by Karen Van Norman
Nearly 14,000 black bears roam the woods of northern Minnesota. This is the story of a bear called Bear 56. That's the name she was given by scientists who study where she goes and what she eats. Her story begins on a cold winter day.
The wind howls and snow swirls outside her den, but inside Bear 56 is safe and warm. Her den is a shallow hole under a fallen tree. She has just given birth to two cubs. Each is about the size of a jumbo orange. They cuddle against their mother to stay warm and drink her milk. Bear 56 continues to hibernate, but she wakes up once in a while to lick her cubs clean.
It's spring! A month ago Bear 56 and her cubs first crawled from their den. For a week, they returned to the den at night. Now they sleep wherever they find shelter at the end of the day.
Today, all three bears climb an aspen tree. Bear 56 eats tree flowers (called catkins) and leaf buds. She bites off young branches and strips off catkins with her mouth. The cubs play and watch their mother, but they don't eat. They still drink their mother's milk.
Bear 56 plays with her cubs. They roll around together. Suddenly, Bear 56 freezes. She senses danger. She stands to hear, see, and smell what is coming. (She can smell 15 times better than you can!) The cubs scamper up a tree.
Then Bear 56 spots a big male bear. He's nearly twice her size. She slaps the ground with her front paws, pops her jaws, and makes a loud woof. The other bear cautiously circles around her, then moves off into the forest. Bear 56 grunts to her cubs to say it's safe to come down.
Finding food is Bear 56's biggest job. She must eat enough to produce milk for her cubs until fall comes and they start eating on their own. She must fatten up for nourishment during hibernation. Bear 56 likes nuts, fruits, and insects. She seldom eats meat.
Today, Bear 56 finds a wasp nest in the ground. She digs with both front paws. The wasps sting her nose, but she digs until she finds their larvae (the hatched egg). She slurps them up.
Tonight, the search for food takes Bear 56 and her cubs to the edge of the woods. There's the strong odor of human food in the air. If the bears were not so hungry, they might avoid going near people's houses, but they have not found many nuts and berries. Their noses lead them to a large, smelly container, which clangs as Bear 56 tips it over. Garbage tumbles onto the ground, and the three bears gobble up leftover chicken and mushy bananas. Then the bears hear another loud noise. A human rushes from a house, shouting and banging pans. The bears hurry away.
As winter approaches, Bear 56 and her cubs will find less and less food. In October they will search for a new den where they will hibernate until grasses, flowers, and bugs are ready for them to eat next spring.
If you're out hiking, camping, or picking berries and you see a bear, what should you do? Here are a few tips to remember.
Karen Noyce has studied black bears since 1981. She has always liked animals, camping, and hiking. She went to college and earned a master's degree in zoology to prepare for her work with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Karen belongs to a team that studies bears to learn about their habits and to find out how many live in Minnesota. Their studies help the DNR decide how many people should get permits to hunt bears each year.
To study bears, you have to be able to find them. Karen and the other biologists live-trap bears and put radio collars on them. Each collar sends out a signal the biologists hear on special radios. In winter the biologists follow the signals to dens where the bears hibernate. After giving the bears a shot to make sure they stay asleep, the biologists take blood samples and weigh the bears. They attach new collars to 1-year-old cubs to be able to follow them in spring when they leave their mother.
Karen Van Norman, who wrote this story, worked for the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program.
A complete copy of the article can be found in the January-February 1993 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.