Oh I hope I do this post justice. And I need to preface the whole thing by saying that I try to never, ever take this life for granted, so if you see me doing a terribly awkward happy dance, it is NEVER to be a bragger…it is ALWAYS because I truly do feel incredibly, humbly lucky at times.
This was one of those times.
Oh my goodness was it EVER one of those times.
One of my husband’s very best friends from college (and subsequently I have adopted him as such, too) FINALLY married the girl of all of our dreams a few years ago. She studies bears (she received her Master’s through Oklahoma State University, where we all met; she now works there for this program). BEARS. Seriously. She’s one the coolest girls I’ve ever met. Each year around this time, her work culminates in a “grand finale” week during which she, along with area OK wildlife biologists, go to the females’ dens and check the mommas and the babies. This year, she invited Holden and me to go with them on one of their checks, which is generally scheduled to include landowners, wildlife and game management, legislators, reporters, etc., along with a few close friends as space allows. As our day drew near, the weather for our travel day looked extremely iffy, and the night before we were to leave I told Holden that we probably weren’t going to be able to make it. The forecast was heavy with snow- and ice-packed roads from Colorado, all throughout Kansas, and into Oklahoma. There was no way I’d thought we’d make the 12+ hour trip. But the morning of, Holden was very upset that we were going to cancel. Hank and I looked at each other (me through very groggy eyes – I’d just woken up), and I said, “WE’RE GOING. Even if we have to turn around and come home, we have to at least try.” We literally threw a couple of changes of clothes in our suitcases, grabbed my camera gear, and got in the car. We didn’t hit a STITCH of bad weather until the last four hours, and then it wasn’t that bad at all. Not a patch of ice on any road. Thank you, Lord!
We sneaked into our cabin, slept in our clothes, and got up a few hours later ready to go. And between Holden and me, I think we asked almost every question we could think of to ask Sara. I just hope I don’t relay information too poorly, here! ;) (Maybe Sara will comment and make corrections as necessary…)
We met at “the shop” where one of the wildlife biologists lives with his family. I wish I had snuck around back to take photos of all of their bear traps. Think of long barrels with cut-outs, with a grate at one end and solid at the other. Those are used for trapping and collaring, relocating nuisance bears to more appropriate habitat, etc.
Kelly, Sara’s husband and our coffee-roaster friend (see how it all comes together?), teases us with pictures of bear cubs from the day before.
Each person on their three-member team is responsible for certain items when they go out. They divide up things like gloves, collar(s), scanners, paperwork, lights, cameras, etc.
We left from here to meet some other people, including some of the graduate students working with Sara, and then headed to the landowner’s hunting cabin to gain access onto their property.
Sara explains that most people will have to stay here until the female has been sedated and everything is safe for others to come down. Holden stayed here with Kelly and the others while Sara and her team (and me! Oh my goodness I felt like I got picked first on the most important team in grade school! Giddy!) went further down to the den. This process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to about an hour.
The bear’s den is under this rock, which has two openings, and Sara and her team check each den before they’re scheduled for this work. To determine how many cubs are inside, they’ll come and sit quietly near the den and listen for cub sounds. Based on different sounds inside, they can estimate “at least one” or “at least two”, etc., and then confirm at the check later. Females generally give birth in January each year during hibernation and don’t leave their dens (nor do they eat or drink anything) until they emerge from hibernation later in the spring. Amazing.
The team sets up about 50 feet or so from the den, truly unconcerned about momma bear. Sara explained that momma really just wants to be left alone and will not leave her cubs, so she isn’t aggressive to people outside of the den. She’s quiet and still in a state of hibernation; she’s hiding and staying safe with her cubs.
While the sedation drugs are being mixed and readied for that dart pole thing (so sorry – I have no idea what the techie-term for that is), they’ll get the camera ready and check for momma’s position inside the den.
There isn’t loud talking, but not necessarily whispering either. They call it using “inside voices”. :) They use flashlights and laser lights to pinpoint exactly where they’ll aim the sedative, taking care to find a spot that’s accessible and less fatty so it will take easily and take well. It’s amazing to watch them work together – quietly and so respectfully.
Once the momma has been injected, they check time for 20 minutes, then leave her alone for the sedative to work.
You can see momma bear’s fur at the bottom of the shadowed area below. Her body trembled a bit as the sedative began to work, which is very normal and expected.
