"So, what did we decide. Did we want to bring the rifle ... or not?" says Forrest Hammond.
That would be a dart rifle, capable of shooting a sedative-filled barb into the flank of a fleeting bear, and the answer is yes.
"We've got a dart rifle, which we use if we're not able to get 'em with a syringe on the end of a jab stick and they run ahead of us. It's kind of a backup," Hammond tells the group assembled around him beneath the spinning blades of the Searsburg wind turbines.
Hammond is Vermont's lead bear biologist and he heads up a team monitoring bear activity in the area on a project called the Deerfield Wind Black Bear Study. As a requirement of getting a permit to build a big wind farm, the Spanish company Iberdrola agreed to pay for a study looking at how bears are affected by ridge line development. Radio collars on several bears in the area track their movements, and the information they reveal may help determine site requirements for future wind projects in Vermont and beyond.
"Today we're here to change or check the fit on a young female bear that we actually caught in 2013,” Hammond says. “Last year we went to the den, she was a very young female and we were very surprised that she actually had one little cub with her when we got there. She was one of the youngest females we knew of to have cubs in Vermont.” Hammond explains that the bear is only 4 years old now, and the team is curious to see if her cub survived the year. “If it did, it's denned up with her in the den today," he says.
There are seven of us on this mission today, including four Fish and Wildlife staffers, me, and a father and daughter who are along to observe. Thirteen-year-old Kerigan Disorda wants to work for Fish and Wildlife when she grows up, so Hammond invited her and her dad along.
We've parked up at the top of a dirt road, directly underneath the blades of the wind turbines that are already in place from a previous Green Mountain Power project.
Fish and Wildlife technician Jaclyn Comeau has already scoped out the den. “This bear is actually the closest one denning to the existing wind farm that's down here,” she explains. “And she's denning in a beech stand, which is kind of the type of forest we're most interested in because of beech nuts, which are an important food source for bears. We're trying to find out what impact having these turbines here might have on bears that decide to feed on those stands that are close to the wind farms.”
The snow is still pretty deep up here on top of the ridge, so we strap on our snowshoes and step into the forest. We’re making a lot of noise, but Hammond says that's unlikely to disturb the hibernating bears. “The good thing is, the deeper the snow, the deeper they sleep. So they're not expecting any problems. And we very well may even have to dig to find them."
Comeau uses radio telemetry and her GPS to try to pinpoint exactly where the bears are. We walk along the ridge and then drop down a steep hillside. A couple hundred meters from where the GPS says the bears are, we pause so the researchers can load up the syringes they'll use to tranquilize both the mother and her cub.
Comeau takes a couple of small vials out of a tool box. She and specialist Ryan Smith load the drugs into large syringes. The drugs are a mix of sedatives, similar to what your vet might use if your dog has to go in for surgery. The filled syringes are then attached to long poles, called jab sticks. There's a heavier dose for the mother and a lighter one for the yearling. Loaded up, we head closer to the den.
We slide down a steep hill, trying now to be quiet so we don't disrupt the bears. The team runs over to a dead tree and stops. The GPS says the bear is right here, but where? “We know the den is here but we don't know where the entrance is. That's what we're going to have to dig to find out,” says Hammond.
Comeau takes a snowshoe off of her foot and uses it to start digging.
The tree is about halfway up a very steep hillside. The wind turbines are visible through the trees and you can hear the faint whirring of the blades. It takes some persistence, but the team digs a little of the deep snow away from the base of the tree and peer in with a red flashlight. The mother bear is in there! And so is the cub.
"I see her, her ear tag right here," says Smith.
"He's, I think, on top of her,” adds Comeau, spotting the yearling cub, who clearly survived the winter.
"Just be ready with the jab stick," Smith says, in case the bears decide to bolt.
The bear is hard to reach. The snow is deep, the entrance to the den is small, and it's very dark inside. It's hard to believe any bear could squeeze through the hole and even harder to imagine two bears curled up inside the hollowed out tree stump! Comeau and Smith lie down at the entrance, trying to get in position. Smith holds the jab stick. He slides it into the den, trying to spot a good place on the mother. Smith goes in for the shot. "I don't know. She moved right when I tried to jab her. I don't feel good about that jab. She turned her head,” he says.
They wait to see if she goes down. But 15 minutes later she's still alert. Smith must have hit her thick fur and not her muscle. So they prepare another syringe.
“Alright, let's drug her again,” says Smith.
Trying to get her attention, they talk to her, calling her by the name they've given her, Medley.
Smith and Comeau lie down in the snow beside the tree in awkward positions, trying to position the jab stick and shine the weak light into the den. "I don't know what's a cub and what's her," Smith says.
Finally, the big bear turns. Comeau slides the jab stick into her fur.
