Maine Black Bears | Yankee Classic
Hugie crawls quietly to the mouth of the den and scoops the snow away. A 50-pound nylon net is secured to branches and packed with snow to form a canopy around the den. A syringe of ketamine hydrochloride is prepared and attached to the end of a three-foot-long jab stick. Hugie peers in and stares at the face of the bear he has named Harry. Harry trembles like a dog at the veterinarian’s office.
“The myth of the big, bad meat-eating bear dies hard,” Hugie says. “People expect the bear to charge from the den, grab everyone in sight, and claw them to pieces. Still you don’t take chances with bears; they are too unpredictable. You learn their critical distance and you keep to it. If people would let go of the myth of the bad black bear, they would find a remarkable animal.”
When he looks at a bear in winter Hugie says he never ceases to be amazed. For six months the bear does not eat, drink, or eliminate, yet its body temperature remains nearly normal. But when under duress it will fight with enormous strength even though it is in a state of chronic starvation.
Sometimes Hugie will wait from morning until darkness for a bear to leave its den so that he can inject the sedative with more safety for the bear. If the sedative is injected accidentally in tissue rather than in muscle, a bear could develop an infection, dying months later after wandering unhappily from den to den, unable to rest.
Hugie thrusts a stick lightly into Harry’s chest. He is provoking him to leave the den. He is also testing his aggressiveness. When Harry does come out, Hugie wants to know what to expect. With bears, though, there are no certainties. Once while he was preparing a syringe, a female named Skinny started from her den. Since she had been passive in the past, Hugie thrust his snowshoes, still on his feet, at her, certain she would shrink back. Instantly he was in the grip of a powerful animal, pulling him by his snowshoes into her den. “I know the surge of panic when for a moment you think you are going to be eaten by a wild animal,” Hugie says.
To see one of Maine’s black bears leave its den is as breathtaking and suspenseful as witnessing a birth. First the pointed head, the round burly shoulders beautifully glossy with winter’s coat, then the haunches, ready to leap away. Stricken with alarm, Harry snags on the net. He has lost half his weight since September (“Too much weight,” Hugie worries) and weighs only 85 pounds. (“We grow up thinking bears weigh 600 pounds,” Hugie says.)
In a few minutes the sedative takes hold. Harry’s eyes become as glassy as marbles. His tongue darts in and out like a lizard’s. He needs a sleeping bag to protect him from the cold. It takes nearly an hour for Hugie and his two assistants to complete their work with Harry. Bright red tape is wrapped around his collar, in the hope that a hunter will see the collar and spare Harry for research. One season’s data on Harry will cost $5000. The collar is tightened around the thinned neck — more than once Hugie has trailed the pulsing in his earphones to find a collar dangling from a branch. In the spring Hugie will mount antennas on the wing struts of his single-engine Cessna. He will fly eight hours a day over these woods, earphones on, maps on his lap, charting the wanderings of Harry and his other bears.
“The key is to understand habitat needs,” Hugie says. “Then we can start to preserve it.”
Hugie wonders if Harry will live to see another winter. In the spring his extreme starvation will cause him to wander ceaselessly in search of the young grasses that, except for carrion, are the only source of food. It is in the spring when the bear, desperately driven by hunger, will most likely conflict with man, hunger overruling caution. Last spring a black bear killed three teenagers in a Quebec National Park as they returned from a fishing trip with the fish stuffed in coat pockets. Bear hunters set bait in the spring, potatoes and molasses, scraps of meat, and wait.
Hugie compares replacing a bear in its den as “trying to close an overstuffed suitcase.” Sometimes when pushing fails, he lays the bear on a stretcher, tilts it, and slides the bear home. Harry is sprayed with a mild perfume to “remove the stench of humans.” Hugie wants Harry to awaken in his den, suffering from nothing worse than a bad dream. If he remembers that his den is no longer sacrosanct he is likely to seek another.