Biologists start counting Pennsylvania black bears
GREENTOWN, Pennsylvania – Deep in the woods, in a hole, Emily Carrollo digs through a mess of warm, dark fur, looking for baby cubs to cuddle.
A mother black bear, one of Pennsylvania’s largest mammals, fills most of the den and, thankfully, is sleeping soundly, thanks to hibernation and a dizzying brew of tranquilizers delivered by dart.
There are about 15,000 black bears living in Pennsylvania, and this one has found prime real estate to start a family. Some bears hibernate in the open, under trees or directly on the ice of a frozen lake for some reason. This den is a deep dugout, camouflaged by a shroud of mountain laurel near Promised Land State Park in the Poconos.
Mom is fat and happy. It’s tight.
“OK, that’s her butt,” Carrollo said, feeling her pull away.
National Games Commission black bear biologist Emily Carrollo with veterinarian Scott Larsen (left) at the den before replacing the cubs with a mother bear. The commission is marking and examining five bear cubs in the Promised Land State Park area. . … Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Personal Photographer
On this late winter morning, Carrollo, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s black bear program manager, led a team of biologists, game wardens, veterinarians, students and spectators into the forest to monitor this young family. The cubs would be weighed, have their blood drawn, and then be cuddled up by the guests for about an hour, before Carrollo hands them over.
Cub count and cuddle trips are not open to the public.
Black bears have been spotted in all 67 counties of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, where they quickly became celebrities before being released back into the wild. Aside from occasional wanderers, bears generally call about three-quarters of these counties home, and they’re thickest in north-central Pennsylvania. In recent hunting seasons, most bears have been taken in Lycoming County, Potter County, and Pike County, home to Promised Land State Park.
Based in Harrisburg, Carrollo puts a lot of miles on her Game Commission truck. She can visit dozens of dens each year, count and weigh the cubs. She also seeks to dispel myths about black bears and help people live side by side, in peace, with such a fearsome animal.
” They are intelligent. They don’t want to have a conflict with a person, so when people say, ‘Be careful, they’re going to get you’, that’s really not accurate,” she says. “They are like big kitties. They don’t want to get into a physical altercation.
Black bears want to get into your bird feeder or garbage cans. They might even snatch a backdoor to devour boxes of pancake mix. This bear’s den was not far from a residential neighborhood and the state park, which is teeming with campers grilling hot dogs and s’mores every summer. That’s a lot of temptation for a bear.
“It may seem benign for a bear to play with your bird feeder or get into your trash cans, but that’s how it starts,” she said. “If you live in an area where bears live, it’s best not to install bird feeders.”
Veterinarian Scott Larsen holding the mother black bear’s paw during the exam. She was tranquilized in the den while the cubs were taken out for examination. . … Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Personal Photographer
Carrollo, who studied wildlife and fisheries science at Penn State graduate school, promotes the principles of BearWise.org, a website created by bear biologists and managers. These include traveling in groups, keeping dogs on a leash and making sure you don’t leave any litter in bear country.
“If you see a bear before it notices you, stay away. Hold still, enjoy, then walk away quietly,” advises BearWise.
Over the summer, the bear mother Carrollo and her team were now visiting climbed into a research trap. The bear was tagged and fitted with a radio collar, which is how researchers found its den.
At the den, Carrollo is face down in the snow and dirt, spreading his paws and legs. She pulls a bear cub out of the den by the skin of its skin. The two have met before.
“Hey, buddy,” she said. “Ho are you doing?”
A week earlier, Carrollo had placed the orphaned black bear cub in the den, hoping the mother would accept him as one of her own. The orphan’s ear tags dangle like oversized earrings and he doesn’t seem happy, crying for his adoptive mother. The sound is a mix of newborn baby and angry cat.
“It works out well. They’re actually really good foster moms,” Carrollo says of the adoption process. “And, you know, they can’t count.”
Carrollo quickly swaddles the orphaned bear in a towel and passes him around, before digging for more. Black bears typically have three cubs, she says, with five being the upper limit. Carrollo found five cubs in the den, including the orphan. One of them has to wrap himself in a Carhartt biologist vest.
“Wow, good job, mom,” Carrollo said to the sleeping bear.
A hundred yards beyond the den, the cubs passed to local students and state employees who followed them. Some brought their parents and children. Carrollo needs people to hold the cubs while she works. She also wants to change public perception of bears.
“Pursue. Put it in your coat, snuggle it up and keep it warm,” Game Commission biologist Molly Giles told a young girl.
“Oh my God,” the girl said.
A baby black bear is petted. The Game Commission was marking and examining 5 black bear cubs in the Promised Land State Park area. Thursday, March 9, 2023.. … Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Personal Photographer
Naming bears is frowned upon, Carrollo says, because they are wild and potentially dangerous animals. On this day, they are given simple, temporary nicknames like “runt” and, of course, “orphan”. The heaviest little one – 4.8 pounds – is “little big chunk”. After weighing the cubs and taking fur samples, Carrollo moves on to the nasty stuff: earrings and blood samples.
“I know. I’m sorry,” she tells a protesting bear cub after tapping a tag.
Ideally, after an hour of shoving, cuddling and earmarking, cubs will remember people and avoid them, Carrollo says.
Back at the den, Scott Larsen, a wildlife liaison vet from the University of Pennsylvania, monitors the mother bear’s heart rate and oxygen. She was zoned for about 50 minutes and the sedatives tend to last about an hour. Carrollo was back in the mud, moving the mother again to make room for her babies.
She put the runt first so he could drink the breastmilk first, which is 30% fat.
One by one she puts away the rest, their strange day full of people is now over.
“See you later, mate,” she said to the orphan.
At the top of the frame, veterinarian Scott Larsen assists Emily Carrollo with her head in the den to return the black cubs to their mother. . … Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Personal Photographer