The tail end of a long, persistent winter is a painfully slow time for hunters and anglers in Vermont. But it can be different story for the men and women who manage and study our wildlife, especially the rarer and more secretive species.
From the snowy summits of the Green Mountains to the frozen bogs of the Northeast Kingdom, a handful of researchers have spent the last several weeks conducting tracking and trail-camera surveys for marten and lynx. And on Sunday, nearly a dozen state biologists and volunteers assembled at the base of a secluded ridge in Readsboro for what might be the coolest outdoor experience of any season: a visit to an active black bear den.
The size of the crew reflected the optimism of state bear project leader Forrest Hammond that the bear they were after, a 6-year-old sow, would have recently born cubs. If it did, they would have to be kept warm inside the jackets of volunteers while biologists focused on the sow, a task for which a group of mostly high school-age kids had happily signed up.
The sow was one of 18 bears that have been captured and outfitted with GPS-tracking collars as part of the Deerfield Wind bear study in the southern Green Mountain National Forest. It is designed to evaluate bear habitat use in response to a 15-turbine energy project that has been permitted to be built in and along some remote, high elevation beech stands, which state biologists consider critical bear habitat because beechnuts are an essential fall food.
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department opposed the project because it will involve the clearing of some beech stands and could reduce bear use of the remaining stands. The state Public Service Board approved the project nonetheless in 2010, but it also required that the developer, a subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, fund a study of bear habitat use before, during and after construction.
Finding the sow, however, wasn’t easy, even with its GPS collar, which periodically transmits its location to researchers via satellite. The crew expected the bear to be denned at the base of a windblown spruce a short snowshoe hike up a small drainage. But when that came up empty, the collar’s UHF-radio transmitter led them 25 yards farther to a large, dead maple snag that jutted out of the deep snow like a gnarled totem pole.
Careful digging revealed small openings in the roots that radiated out from the bottom of the snag, and biologists could soon see dark, shaggy hair in a cavity directly below the trunk. A metal jab stick tipped with a sedative-loaded syringe was then poked into what appeared to be the bear’s rump, and as the sow eventually began to lose consciousness, it was accompanied by the soft, plaintive squalls of what were clearly cubs.
The largest opening was then quickly expanded as much as the frozen conditions allowed. But it was still all state wildlife technician Ryan Smith could do to jam his head and shoulders into the cavity, where one by one he began removing three 7- to -8-week-old cubs that were barely larger than a rabbit and would have put the cutest teddy bear to shame.
They were placed in open jackets that were then zipped shut to shield the cubs from the 18-degree air. Only tiny faces protruded from the throats of the jackets, which became the focus of several selfies.
Den checks are made in March, when it’s usually warmest, Hammond said, to minimize the stress on bears suddenly exposed to frigid temperatures. The checks are made to assess each bear’s health and to replace and refit its collar if needed, and in the process obtain the data the collar collected.
In addition to periodically broadcasting each bear’s location, which allows biologists to remotely monitor the study animals, the GPS collars also record the bear’s location every seven hours. That information allows biologists to literally map out a bear’s travels over the course of a year.
The collar on the sow checked last Sunday had cut into its skin. So biologists treated the wound with antiseptic and placed it back in the den without a collar. The cubs were then quickly weighed before being deposited in the sow’s curled up lap, and the openings to the den were covered with spruce boughs and snow, sealing it off from the elements.
Even though the sow would have to be recaptured after its wound had healed to remain in the study, Hammond said afterward, it was a successful day.
The study, however, is in jeopardy of not being completed. Deerfield Wind is the first industrial wind energy project approved for a national forest, and in 2012 opponents challenged a special use permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service. As the appeals process drags on, the funds remaining to complete the study when and if construction begins have begun to run low.
But the collars, Hammond noted, have already produced invaluable information about bears, including the locations of well used travel corridors and road crossings in southern Vermont, and the use of beech stands that were previously conserved to help mitigate developments at nearby ski areas. And for a few glorious minutes on Sunday, they helped provide a few lucky observers a first-hand glimpse into the secret lives of bears.