Sara checks in on her at the 20-minute mark. She nudges her with a pole to see if she responds at all. Momma bear flinched a little, so they gave her about 10 minutes more and checked again. At this point, I was able to go around to the other opening where I could see her face clearly (with another team member). She looked very drowsy, but then looked exactly at me, very aware. And then her eyes drooped again. So powerful. I couldn’t even think to take a photo in that moment…
They decided to give her a little more sedative to “top her off”. Sometimes they have to give a complete second dose since the first disperses through her fat v. her muscle. It metabolizes at the same rate – she’ll be starting to wake back up in approximately two hours and be fully back in four. The second dose is administered by hand, since she is so drowsy, and there’s no danger of aggression. Dude crawled right in there. I don’t think I was breathing, but I was standing on top of her den, just in case.
They bring along thick towels to wrap the cubs in for warmth, since most of their warmth comes from mom. (Sara knew that this den would have at least two cubs.)
This whole process reminded me of a birth. The checking, waiting, preparing, getting something warm to wrap babies up in. And before I knew exactly what was happening…
Totally got super teary! They were so very tiny – the youngest cubs some of them had seen (about 5 1/2-6 weeks old – their eyes had just opened very recently). Each cub was about 2.5 lbs. (Mom weighed about 150 lbs, btw.)
They let me hold me one of them as all of those waiting were heading down, and Kelly brought Holden over right away.
The cubs smell like little pups who have been rolling around in damp leaves. They respond so sweetly to human touch and want to get close and warm, so they seem so snuggly and cuddly. What a miracle it is to hold these little babies and know that this is it, this is the only time that they can be cradled and cooed by us, because above all else, they’re wild and instinctive and BEARS.
They were so young that they kind of looked like little moles. Their little ears hadn’t even perked up yet. And their claws! Their claws are more like velcro than anything – they get caught on your clothes and in your hair. And yes, the cubs did tremble a little when we first brought them out, but everyone was very careful to keep them warm in their towels and in the sun. Sara was also careful to explain that they will not be rejected by mom after being held by us. When mom wakes up, she’ll be aware that something is different, but it won’t matter.
At this point, a couple of men from the Department of Wildlife oversee the cubs as they’re being held while Sara’s team checks mom. They check her temperature, fat, general health, and re-collar her. (Her previous collar’s battery had died.) The collars are not buckled but held together with hardware, which has to be manually disassembled and sent back to the lab for refurbishing. They wanted to see a little more fat on mom (they could feel her ribs a little), so they placed in her “good” condition v. “excellent”. This was her first litter, so I’m assuming she was about four years old (I forgot to ask). Next winter, these cubs will go back to den with her, and afterward she will shoo them away and go into her second heat. Typically, males are ready to mate at about 3-4 years old. The cubs don’t have any natural predators, but can be killed by another male aggressor or another female, so they stay with mom their entire first year. In this area currently, Sara sees about a 60% survival rate, which she’d like to see around 80%. It’s one of the things she will be looking into within the coming year.
As they check mom (her name is Bailey; Sara asks the landowners to name the bears on their property, and she was named after his daughter), her eyes don’t fully close. They put an ointment in her eyes to keep them moist and a loose bag over her face to shield her eyes from any falling debris inside the den as they work her.
For the next hour or so, the cubs are held.
Sara spends time with reporters to explain the process and work with bears while the rest of the team finishes up with Bailey…
And finally it’s the team’s turn to spend some time with the cubs.
Sara asked the landowner to name the twin cubs, who are now Lily and Griz. Generally when a female has twins, they are male-female.
At this point, they work the cubs. They’re weighed, measured, chipped, and a hair sample is collected for DNA purposes. Once chipped, they’ll scan their necks to verify their numbers. When they’re older, they’ll be trapped for collaring (collars have a GPS to monitor movement, territory, and when they go to den) and tagging (both ears are tagged at that point).
One last cuddling session before the cubs are placed back with mom…
And back they go.
Everything was already packed and nearly everyone was gone.
I can’t begin to explain how powerful this experience was. To see these burly men wrap their arms around these little bears and remark about how beautiful the mom is, and then to hear hunters/landowners say things like, “Wow. This makes raising that bear totally worth it,” is so humbling. And then to see my friend, this amazing biologist, lead this team and crawl on her belly and flick bear poop out her hair while graciously giving her heart’s work to reporters and do the big PR dance to make this program so vibrant and vital…I just have to sit here with my hands over my mouth and shake my head in awe. This is great work. Really, really great work.
And now, my work is to make sure that my own little bear cub, Holden, doesn’t go poking his head in every cave or rock cropping he notices to try to find more bears. I’m afraid he might think that they’re all just waiting for a cuddle. Eek.
There’s a little more to our day, but this is our big bear story. Stay tuned, though, because I discovered just how beautiful eastern Oklahoma is, and oh my goodness was that good for the soul.