Wild Ideas: Virginia begins new bear-research project   

For the first time in more than a decade, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologists are putting radio collars on female bears to collect data and track potential surrogate moms for rescued orphaned cubs.

Game and Inland Fisheries Reunited with her cubs after having a radio collar placed on her, Bear 001 and her family prepare to take off into the wild.Courtesy of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Reunited with her cubs after having a radio collar placed on her, Bear 001 and her family prepare to take off into the wild.

Through a series of emails, I found out more about this project from Jaime Sajecki, VDGIF Black Bear Project leader. The data acquired through the new project “will provide new insights into the movements, denning habits and home ranges of wild female bears in unstudied areas of Virginia,” she says.

The department plans to collar 10 sows in in portions of the Shenandoah Valley and in south-central Virginia this year. The collars will have GPS capability and be linked to satellites that transmit location data to biologists studying the bears, Sajecki says. The department plans to track another 10 sows this way in 2017. The project should continue “for the foreseeable future,” she says, deploying the collars on different bears in different areas of the commonwealth on a rotating basis.

To collar the sows, VDGIF biologists must be sedate them. Because of the drugs, the bears can’t blink, Sajecki says, so eye lubricant, which looks like a thick gel, is put into the bears’ eyes, which are then covered with a blindfold to keep the sun, dirt and debris out of them.

Sows that are collared and have cubs this winter may also end up serving as surrogate moms for orphaned cubs that are rescued by VDGIF. In the past, such cubs were often matched with “nuisance” sows that were brought into the Black Bear Research Center (BBRC) at Virginia Tech and had cubs over the winter. The center was set up through a partnership with VDGIF in 1986 and has been operating since then except for 2009-2012, Sajecki says. Three to five females were there every year they were open, with a couple of exceptions, she adds, and orphan cubs were also wild fostered on radio-collared bears in a previous study (Cooperative Alleghany Bear Study) and more recently brought to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

The first bear (Bear 001) in a new Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries bear study is sedated and collared with a GPS tracking system before being released back into the wild.Courtesy of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
The first bear (Bear 001) in a new Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries bear study is sedated and collared with a GPS tracking system before being released back into the wild.

The new collaring program will make it possible to shift the fostering to some of the newly collared sows, placing a cub in the den of a sow that gives birth in the wild rather than at BBRC, Sajecki says, which will discontinue its fostering program.

“Using wild female bears as surrogate mothers for orphan cubs has been a successful practice in Virginia,” says Sajecki. “Female bears are excellent mothers and will readily take orphan cubs.”

The first of the bears to be collared, prosaically named Bear 001, was a sow that gave birth to a cub at the center last winter and that had been given a cub to foster. Bear 001, with her cubs in tow, was let loose in May where she was originally captured last fall. (To see a video of their release, visit tinyurl.com/wi-bearfamily.)

“She is a really good mom,” Sajecki says. “I watched her get the foster, and she was so amazing and patient with that little bear.” This sow had her one cub late in the winter so was last to leave from the bear center, Sajecki says. “We decided to collar her so that we could use her for more fosters in the spring of 2018.”

VDGIF will be collaring mostly sows without cubs this year, Sajecki says, because cubs stay with their mom through a second winter, making the sow unavailable for fostering an orphaned cub until the following winter (2018). As of July 11, three more sows had been collared, one with cubs, says Sajecki.

When the biologists do capture and collar a sow with cubs, “the cubs will likely just hang out in the trees until we are done and she wakes up.” She adds that the project team hopes that the other two collared sows will breed this summer so they can be used for fostering this winter.

The project’s biologists will go into the dens of the collared sows this winter to check on their availability as surrogates. A sow with cubs will be given “an appropriate number” of orphan cubs, depending on her condition, age and number of natural cubs she already has, Sajecki says. Data on any cubs will also be collected, including gender, weight and a few other measurements, “while they are little.” No data will be collected on cubs once they are out of the den next spring.

Leaving sows and their cubs in the wild rather than studying them in captivity is “better for the bears by far,” says Sajecki. But there is one downside to this approach: while that the department hopes the radio-collared sows “will provide several years of service to the Department’s bear project,” she says, they may legally be “harvested” by hunters following hunting regulations.

For more about this project, and about Virginia’s black bears and their management generally, visit  dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear or contact Sajecki at jaime.sajecki@dgif.virginia.gov.

© 2016 Pam Owen

 

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