American Black Bear: 40 people hear NDOW talk
Who would have the nerve to crawl inside a hollow tree trunk to put a new radio collar on a hibernating American Black Bear, and why would anyone want to do that, anyway?
The “who” is most any state biologist, and the “why” is because bears outgrow their old radio collars and will choke to death if larger collars are not routinely replaced.
Nevada Division of Wildlife biologist San Stiver shared his years of experience studying the black bear with approximately 40 fascinated listeners Saturday during a free presentation at the Mormon Station and Stockade in Genoa.
“The interesting thing about climbing into a den with a hibernating bear is that they aren’t really that aggressive,” he said. “It’s almost as though they can’t believe someone would actually have the nerve to do that, and they think you must be some bad dude if you’re actually inside their den.”
He said that when baby bears were encountered inside the dens, they were docile and trusting.
“We would just take a cub and set him on our shoulders and they’d stay there,” he said. “If we put them down, they’d follow us around. It was like they thought, ‘Hey, if this guy’s here, he must be a good guy,’ so they trusted us.”
But, he cautioned, two weeks out of the den, the previously docile babies were wild.
Among black bears, Nevada’s only bear species, there are color phases, Stiver explained at the beginning of his 1-1/2 hour talk.
“Actually, black bears that are black in color are not really common in Nevada,” he said. “Our most common color is a brown black bear, actually called the cinnamon-phase black bear. It’s confusing to most people.”
Stiver spent hundreds of hours between 1987 and 1991 studying bears as part of a cooperative study between the Nevada Department of Wildlife and University of Nevada, Reno.
Biologists like Stiver were required to study the bears in their natural habitat, which included going into bear dens to tag hibernating individuals, switch their radio collars and take statistical data for the baseline study.
When the study began, he said, one of the ways the bears were studied involved making a bait pile to lure them in.
“What do you suppose you could put in a bait pile to attract bears?” he asked the crowd.
The responses came from old and young.
“Honey,” said a young boy.
“Picnic food,” said an obvious Yogi the Bear afficionado.
“Beer?” asked a smiling older woman.
“Well,” Stiver began, “we can use just about anything to bring in bears. They are omnivores and eat most anything, but we did find that sweets, fish and roadkill were especially effective.”
He said that Reno-area businesses donated their leftovers to the effort during the study.
“We got tamales and bear claws (big laugh) and tons of carp,” he said.
Near the bait piles, live traps were used to isolate individuals for study. Harmless foot snares were also used.
“Bears are really funny about getting caught in a foot snare,” he sid. “For the most part they become quiet and unaggressive once they’re caught.”
He said the biologists were often able to approach a snared bear, lean in and jab it with a tranquilizer needle and wait for the bear to go to sleep.
“Of course, bears, like people, have different personalities, so this was not always the case,” he cautioned.
Because of the nature of the study, biologists were able to catch the same bears over and over, and some individuals became favorites, Stiver said.
One particular small female seemed to have held a special place in Stiver’s heart, as he referred to her often. Her pelt was one of several on display at the talk. Most of the pelts were from road kills or some other accident, he explained.
“What happened to this bear?” someone asked, pointing to the small female.
She was a feisty one, he said.
“We had her snared and were going to shoot a tranquilizer into her hindquarters to anesthetize her, but she turned at the same moment the shot was fired, and the needle hit her right above the eye and she went down instantly,” Stiver said. “The drugs were released right into her brain tissue. It was a shame.”
The study included bears in both the Sierra Nevada and the Sweetwater range. Results showed a great difference between bears inhabiting the two areas, Stiver said.
“The Sierra bears had a very small home range compared to the Sweetwater bears,” he explained, adding that “home range” refers to the area an individual animal uses for all its activities.
“The Sweetwater bear had a home range of approximately 125 square miles, and the Sierra bear used maybe 35 square miles. Quite a difference,” he said.
The difference in size of the bears was also significant, Stiver added.
“We found that the Sweetwaters had the largest black bears in the United States,” he said, “and the Sierra bears were considerably smaller.”
Between now and until the bears move into their hibernation dens – usually around Thanksgiving – Stiver said they will be voraciously trying to fatten up.
“They’ll need around 50,000 calories a day to fatten up,” he said. At this time, the home range of a bear might grow according to its dietary needs, he said.
Because the talk was held in Genoa, many people in the audience were concerned about what to do when encountering a bear, since bears are no stranger to Nevada’s oldest settlement.
“First of all, don’t give a bear a reason to come onto your property,” he said. “People who feed bears are killing them, period. We say ‘a fed bear is a dead bear,’ because when a bear gets comfortable with humans and dependent on our food, they become a nuisance bear, and nuisance bears usually end up being killed.”
Feeding bears doesn’t just mean intentionally putting out food for them, he said, explaining that when you live in bear country, you have to be a bit more careful about storing food. Garbage, pet food, fruit trees, berry bushes – all are attractive to bears.
Even burying dead pets in your yard can attract bears. Stiver told of one woman who had around 100 cats.
“When she would go into the woods to bury a cat, the bear would come and dig it up,” he said. “Pretty soon, as she would walk out to bury another cat, the bear would be waiting. Remember, they’re omnivores, they love anything, including carrion.”
He said the best way to deal with a bear is to scare it with loud noises, clapping hands, throwing things – whatever works to frighten it.
“Stand up, make yourself look big, and scare it away,” he said.
Audience members contributed their own suggestions of how to deal with bears in the wild. Among them: swimming into a lake, having a pile of rocks by your tent door and throwing them at bears and hanging your food at least 8 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from a tree trunk.
If that fails, it is time to call in a professional. Carl Lackey, a Nevada Division of Wildlife biologist who handles calls from this region, can be reached through the Fallon office, 423-3171.