Eyes not yet fully opened, newborn brother and sister bear cubs are introduced to the wide world outside their den. The babies are only two or three weeks old and toothless, but their claws are already needle sharp.
They were the stars of the show, so little and cuddly, maybe one-hundredth the size of their mother, who was zonked out in a hole at the base of a big boulder a few feet away.
Brad Crompton, a wildlife biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources, brought the twin baby black bears out of the den, to the delight of a small crowd of college biology students.
A shot of tranquilizer made sure mama was not going to come out of her hibernation and rip the visitors to shreds.
"Hey, bear!" he yelled into den a few minutes after darting her. Getting no response, he belly-crawled into the narrow opening a few feet and came out with the baby brother and sister.
While the cubs were being passed around and adored, Crompton carried out his examination of their mother. She was fine. A dose of antibiotic would help her stay that way.
An assistant then went in to adjust the bear's radio collar. It was the tell-tale signal of the radio that gave away the bear family's hiding place.
Crompton detected it during a fly-over of the area near the Dugout Mine east of Wellington. It's his job to keep track of more than a dozen collared females in Southeastern Utah during their hibernation. He assesses their health and keeps track of cubs born.
It means a lot of hiking through wintry wilderness. This time, though, it looked like a short hike - about a mile and a half from the Dugout road on the map - so Crompton invited the students and professors from USU Eastern to come along.
"We'll take it easy and take some breaks," he told the group before setting out on the trek. "When we get close I'll give you a signal to keep quiet. We don't want to disturb her."
After the briefing, the group set out, guided by a radio receiver with a directional antenna.
It took about three hours to reach the den. That's because a mile and a half horizontally on the map does not count slogging up and down all the hills, through the snow, the mud and ducking under the branches of all the pinyon pines and junipers.
Crompton, a triathlete, wasn't even breathing hard despite carrying the veterinary gear and outdoor equipment he has learned to carry into the outback. "I probably overpack, but you can never tell how long you're going to be out here," he explained.
It was worth the effort to get to the hideaway. First, the students who went along got to hold the babies and crawl a few feet into the den to see the mother.
Second, those who went on the expedition only had to write a one-page paper on Ursus americanus, while those who opted out had to turn in a three-pager.
About the bears:
The cubs are born around mid-February while the mother is hibernating. They are born small, only two pounds or less. Their eyes don't open for four to six weeks.
Interestingly, bears mate in the summer but the fertilized ovum remains dormant until November, about the time when the mother enters her long winter nap.
Prior to entering the cave or some other shelter, she'll build a bed or nest of some sort. This particular bear shredded the bark off a few nearby junipers and packed it into the den.
People remarked on how warm the interior of the den felt. Bears don't lower their body temperature much when they hibernate, though other aspects of metabolism such as breathing and waste production slow down. Their heart rate drops to eight or ten beats per minute.
The babies will reach full size in about five years. "Full size" depends on the bear, its health and its diet. Females range from around 100 to 300 pounds, males about 25 to 30 percent heavier. There are exceptions, with some really big ones on record.
Adult claws reach about an inch and a half, short compared to the four inchers on grizzlies and brown bears.
They have a marvelous sense of smell. Mama bear would no doubt be able to tell that humans had been around and handled her babies if she awoke.
"I smeared some Vicks under her nose so she wouldn't notice for a while," Crompton told the students.