My feet were just starting to get numb from standing on the snow-packed trail when the activity over by the den changed. Students with University of Wisconsin Stevens Point’s (UWSP) Wisconsin Black Bear Project, led by Dr. Cady Sartini, plus several other wildlife professionals, were working together around the mouth of the den.
A student broke away from the group and headed to where we non-researchers were stationed out of the way. Abby was cradling something small against her chest, and the adoring smile that lit up her face gave it away: she was carrying a bear cub.
Eager hands reached out to take the cub and nestle him into a puffy winter coat. Soon more students with more cubs headed our way. Four tiny cubs were distributed among the willing volunteers. Mama bear lay anesthetized in the den, and the cubs needed our warmth.
Back in January, Dr. Sartini allowed a group of Wisconsin Master Naturalists to join her team on a reconnaissance mission to find out if this den had cubs, yearlings, or just the collared adult. As I wrote, we saw the mom’s sleepy face, and heard the grunts of two cubs. Two cubs were all I’d been expecting when I lucked into joining Dr. Sartini and her students on this data collection visit to the same den.
One of the students held a cub out toward me, and I cradled him against my chest, trying to tuck him inside my puffy coat while his long claws tangled in nylon and wool. I’d forgotten to take my hood down, and soon the anxious cub was climbing up my neck, needle-sharp claws poking and wet nose nuzzling. It was adorable, funny, and painful all at once. Climbing trees to safety is a life-saving instinct in bear cubs, and although this was the first time outside their den, their long, sharp claws were ready to go!
Startled by the cub’s climbing, and unable to untangle him alone, I enlisted Laura Schulte, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter also covering the event, to help. Together, we got the cub off my neck and swaddled against her chest so that he was comfortable enough to stay put—although the little guy whined the entire time. Later, we discovered he was the runt of the litter at only 3.4 pounds to his brothers’ 4. They’ve likely quadrupled in size since birth just over a month ago.
A few minutes later, someone shared their cub with me. Paul Smith, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outdoor writer who has been covering this project for 30 years, helped me get the cub settled comfortably and remarked on just how perfect the little ones are. Paul will be writing about the 45-year history of this long-term research project.
Taking off a mitten, I reveled in the softness and warmth of this tiny wild creature, and soon he became so quiet that I’m pretty sure he was sleeping. I felt honored by his trust. Despite bears’ excellent sense of smell, there’s no evidence that a mama bear will abandon her cubs if she catches a whiff of human. And despite rumors of animal babies being scentless, this cub had plenty of his own odor.
Disrupting a den like this is undoubtedly stressful for both mother and cubs, which is why protocols and safety measures are in place. But in the 45 years that the Wisconsin Black Bear Project has been collecting data and handling cubs, the impacts have been found to be minimal. And the data gathered has proven essential for learning about and managing black bears in Wisconsin, and training students in wildlife research.
After a few minutes, Abby and a volunteer weighed each of the cubs by placing them into a cozy stocking hat and attaching a spring scale through the knit. They were sexed (all boys) and students held a ruler up to the hair between their ears—a proxy for age. Then a wildlife biologist collected nasal and blood samples to screen for wildlife diseases.
Meanwhile, back at the den, students and professionals struggled to get the limp, heavy female out of the ground. The entrance, tucked under the roots of a spruce tree, proved too narrow. She couldn’t be weighed or fully measured. With just her head out, they checked her collar, took vitals, and collected a tooth. Bear teeth record growth rings just like a tree. A cross section can tell researchers her age, and even record the years she gave birth and had less calcium to spare.
At the end of the day, the cubs were safely returned to the den with a drowsy mother, and the den entrance covered with balsam boughs. Researchers packed up samples and data for analyzing in the lab.
“It didn’t go the way we thought it would go,” said Dr. Sartini as we stuffed gear into vehicles, “but it went just fine. So many of the skills the students gain here will be transferable. Risk management, teamwork, and planning are useful for studying other wildlife and doing any kind of science.” John Tracey, the wildlife vet in charge of anesthetizing the bear, agreed, “As much as you want an event you’re running to go smoothly, it’s also beneficial for the students to see curveballs and challenges come up and get dealt with calmly.”
Researchers are always looking for new bears to add to the UWSP Wisconsin Black Bear Project, so if you know of a bear den in Ashland, Bayfield, Price, or Sawyer Counties, you can contact Dr. Sartini directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dens outside this area can be reported to your nearest DNR office for their statewide research project.
Want to learn more? Dr. Cady Sartini is giving a live/virtual lecture on March 16: “The Wisconsin Black Bear Project: Celebrating 45 Years of Bears in the North Woods.” The lecture is part of the UWSP College of Natural Resources Spring Seminar Series.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our Growing Up WILD exhibit will close on March 15, and The Northwoods ROCKS will open on May 2, 2023. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.