Researchers lowered in bear dens in predator-prey study

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Nick Fowler, a Ph.D. candidate with Mississippi State University, takes measurements of a bear's teeth during a dear den check in the Ottawa National Forest Wednesday. The check is part of a predator-prey study conducted by Mississippi State and the Department of Natural Resources.

KENTON — On a frigid morning in the Ottawa National Forest, Nick Fowler was lowered into an earth den and pulled out a black bear.

“It’s really interesting to get in there and see them whenever they’re hibernating like that,” said Fowler, a Ph.D. candidate at Mississippi State University. “Their behavior is cool, and it’s just neat to see those cubs in there and imagine that this is happening all over the place … First and foremost, obviously, we’re here for the data collection, and the fun part is ancillary. But it’s hard not to feel excited.”

The data collection is part of an ongoing predator-prey study conducted by Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Mississippi State University. The study looks at what role winter weather, habitat and predation play in whitetail deer populations. That also includes studying the numbers and activity of deer predators, including black bears as well as coyotes, bobcats and wolves.

“Doing the den inspections like we do every year is a means of checking on the status of the animals, replacing the collars with a global positioning system collar, so that when these bears exit the den in the spring, we’re monitoring their movements,” said Jerrold Belant, professor of wildlife biology and management at Mississippi State.

Spring monitoring of bears tells researchers where the bears are during the birth of the deer fawns, the point when fawns are most vulnerable to bear predation.

Males have a wider range, particularly in the breeding season in summer.

On Wednesday morning, the researchers took down notes on the tranquilized bear. That includes taking biological samples, such as hair and blood, and data on things like weight and teeth measurements.

“It’s interesting that we’ve had these bears collared for so long that we can look at weight gain and different things over time,” Fowler said.

The female bear checked Wednesday had been collared last June. Researchers spent the summer following the spots where she traveled to check for whitetail deer predation. She was about 160 pounds Wednesday, up about 45 pounds from the summer.

TOMORROW: The researchers examine cubs found in the female bear’s den.