Roscommon Forest Site of DNR Black Bear Project

A very special project takes DNR crews deep into the forests of Northern Michigan in search of one of the state’s largest carnivores — black bears.

The DNR looks for hibernating bears to replace tracking collars and learn more about how they are doing in Northern Michigan this season.

It’s all a part of the 12th Surrogate Sow Bear Monitoring Program.

Today, they visited Roscommon County to continue their bear tagging project.

9&10’s Cody Boyer and photojournalist Catherine Brettschneider joined them.

They have more details on this project and the search for a mother bear and her cubs.

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"This is the twelfth consecutive year that we’ve been out, collaring black bears," says Mark Boersen, DNR wildlife biologist.

Searching for a large, furry, hibernating predator is not easy …

It takes an air crew, then a ground crew, to help track them down.

"We have our pilot and another wildlife personnel check to get a general location and narrow it down for me so I know where to start and then we do ground-scouting, locate the den, GPS the den," Boersen says. “Permissions have to be sought from landowners when we are working on private property. We never trespass on private property. We also invite them along, too, if they choose to come along.”

But a bear’s den can change locations depending on many factors, the DNR says.

This adds an additional hurdle for crews while they begin ground-tracking.

"Sometimes, they just simply find a location right out in the middle of the open," says Katie Keen, DNR wildlife technician. "It’s hard to believe. Other times, they can be tucked in a little bit, maybe next to a root mass or a tree."

A VHF radio helps pinpoint the den of a large mother bear and her two cubs, the goal of this morning’s search.

“We have a small radio-receiver box and a hand-held antenna that we can track her collar with," Boersen says. “It works very simply by you can point it in the direction of the collar and, if you are pointing at the collar, it gets louder.”

Keen says the female bear was first collared by Boersen and his team in 2013.

She says a lot can change in as much as a year’s time.

“When we were here a year ago, she actually had newborn cubs and she had four, so when we are going to go in today, they will be yearlings, so they are a year older at this point," Keen said prior to tracking the bear. "They can be 50 to 70 pounds of fur, nails and teeth, but we’ll go in there and see how many she still has.”

With the radio’s help, it didn’t take long.

We waited behind while the group sedated the 234-lbs. mom.

"It really went almost textbook," Boersen says. "We were able to get the female sedated very quickly. [Three years ago,] we scouted her and found her actually in a ditch, covered in snow. It was far less elaborate than the den we saw today.”

The 45-minute process is that long for a good reason.

They check her oxygen, her weight, her blood, make sure she’s top-notch health during the entire process.

“We look over her general health, we monitor her vitals while we are working on her, make sure she’s doing well," Boersen says. "Administer a variety of drugs, antibiotics. We keep her on oxygen throughout most of the work.”

Also, two yearlings are out here, running around but they will come back, according to the DNR.

They say silence is of the essence to make sure this job is done right.

"When all is said and done, she won’t remember anything that happened to her," Boersen says.

In just around 45 minutes, mother is headed back to sleep for the winter.

With a fresh collar and important data learned…

"We can see how far they move, how many cubs they have, what kind of general health they are," Boersen says. "It’s all very useful in assessing the overall population health."

Boersen says there are three main objectives to the Surrogate Sow Bear Monitoring Program.

“We keep a small number of females collared so we can use them as surrogate mothers if the DNR should come into possession of orphaned cubs," Boersen says. "Secondly, we use the reproductive data just to keep tabs on the black bear population. And finally, we use the project as a training tool so we can train other staff who maybe aren’t as familiar in handling techniques of black bears.”

While it’s not the main objective, getting crews closer to black bears like the mother bear in Roscommon County helps future bear encounters.

“The training for our staff is very important up in Northern Michigan," Keen says. "We always have wild animals that can interact with kind of an urban or human interface, so this is great on-the-job training for our staff.”

Keen also says preparing for orphaned cubs also is easier by keeping tabs on bears in the wild.

“If we have an orphaned cub in the summertime, we will have female bear in the Northern Lower with that same age young," Keen says. "We can place that orphan cub with her and she will take in new cubs.”

As for the overall look at Northern Michigan’s black bear population, Boersen says things look promising.

“Black bears in Northern Michigan are doing very well," Boersen says. "In many areas, we are seeing population expansion. We are seeing litter sizes that seem to be a little bigger than they were, say, 20 to 25 years ago and we are seeing, large healthy bears when we handle these bears.”

The DNR crew today consisted of a chemical immobilization staff (who handled tranquilizers, sedatives, etc.) and DNR field staff, including biologists and wildlife technicians.