Eighth-Graders Have an Unusual Encounter with Michigan Bears

Meagan Wander poses with a bear cub.

March 8, 2012

Prior to last week, neither Meagan Wander nor Josh Lauinger had so much as seen a bear in Michigan. Now, both have held wild Michigan bears under their coats and gotten a first hand look at the work of the Department of Natural Resources.

The pair of Lake Orion eighth-graders won the opportunity (through an essay contest) to accompany a DNR Wildlife Division crew on a winter bear den check. When the crew arrived on location in the northeast Lower Peninsula and sedated the mama bear, they found she'd given birth to three cubs in the preceding weeks.

Both Wander and Lauinger were pressed into duty keeping the cubs warm while a team of DNR personnel gave the adult female a physical. That meant the students held the cubs under their coats while the DNR staffers did their jobs.

"Amazing," is how Wander summed up the experience. "He's so fuzzy; I want to keep him! Oh my gosh, this was so worth getting up at 5 a.m."

DNR wildlife biologist Mark Boerson tucks a bear cub into Josh Lauinger's sweatshirt.

Both Wander and Lauinger are students in Jon Gray's eighth grade science classroom. Gray, who is a well known conservation educator, had incorporated bears into his curriculum this year.

A teacher at Waldon Middle School, Gray has been at the forefront of the Michigan Wild Turkey patch contest in recent years. Gray encourages his students to enter artwork into the annual contest that chooses a design for the Wild Turkey Management Cooperator patch, which is available to turkey hunters from the Michigan Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Several of Gray's students have designed the wining patch in the last five years.

Last year, Gray became intrigued with the den-check program after hearing a DNR presentation on the subject at a Safari Club event. The wheels started turning in his head. He contacted DNR biologist Adam Bump, the Wildlife Division's bear specialist, and suggested bringing a student along on a den check. Between the pair, they came up with an idea: Gray's students could write essays about bears in Michigan and the winning essayist would be invited to participate in a DNR den check.

A mother bear is returned to her den with her cubs after being handled by DNR personnel.

Problem was, Gray couldn't pick just one winner. When Gray suggested that both Wander's and Lauinger's essays were deserving of the prize, Bump decided that Gray could invite both students.

DNR wildlife biologists have been checking wintering bears in their dens for more than two decades. Their research has given the department a better understanding of reproduction, habitat usage and the travel patterns of Michigan black bears.

The bear the DNR checked in on this February day had been located four winters ago and outfitted with a radio collar so biologists could track her. They've visited her den every winter since to see how she was doing, document her reproductive success, and conduct routine maintenance on her collar.

"The collar is everything to us," said biologist Mark Boersen, the DNR management biologist for the area in which this bear lives.

Mark Monroe shows Meagan Wander and Josh Lauinger how a tranquilizer dart gun works.

Boersen said this bear is 15 years old, something determined from a tooth sample taken the first time the DNR checked her. She weighed 166 pounds this year, which is "the most she's ever weighed in the four years we've followed her," Boersen said.

When DNR staffers check a bear den, they locate the den, slip up on it quietly and anesthetize the bear. Once the drug takes effect, the DNR personnel work quickly, removing the bear from the den, taking a variety of measurements (temperature, heart rate, respirations, etc.) and weighing the bear. They perform any necessary maintenance on the radio collar and return the bear to the den.

The cubs are given a quick once over, weighed and returned to the den with the mother. The three cubs in this den, two females and a male, all weighed around five pounds and appeared to be healthy, Boersen said.

Besides gathering information about the bears, the den check program often bears additional fruit. These bears provide invaluable opportunities to both educate the public about Michigan's black bears and provide training opportunities for DNR field staff. These opportunities ensure Wildlife Division staff is prepared to assist in research efforts as well as handle any problem bear situations in a safe and effective manner.

 Josh Lauingerand Meagan Wander, with bear cubs, accompanied the DNR on a winter bear den check.

For his part, Lauinger described the day as "awesome." He also departed with some souvenirs; while under his coat, one of the cubs scratched Lauinger lightly on the neck.

Lauinger said he hopes the scratches leave a permanent scar. ""I'll tell people I got it from a bear attack," he joked.

The DNR's Bump said that because this first student/den check went so well, he hopes to expand the program to more classrooms around the state. Science teachers who'd like to investigate the opportunity to incorporate Michigan bears into their curricula can learn more about the subject at the DNR website michigan.gov/bear or call Adam Bump at 517-373-1263.