Moments later she tries to bolt. Her head pops up through the hole in the tree. Comeau and Smith jump up and put their snowshoes on the hole to keep her down. They place a coat over the opening, along with a snowshoe. And she stays down. Five minutes later she's asleep. Then it's time to sedate the cub. This takes awhile too, as Smith tries to figure out where in the inky darkness the cub's thick muscles are. He doesn't want to hit ribs, or organs. Finally he gets a good line and drains the sedatives into the cub, who quickly falls asleep.
It's taken a couple of hours to get to this point and now the team wants to move fast. They've got 45 minutes or an hour before the bears will wake up. In that time they need to check the weight of both bears and replace the collar on the mother. They also need to build up a shelter of pine boughs in case they can't get the big sleeping bear back into the tree.
They dig with the hatchet to get some of the ice around the den cut out. Then, very quickly, they pull the cub out. They lay him uphill from the den on top of a jacket. He’s the size of a medium dog. His fur is a couple of inches thick, but very soft. His black toenails are sharp. His head is wide, with rounded ears on either side and his face narrows to a point at the tip of the nose.
The group agrees: He's a little furball.
They slide a net underneath him and lift, hooking the net to the scale. He’s 37 pounds, is on the small side for a yearling. But Comeau says he appears perfectly healthy.
“We believe this is her first offspring, so it's kind of to be expected that she's still kind of learning how to get enough food to raise young,” she says. “First litters tend to be smaller. The first few months of life are the big hurdle. And the next one will be next summer when he's dispersing. But it's a good sign that she was able to get him this far.”
Comeau and Smith move on to the mother, who's been dragged just a few feet from the den. They hunker down to check her radio collar. The radio collars are supposed to last three years but can die in a year, so they usually replace them before the bear is out of hibernation.
Medley's collar has been rubbing a bit and there's an abrasion on her neck. The specialists say the wound poses no danger to the bear, but they do want to make the collar a little looser, particularly for the summer when she's putting on weight. They're actually concerned that this bear is as big as she is right now, at the end of winter. It likely means she was being fed by a human before she went into hibernation. That's a problem, because bears that get used to being fed by humans can become nuisance bears, getting acclimated to humans and causing property damage and worry for local residents. So nuisance bears are often killed if they can't be relocated.
Hammond says there's a neighbor down the mountain who's well known to the biologists. “He was feeding; we warned him,” says Hammond. “He posted his land, got a lawyer, told us we can't come on his land to see. But all our telemetry points are coming from his house now, on her.”
They explain that a lot of the animals in this particular area were going south to oak stands to find natural food sources last summer, but not Medley. “She was the only bear that stuck around when there wasn't any food. And she's fat,” Hammond says.
Fat is a relative term. Medley turns out to be 125 pounds. That's a fairly standard weight for a female bear; they usually weigh between 120 and 180 pounds. Male bears are often about double that. But individual bears' weights fluctuate significantly based on the season, and that can make it hard to fit a collar. In the summertime, when they're at their plumpest, their necks can be bigger than their heads and the collars can slide right off, ruining the chances for scientists to study their movements. So they're careful to make Medley's collar loose, but not too loose.
By this time, the cub has started to wake up. He's looking around and sticking out his tongue. They carefully nestle him back in the den. His mother's still out, and too unwieldy to move. So they collect spruce boughs. They place them underneath her, as a little bit of insulation. And they make a tent above her, so it's nice and dark and protected when she wakes up.
The hope is that Medley will stay right where she is, but it's possible she'll get up and move around after she wakes. She won't go far, though, without her cub. It's only a couple of weeks before she and the cub will be awake for good, and off down the mountain to search for food.
As we take a last look around, to make sure we haven't left anything behind, Hammond underscores why studying these bears is important. He explains that by following the bears and their behavior, state researchers will get an idea of whether or not wind turbines displace the bears from their natural habitat.
“And the question is, will the bears use all the habitat right up to where it's cleared? Or will there be a buffer distance of 100 meters, a quarter-mile or a half-mile?”
Iberdrola's wind turbines aren't built yet. The turbines that are there now, owned by Green Mountain Power, are much fewer and much smaller. Hammond hopes the bear study can get the funding to continue as the new turbines are built so the team can get a true read on how bears are affected. But this study won't help bears like Medley if it turns out the wind project is detrimental. Their lives would already be altered, but the information they give the scientists could help other bears.
“And we'll learn from that to know how to better site future projects in the state,” says Hammond.
It's late afternoon. Time to leave the bears in peace and trudge back up the mountain. Under the spruce canopy, Medley is still dozing. Inside the den in the hollowed out tree, her cub is resting quietly, blinking in the dark, waiting for spring.