Black Bear Research
is not for the Fainthearted

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder



July 26, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


It all seemed innocent enough when Jeff Herbert, FWP's Research Supervisor, suggested that they investigate that bleating sound in the forest. It sounded like a fawn in distress.

"You don't suppose a grizzly is homing in on this fawn, do you?" he inquired of his partner, Rick Mace, mindful of their location in the Swan River drainage, on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

"If there was a grizzly in the area, that fawn would be dead by now," the FWP Research Biologist replied matter of factly. So, they proceeded as quietly as possible through the dense undergrowth.

Soon, they heard the fawn bleat again from the middle of a very brushy area. Then Rick saw a whitetail doe just to the right, and she snorted. A few more steps to the left to get a clearer view around a large bush and they saw an adult black bear, obviously in the act of preying upon the fawn. The bear quickly took a couple of steps towards the biologists and a cub of the year came scooting out of the brush and scrambled up a nearby aspen. It could hardly have been a worse place to be.

Rick is leading FWP's statewide study of black bears, and is long experienced in handling bears of both species. So, he wasn't as flabbergasted as you and I might have been when the sow struck an Arnold Swartzenegger pose, bounced on its front legs in an extremely agitated state, and then bluff charged.

Rick fired a warning shot from his pistol over the bear's head, which stopped the bear momentarily. However, she continued to circle to the left through a dense patch of dog-haired conifers where she paused again. Keeping their eyes on the bear, the biologists slowly backed their way out into a clearing, took a couple of deep breaths and began moving back towards the road. Since they had just used up a large dose of good fortune, they decided it probably wasn't the brightest idea to try to free dart the female with a tranquilizer gun. It's tough to target the back end of the bear with a dart if the front end is coming towards you.

From a short distance, they heard one final, rudely interrupted bleat from the fawn.

It was just another day on the trapline for a team of FWP biologists and other assistants who have gathered in the Condon area for a couple of weeks in each of the past two spring seasons. They have captured and marked about 30 black bears each year. In addition, several grizzly bears have been marked for Plum Creek and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rick and Jeff had driven into this particular location to check on a trap that had been fitted with a transponder that would go off when the trap had been sprung. The electronic signal had indicated this was the case, but upon investigation, it appeared the trap may have been visited by a raven or vulture because nothing else was disturbed. The snare was reset and the transponder hooked back up and the two had driven down the road to check out another site.

Back at the pickup, Rick and Jeff broke out a radio receiver and antenna, and made one more attempt to hear a signal emitted from the ear transmitter of a grizzly bear that Rick's team had captured in the previous year. The grizzly's whereabouts had been pinpointed that morning from the air by another biologist. The bear's satellite GPS radio collar had not fallen off last November as intended and the small ear transmitter would not last much longer. Rick had hoped to recapture the grizzly this year to retrieve the computer chip with all the stored-on-board satellite relocations. They heard the signal from the small ear transmitter about a half-mile up the road and slightly to the north from where the black bears had just been encountered.

Finding a good location, a trap cubby was quickly constructed, baited with a dandy but rank concoction of dead deer, and the snare was set with a different transponder hooked up to it.

As Rick drove back up the road towards the first set, he monitored the transponder to make sure that the signal from the new set could be heard clearly. As a matter of protocol before putting the receiver away, Rick tuned into the frequency of the first set. Somewhat surprisingly, the signal was emitting a fast beat indicating that it had been sprung again.

This time when they arrived at the trap, they were rewarded with a 6-year old female that had been trapped in June 2000. The bear was tranquilized, then her collar was removed and inspected. Since the radio still had at least another year of operational life, the collar was placed back on the bear and she was released.

FWP needs the information that Rick is collecting to improve its management of black bears. He will be monitoring the age of first reproduction, rates of cub survival, and survival rates among adult females to assess the status of the Swan population. Then he'll compare his interpretations of the living population with sexes and ages of black bears killed by hunters to determine whether the harvest data that FWP routinely collects and uses to recommend hunting seasons are reliable indicators of trends in black bear populations.

Back at the truck again after working the black bear, they turned on the receiver one last time to check for activity at the trap closest to the site of the bleating fawn and the radioed grizzly sow. A fast- paced beep, beep, beep, was its reply.

Thinking they may never get off this stretch of road, they drove back to the second trap site with the notion that they might have an irate grizzly bear to deal with. Unfortunately, they had missed the bear! From the appearance of the trap site (which had been torn up) and the snare (which had closed down to a very small diameter), it had been a toe catch. The bear had been able to pull out of the set and escape. Was it the targeted grizzly? We'll never know.

As he told me the story, I could tell that his experience in the bear country of the Seeley-Swan had made quite an impression on an older, formerwaterfowl biologist like Jeff. All within a couple of miles, they had walked in on a free ranging black bear sow and cub, had trapped another adult female black bear, and had probably had a close encounter with a radio-marked female grizzly bear.

Bear managers would be quick to caution against multiplying this sample of bears by the number of square miles in western Montana to obtain an estimate of the bear population. The trap crews chose some of the most likely spots to find bears in the spring, and they are often separated by miles of seasonally vacant habitats.

But, it is interesting to know there are places in our local area that are so attractive to bears of both species and where, for at least three adult females, their home ranges overlap to the degree observed.

And, it's a good reminder for the rest of us to go the other way when we hear a fawn bleating in the forest.