You might think that Crow Wing State Park would be a perfect home for a hibernating bear. The park itself is in a hibernatory state of sorts come winter, with only the occasional cross-country skier or snowshoer passing through. A tranquil and peaceful winter retreat.
All was quiet again Thursday — until they came.
They were researchers, along with the DNR and folks from the University of Minnesota and Medtronic, a medical device company based in Minneapolis — and some brought children and other family members. In all, about 40 people descended upon the park on a mild afternoon to get a look at a hibernating female bear — with the possibility that, at some point during her long winter’s nap, she had given birth. That’s not unusual at all for black bears.
That a bear is hibernating in the park came as a bit of a surprise to Paul Roth, the longtime manager at Crow Wing. Not that the occasional bear probably hasn’t wintered in the park over the years. Roth has no way of knowing for sure. But, because this bear had at one time been fitted with a radio collar, the DNR was able to keep tabs on it, tracking it right to the park.
They first checked on her in early December, Roth said, soon after she went into hibernation. On Thursday, researchers were on hand to run a battery of tests on the bear to see how she has fared this rugged winter.
Brian Dirks, animal survey coordinator for the DNR, has been monitoring the 7- to 8-year-old bear for several years. Two years ago, he said she had three cubs while hibernating. And as he said she typically gives birth every other year, he figured they might again find cubs when they checked on her Thursday.
Dirks — and those who tagged along — weren’t disappointed: She had given birth to two cubs, probably about a month ago. Both mother and cubs appeared to have weathered the winter well, Dirks said.
“This bear comes through Crow Wing State Park every October, November,” Dirks said. “This time she decided to stay.”
The bear didn’t hibernate in a typical den, though. Instead, she burrowed only slightly into the dirt under a fallen tree in a bushy area not all that far from the park office. She was visible from about 50 yards, and Roth was surprised that hunters in the park’s special muzzleloader hunt in December didn’t come across her or awaken her.
Dirks said that, when they first checked on the mother bear Thursday, she was in full hibernation mode. But because they were to conduct a battery of tests on the bear, they sedated her and moved her from the tight confines of her burrow to tarp in an opening a short distance away. In the meantime, they allowed many of those on hand — mostly children — to keep the cubs occupied, which was a highlight for the kids and a great photo opportunity for the adults.
The cubs were small, probably only a couple pounds. Besides making a bit of a fuss when they were first taken from their mother so she could be moved and tested, the cubs were mostly quiet. They huddled under children’s coats, with the occasional yawn as the afternoon wore on.
Before coming to Crow Wing State Park, the group stopped at Camp Ripley on Thursday morning for a similar outing. But there, the mother bear had moved several times since a December visit by the researchers and DNR, making it difficult to find her. Even though she had a radio collar, she was “burrowed in good,” Dirks said, making it difficult to pick up a signal and locate her.
That’s not unusual for that bear, Dirks said, which has a history for such maneuverings. But for the Crow Wing State Park bear, a small spot mostly on the surface worked just fine.
“She looks good,” Dirks said as he and the researchers ran their tests. A few yards away, one of her cubs yawned and nuzzled deeper into a young boy’s coat.
Just another winter day at Crow Wing State Park.