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PENNSYLVANIA BLACK BEARS


MILFORD, Pa. (AP) Mark Ternent squeezes his bulky frame into the narrow opening of a bear den and shines a flashlight into the eyes of a 200-pound female.
Two black bear cubs are suckling, and their mother looks back at Ternent, alert but relaxed.
It is early March, and these bears won't come out of hibernation for another six weeks.



The wildlife biologist shoots a tranquilizer
dart into the mother's rump, but the dart goes
into fat, not muscle, slowing absorption into her blood.
Ternent waits 20 minutes, but she is still awake,
so he shoots a second dart.
This one does the trick
she's completely out of it.



Ternent then goes to work, dragging
the bears from their den.

By the end of March, he will have visited
some 30 bear dens around the state, tagging,
weighing and taking the vital signs of hibernating
mothers and their offspring as part of an effort to
gauge the health and size of Pennsylvania's bruin population.

As caretaker of the state's 15,000 black bears,
Ternent must figure out the optimal
ratio of bears to people.
That number will determine how many
bears need to be killed by hunters to keep
the population under control.



Bears are not a problem in more
remote areas of the state. But here in
the increasingly populous Pocono Mountains, complaints
about nuisance bears are rising especially among
recent arrivals from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia,
who tend to have little experience with the animals.

"They see a bear in their backyard
and they panic, thinking that the bears are
going to take a couple of their children,'' says Tim Conway,
an information and education supervisor
with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.



Pennsylvania has had perhaps 20 bear attacks
over the past 30 years, none of them
fatal or even serious.
But black bears have killed people in other
states, and can inflict significant damage
on crops and livestock.

Black bear encounters are rising in
Pennsylvania and in many other Eastern states
because the species is increasing in number at a
time when more of their habitat is being lost to development.

It is such a topic of concern that
bear biologists from around the eastern United States
and Canada are meeting in West Virginia
next month to discuss ways to manage
conflict between bears and people.



"I think most states are becoming more
aggressive in managing these populations,
and it's a direct result of human-wildlife encounters,''
says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife
Management Institute and former director of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service.

He calls the Poconos and northern New Jersey,
where bears have made a dramatic rebound,
the "epicenter'' of black bear-human interaction.



In New Jersey, rising complaints about
bears prompted officials in 2003 to allow
black-bear hunting for the first time in
more than three decades. But last year's
hunt was canceled amid protests from
anti-hunting groups, and New Jersey's top
environmental official said non-lethal ways of dealing
with bears need to be explored.

In Pennsylvania, hunting has long been
used to control the bear population, which quadrupled in the 1980s and '90s.
As a result of an extended rifle season and the
introduction of an archery season,
the number of bears killed through hunting
has risen from 1,796 in 1996 to 3,122 in 2006.



Now Ternent, the bear biologist, is
aiming to come up with a bear population
objective for various parts of the state,
taking into account factors such as human population
density, forest cover and the availability of food.

Among other things, he wants
to know how many cubs are out there,
the ratio of males to females and the
condition of the mothers. He will
use the information to estimate the bear population.

Black bears sleep deeply when they
are hibernating but wake up to give birth
and tend to their young. They can be easily roused.



The den Ternent visited in early
March is surrounded by houses, and
you could walk past it and never know
it was there. Only the
sow's radio collar, put on her during
a previous visit, betrays her location:
a cavern formed by two large rocks.

After the bear is sedated,
Ternent pulls her squawking, squirmy
cubs from the den and hands them off
to colleagues.
Then he fastens a rope to the mother's front
legs and they drag her out, too.

For the cubs, born the first
or second week of January, "this is
the first daylight they've seen
out of the den,'' Ternent says.



Their fur is remarkably soft, and
they smell clean and fresh much better
than your typical family dog. They struggle
mightily, but at only 6 pounds they are
no match for the humans, who
are careful to avoid the cubs' long,
dagger-like claws.

Ternent and his team take
the mother's vital signs respiration, heart rate,
temperature fit her with a new radio collar,
and tattoo her inner lip with a serial number
that can be used to identify her
if her ear tags come off.



She weighs 197 pounds, about 30 percent
less than when she entered the den in November.
But she has a soft, pillowy feel,
her bones aren't sticking out anywhere and
her fur is in good condition.
She is in fine health.

It is the sow's first litter, and her
cubs are weighed in plastic drawstring bags
imprinted with Smokey Bear.
Ternent tags them, then pushes and
pulls their mother back into the den.
He snuggles the cubs against their mother,
covers the den's two entrances with pine
branches, and departs.



"They are a charismatic species,
no doubt about it, he says.


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