Taking the Bait

A story I wrote back in 1998 about a bear study we were lucky enough to go out on:


Redding Record Searchlight (CA) - Tuesday, July 14, 1998
Author: Thom Gabrukiewicz, Record Searchlight
DFG traps, tracks 'eating machines'

The study seeks information on how successful north state female black bears are in raising healthy cubs to join the adult population.

McCLOUD - American black bears are smart enough to tell an ice chest from a duffel bag in a locked car. They will extract the goods with lead-pipe cruelty and a mercenary sensibility.

But put a glob of strawberry jam on a rank, decomposed salmon head, wire it to the trigger of a culvert trap and the beasts can't resist getting caught. Over and over again.

''They're such eating machines that it just overpowers them,'' said Fred Schmalenberger, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist. ''Anything real stinky or real sweet works real well.''

Given time, bears will smell a trap.

''It's always a game of one-upmanship of catching these things,'' said Don Koch, a senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game in Redding. ''These things are smart. They will figure out how to throw the trap and get the bait. That's why we have to move them.''

Koch, Schmalenberger and three other researchers are in the sixth year of a 10-year DFG study to see how successful female black bears are in introducing yearlings into the adult population. Each year for about three months, bears are trapped, weighed, measured and tagged for study between Happy Camp and Somes Bar in western Siskiyou County and in the McCloud Flats on the Shasta-Siskiyou county line.

Females are fitted with a radio collar and the biologists will track the sows to winter dens. Biologists trek to the dens using cross-country skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles and snowcats to listen. Sounds will determine if the sow has given birth. Sounds will also be used to detect how many cubs are in the litter. Sows are capable of having one to four cubs, usually every other year. Cubs will stay with the sow for about a year.

This trapping season has been good. Twenty-two bears were trapped in 12 nights, with five recaptures. Trapping will continue through July.

Since 1992, Schmalenberger has helped capture 200 bears and fitted 71 with radio collars. The DFG has located collared bears by aircraft 1,050 times and has visited 93 dens. The study costs about $26,000 a year. Each radio collar costs $400.

There are an estimated 18,000 to 25,000 black bears in California. They range in color from blond to brown and from cinnamon to black .

Last week, DFG officials allowed the Record Searchlight to follow along for a morning check of the traps on private timber land near McCloud. The traps are set and checked twice a day.

Three culvert traps - basically giant tubes with a heavy grate on one end and a steel door on the other - yield three adult males. The first is a recapture of a 285-pound male tagged a few days before. In a fury of power, it is released. It takes seconds for the bear to disappear into the forest.

About 20 minutes down a dusty logging road, another trap is full.

''Ugh, another big male,'' says Stuart Itoga, a Forest Service wildlife biologist, as he illuminates the bear with a flashlight.

''This is work,'' Schmalenberger says. ''Females are a bit easier to handle.''

The bear is clearly agitated. It groans like a reveler recovering from a wicked hangover. It pops its jaw in a defensive posture. Once eye contact is made, the bear charges the grate and leaves the viewer stumbling backward, even though the tightly-woven grate wire is at least a quarter-inch thick.

''You never get used to it,'' Koch says. ''They don't enjoy eye contact.''

Littered around the trap are bits of rotting, spawned salmon parts from DFG hatcheries, ripped up tins of mackerel and cat food, and banana peels.

Schmalenberger gathers a pack and tackle box from the back of a pickup while Itoga readies a vial of Telazol, a veterinary anesthetic, to subdue the bear for about an hour.

The drug is delivered with a quick jab of a syringe fitted onto a flexible shaft.

''It takes about seven to 11 minutes for the bear to go down,'' Schmalenberger says. In 20 minutes, the bear gets another dose of the drug. Ten minutes later, there's a thump.

Itoga and Schmalenberger strain to drag the bear from the trap. It's covered with urine and feces. Itoga wears latex gloves, Schmalenberger does not. Flies, mosquitoes and meat bees drown out the rest of the forest sounds.

Information is recorded on a form that has 58 individual spaces for data.

Metal tags are attached to each ear. Itoga uses a leather punch to make the holes. Tissue samples from the punch are collected and put into a test tube for study .

The bear 's head is laid on a tarp and Schmalenberger extracts a premolar from behind the bear 's two-inch-long canine tooth. It's the only way to tell the exact age of the animal. Each year, another ring is added to the tooth. The premolar is sent to a lab to be sliced almost transparent. The rings are counted - just like the rings of a tree - giving an exact age.

The bear will not miss the tooth. Evolution has rendered it useless.

''Bears have an immune system that's just unbelievable,'' Schmalenberger says. ''If we catch this bear again in a week, the hole would be gone, healed.''

Itoga takes two blood samples for various tests. It's temperature is taken and is 100 degrees, perfect for a bear . The paws are measured, as is the bear 's girth, head width and length, and overall length. The men struggle to weigh the bear with a pulley scale. It weighs in at 306 pounds. Then the scale breaks.

''Boy, they are just in the greatest shape, the best I've seen in seven years,'' Schmalenberger says. ''This should be the worst time of year for them, just coming out of hibernation.''

Come fall, the bear could swell to 600 pounds. It depends on the food supply.

''They are very opportunistic feeders,'' Koch says.

The black bear , ursus americanus, is the lone species of bear in California. It's a shy creature that will retreat to the brush if spotted by man. But presented with easy food, Koch said, it will crash picnics, peel back car windows and pull down backpacker's food bags from trees.

Normally, bears feed on insects, pine cones, berries, acorns and the occasional fish.

But biologists in this study have learned that bears will eat other bears. They do it frequently. The radio collars emit two signals, once of which is a death beep.

Once, Koch said, biologists discovered a large adult male sleeping atop of a radio collar. A few remains were scattered about from a yearling that was wearing the collar. Cubs weigh about 30 pounds; yearlings weigh about 60 pounds.

Bears trapped and tranquilized in the study get a biologist babysitter until the Telazol wears off.

''They'll eat anything and just as soon walk by these guys and start feeding,'' Schmalenberger said.

''This is what it's like in a bear 's world,'' Koch said.