother bear, called a sow, with a tranquilizer dart pole. She was alert and seemed to consider trying to run when approached, but went to sleep once the tranquilizer took effect. This gave us time to examine the health of the sow and the cubs, a study which is part of a research project begun in the 1970s to track and monitor the black bear population in Massachusetts.
The biologists replaced the sow’s old radio-tracking collar with a new GPS collar to allow biologists to collect location data that determine the sow’s patterns throughout the year. We determined the sow was four years old and a first time mother who weighed 150 pounds.
Both cubs – one male and one female – weighed five pounds and were in good health. They made lots of sharp grunting noises as we weighed and examined them. Bear cubs are sensitive to light and cold after being in the den, and tried to crawl into our jackets for dark and warmth. Despite their small size at only around six weeks of age, they already sported some pretty big claws! It was a big day for these new cubs, probably their first time ever seeing humans or leaving the den. We finished up the survey by carefully depositing both the mother bear and the cubs back into the den.
This trip was part of a research project that began when the statewide bear population was about 100 bears. Today, there are more than 3,000. The study gives us information about the life history, reproductive and survival rates, habitat requirements, range, and population trends of black bears.