In the late winter and early spring, wildlife biologist Brad Crompton heads out to locations in the wilds of the southeast Utah unit to check on sleeping bears. Why would anyone spend his days crawling into small spaces to poke dangerous animals? Crompton and several other wildlife biologists with the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) do it to gauge the health of the bear population around the state by tracking a few.
Conservation Outreach Specialist Brent Stettler invited me along to document the process as Crompton, Stettler and Walt Maldonado headed to Tuscher Canyon past Green River to locate one of the 18 tagged and collared bears sows in the Southeastern Region. So far Crompton has located about nine of his charges and Wednesday we were going to try and find another one. Statewide there are about 25 collared bears. The Southeastern District has the biggest bear population in the state because it includes areas like the LaSals, Nine Mile Canyon, and the Bookcliffs.
One of the things that the biologists are checking on is whether or not a sow has cubs and how many. A bear cub will stay with the mom for a little over a year before breaking off and seeking its own territory. If there is a winter where they find a lot of new cubs, the biologist can brace for more of a problem with juvenile bears heading into town looking for easy food. So far this season it has been adding up to an average birth year.
Our day started at 7:00 a.m. at the DWR office. We threw back packs and cameras in the trucks and headed to Green River to pick up Maldonado. His job with DWR is called a Dedicated Hunting Coordinator. It was his first time to go out and locate a bear as well.
It was after 9:30 before we finally rolled to a stop. Glad to be out of the vehicle we grabbed our packs and headed up a small drainage. Crompton pointed to the far ridge line as our probable destination. He had a contraption on his back that reminded me of the TV antenna we used to have on our house when I was growing up.
After about a twenty minutes of plodding up the dry creek bed we headed up on the bench to see if Crompton could get a signal. The contraption of his back was indeed an antenna and was connected to a hand held tracking GPS device that would show a bar code when contact was made with the transmitter that was strapped around the bear's neck. The first attempt revealed no signal. Onward we trekked.
We dropped back down to the wash bottom because the slopes were slick and muddy and made the going slow and a bit treacherous. Once back in the sand we picked up the recent tracks of a cougar. They were at least a day or two old, but still it gave us a little cause for caution.
After several more checks with the antenna, we began narrowing in. After a few hours we headed up the side of the canyon slithering and sliding through the mud created by the melting snow. At times our feet were so coated with the muck it felt like we had Frankenstein feet. Our steps had to be carefully done to avoid stepping on loose material ready to send us hurtling to the bottom on a rock snowboard.
Soon Crompton was ahead of us as he began to close in on his quarry. Way above the canyon floor we stopped to try and figure out how to get across a chasm of rubble to get to where Crompton was. As Stettler and Maldonado checked out one route, I dropped down to see if we could get around some around some boulder debris. The boulders were the size of a small shed. There was a big space underneath them and as I walked next to them the hair stood up on the back on my next. I beat a hasty retreat back to where Stettler was and ask him if there could be other bear caves around. He laughed and we headed another way to meet up with Crompton.
By that time he was coming back and had a strong signal, but was having trouble figuring out exactly where it was coming from. He though we still might need to climb a bit more. I laughed and told him about my discovery and he decided to give it a look before we headed up.
Within minutes it was confirmed that the bear we were looking for was in there. Crompton worked around and found the main entrance and came back and told us she was in there and awake. He loaded his syringe with a combination of Ketamine and Xylazine. He then put that in the dart gun and we left Stettler to guard the upper entrance to try and keep the bear from running.
The rest of us headed to the main opening. I peered in and there she was, staring back at me. Crompton darted her and we waited. We stood and watched her green eyes peering out. They finally blinked a few times and then disappeared. Now Crompton had to crawl in to the narrow space and see if she was sleeping. He called out. Nothing. He then poked her with a long branch he had taken in with him for that purpose. She showed that she was not asleep, but drugged and bugged. He backed out and loaded up another syringe. I peered in and instead of seeing green eyes, I was now staring clearly at her face. Startled, I leaped off the boulder I was standing on and told them she was moving forward. She began to try and get out of the den. I decided to stay out of the way.
Maldonado and Crompton stood their ground in the entrance and talked to her, trying to settle her down. When Crompton could get a good shot, he took it and the waiting game was on. She was determined not to go down easy. At the entrance to the den, she could no longer fight it and she rolled on her back and gave in to the drug. As I moved back to where I could see into the den I was amazed at how calm they had stayed as she came within inches of them.
Only then did Crompton relay a story about his previous encounter with her where she got up and ran after two darts had taken her down. He was a bit nervous as he crawled in behind her to turn her over and pull her back into the den a bit. Her eyes never closed and at times seemed to be blinking and trying to wake up. Soon Crompton relaxed, convinced she was in a deep slumber and Maldonado climbed in to help.
They worked quickly. They pulled out the darts and estimated that she was close to 200 pounds, which is big for a sow. They checked her health and verified that there were no cubs in the den. I declined to crawl in behind her just to get my picture taken. Once during the process she let out a low growing noise that turned out to be a snore. We all jumped a bit and then laughed at each other. After a bit more documentation we packed up and left her dozing in her den. The drugs would probably wear off before we would get back to our vehicles.
During our trek we talked about many facets of bears and hunting. I had a question about bear baiting and acclimating bears to human food. So far studies have shown no significant data either way. I found out that baiting was only allowed by bow hunters and that each request to bait had to be approved to assure it happened away from popular recreation areas.
I also learned that many of the bears are taken in the spring by hunters using dogs. They are mainly taking males because the sows hibernate longer. But both Crompton and Maldonado said that approximately 80 percent of the hunters do not kill the bears they hunt. They respect the bears and it is more about the hunt than the kill.
By about 3:00 we arrived back to our vehicles, a little tired, but pretty happy to have accomplished the task we set out to do.