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Tracking The Bears

Manitoba Natural Resources and the Canadian Park Service commissioned a study in the ’80s to try and discover if bear movements, home ranges and densities were influenced by the placement of hunting baits around the periphery of Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP).

With the use of spring-activated cable snares and culvert traps set at various locations inside and just outside the park, a total of 67 bears were captured between June 1987 and July 1989. In June of 1988 a female bear that was named Nursing 2 Cubs (N2C) was captured in the Lake Audy area. The capture crew immobilized and sedated her to record her sex, weight, measurements and fur colour. An ear tag was affixed to her left ear and she was tattooed with an identifying number on her right upper lip. A radio transmission collar was placed around her neck and a tooth was removed for aging and it was determined that N2C was 4-1/2 years old. Her two cubs were most likely her first litter.

Between June 1988 and April 1990, N2C was located by aerial telemetry on 58 separate occasions, allowing researchers to produce a map of her movements. They learned that in those two years, she lived primarily in RMNP, only venturing outside the park boundaries about 20 per cent of the time. She visited two of the seven hunting baits known to be in the area, but avoided nearby picnic sites and campgrounds, choosing winter denning sites well and safely inside the park.

Now, fast-forward to early November 2009. Susan Knowling and her husband, Michael Davis, who farm

CREATURE OF HABITS:Marked and collared bears allow for them to be observed and studied.

near Basswood, were taking a stroll with their dogs, just east of their home quarter. As they passed three old, round winter wheat bales set aside in the bush, one of their dogs went over to the bales to investigate. To their surprise, up popped two little ears, followed by a big, black bear head! Knowling and Davis immediately noticed her eyes, which were whitish and opaque. Seemingly unperturbed by the dog, the bear settled securely into the bales for her winter hibernation.

Unlike adult male black bears that may have a home range of over 100 square kilometres, the home ranges of adult female black bears is typically from 10 to 50 square kilometres. It is, therefore, not particularly unusual that this bear was later proven to be N2C.

In April 2010, Knowling and Davis checked the bales and found that the bear was no longer there, but later they saw her on the north side of a rolling field where they could watch her foraging. With such a clear view, they were able to see that she had something around her neck.

Two days later, Tim Kingdon, a neighbour of Knowling and Davis, saw the bear in a nearby alfalfa field. With binoculars, he was able to see grey hair on her forehead and muzzle and a white chest marking as well as her silvery, white eyes and the leathery remnant of a radio collar.

Over the next few days he observed her pacing in large circles in a distracted and agitated manner. Deciding to get a closer look, he drove about 100 yards nearer and followed her on foot with his camera. Her eyesight was obviously impaired, and as she moved off towards a slough she bumped into small shrubs, which appeared to startle her. Kingdon felt sorry for her and after some discussion with others, he decided that the old bear would probably face a pretty tough future, so he found her again and euthanized her. Knowing that she had been a research bear, he turned her remains over to the lab at RMNP.

Tim Sallows, resource conservation technician at RMNP, received her body and performed a necropsy for information- gathering purposes. He was able to confirm from the tattoo on her lip that this bear was indeed N2C. Sallows said that she was in “pretty good shape,” similar to any other bear newly out of hibernation. Her teeth were worn down, but certainly still functional. She had cataracts, a result of age, which most likely caused partial or total blindness. Her ovaries and fallopian tubes were sent to Manitoba Conservation, where they remain frozen, awaiting further study. As a result of the tests, it will be possible to know the last time she had cubs, and how many cubs she had over her lifetime, by counting the placental scars.

Was N2C’s long life a testament to the willingness of human beings to live in harmony with nature? Sallows thought it was probably due to a testament to the 26-year-old bear herself. More likely she was very adept at avoiding contact with people.

For further information on North American black bears, go to the “Hinterland Who’s Who” website at www.hww.ca and follow the links from “species” to “black bear.”

– Candy Irwin writes from Lake Audy, Manitoba

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