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Bear den opens up ‘lifetime opportunity’

Roxann Eischens holds two black bear cubs from a den on her land near Two Inlets on Monday. Researchers from the Minnesota DNR and University of Minnesota are studying the bears. (Submitted photo)1 / 4
The mother bear, estimated to be about 10 years old and 220 pounds was fitted by reseachers with a radio collar and ear tags for study. (Submitted photo)2 / 4
Margie Amick, the 95-year-old neighbor of Roxann Eischens, pets one of the two black bear cubs found in a den near Two Inlets. (Submitted photo)3 / 4
Roxann Eischens walks along the wooded area on her property where a bear den was discovered last month. On Monday, researchers from the Minnesota DNR and the University of Minnesota were at the property and did some testing on the mother and two cubs as part of an ongoing black bear study. (Kevin Cederstrom / Enterprise)4 / 4

     Eischens said her brother-in-law was out cutting wood at the end of January when he discovered a den inside a wooded area on her property. He took a closer look and saw the mother bear’s nose poking out.

     That’s when Eischens contacted the DNR to let them know about the den and bears.

     “They were quite excited when I called them,” Eischens said. “I emailed them a picture and they were happy – especially when they saw there were cubs.”

     The DNR sent out a public notice last fall for landowners and hunters to report any bear dens they come across in the Bemidji area, and to give the agency an opportunity to conduct studies.

     Andy Tri, a wildlife research biologist in Grand Rapids, said they didn’t have much luck with finding dens in the area this past fall and winter, until they got a call from Tom Stursa at the DNR office in Park Rapids.

     DNR officials made arrangements with researchers from the University of Minnesota who are studying Minnesota black bears to collaborate on testing the bears at Eischens’ place on Monday.

     The DNR also invited about 30 students and staff from a biology class at Bemidji High School.

     After the mother bear was sedated and pulled from the den it was fitted for a radio collar, a heart monitor implanted, weighed and measured. Then everyone got to hold the two cubs – one male and one female.

     “They were like little piggies. The female was the noisiest and was not happy right away,” Eischens said. “The warmer the jacket the happier they were because they’re used to their 220-pound momma.”

     Given this once in a lifetime chance to hold bear cubs Eischens brought her 95-year-old neighbor Margie Amick out to the property. They were able to get Margie up to see the bears and hold the cubs before all the high school students arrived.

     “She was tickled pink,” Eischens said of Margie holding the cubs. “She was almost in tears because she did something she had never done before.”

     Tri and his DNR colleagues said being notified of the bear’s den north of Park Rapids is a great research opportunity, University of Minn. and the high school students.

     Researchers took blood, tooth and hair samples, as well as body condition measurements to get a good idea how healthy the bear is.

     Researchers will determine the exact age after studying a section of the tooth but Tri estimates the 220-pound bear to be about 10 years old.

     “This turned out to be a perfect situation,” Tri said. “We’re getting valuable data - things like survival data to see if she’s hunted in the fall. It’s also an opportunity to get high school students involved.”

     The research by cardiologists at the U of M also includes monitoring the bear’s heart during hibernation.

     According to Tri, that research can then be translated to study humans who may be bedridden or in a coma, for example.

     The cubs were born around Jan. 15 of this year and Tri expects them to leave the den around mid-April, possibly sooner with warmer weather.

     Once momma bear and the cubs leave the den they’ll start looking for food and most likely stay close to the den area, generally only moving in an 8-square mile area, Tri said.

     He expects the bears to first feed on things like ants this spring prior to the berry season and once things green up they’ll eat young, tender plants and grasses.

     The cubs will stick with mom through the year, Tri said, and the yearlings will be kicked out the following May or June.

     Along with other family and friends, Eischens let her grandchildren skip school for the day for some real-life outdoor education.

     “It was a learning experience from 10 years to my neighbor who is 95,” Eischens said. “It was a lifetime experience for a lot of people. We would have never known the bears were there if my brother-in-law wasn’t out there cutting wood.”

     With so many people handling the cubs some asked could that contact lead to abandonment by the mother? Dr. Tri said they’ve studied a lot of black bears and that’s not a huge concern.

     “There is residual human scent in and around the den, but it typically doesn’t cause an issue between mother and cubs,” Tri said. “We’ve handled hundreds and hundreds of bears over the years, and very few mothers abandon their cubs after a den visit. For the most part, the cubs snuggle in with mom after we are done in the den and start to nurse again.”

     Tri added, the human scent fades after a time and the cubs smell like bears again.

     The researchers put out trail cams at bear dens to understand what bears do over the winter, and as Tri explained, they are finding that the bears’ activity patterns are variable and individualized. Some bears stay in most of the winter; some bears leave the den and return later.

Black bear research

     The Minnesota DNR conducts research on the Minnesota black bear in order to better understand the bear population, behavior, and research conservation. Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Visible Heart Laboratory and Medtronic Inc. accompany DNR biologists in the field to gather additional information.

     “The goal of the Visible Heart Lab’s research is to develop an understanding of the behaviors and physiological parameters of these amazing animals and develop translational applications to human medicine,” according to the University of Minnesota website.