Does a Bear Den in the Woods?

Bears… in Missouri? In the back of my mind, I knew we had a few black bears here, but I never thought we had enough to start a black bear conservation program. So when I was offered the chance to work as an intern with Biologist Jeff Beringer, and be a part of this milestone in Missouri’s natural history, there was only one answer—of course!

Our study followed 13 radio-collared bears, and my role was to help collect and analyze information about their dens. This turned out to be a much livelier undertaking than it sounds. My first day on the job is a good example.

We loaded up the Department’s truck and left early in the morning for the three-hour trek to southern Missouri. Then we met up with other Department of Conservation biologists and the landowner on whose land Bear Number 1008 was denned.

After a few introductions, we made a long, uphill hike to our first denned-up Missouri black bear. It was a female with two cubs, and she was denned in a cavity at the base of a tree. Her collar had fallen off, so Jeff needed to tranquilize her and refit the collar.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting up to that point, but the moment they heaved that 300-pound mother out of her den with her two squalling cubs, I was blown away.

Instantly I was thrown in the mix, trying to concentrate on the data that I needed to collect but overwhelmed by the sight and sounds of three wild black bears. Finally, after my initial awe, I was able to pull myself together and get back to work.

My data sheet required that I classify the den as a tree cavity, ground nest, root wad/brushpile or rock cave. Next, I needed den measurements: dimensions of the den, entrance, and bed, which required me to crawl inside the bear’s den. Being curled inside an actual bear’s den was definitely an unforgettable experience. It was surprisingly clean, warm and incredibly cozy! For a fleeting moment, it even gave me the weird sensation that it would be a wonderful place to nap after my uncharacteristically early morning.

After den measurements, I recorded the type of bedding material (leaves, grass, twigs), the den’s elevation, temperature and aspect (the compass direction of the slope where the den is located). This procedure was repeated for all eight dens that we visited.

Of those eight