Black bear No. 8141 doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to get shot.
She is sleeping now, deep in her cave, guarding two cubs, maybe three. She will awaken to the whoosh of an air gun and the sting of a tranquilizer dart.
What she decides to do next could mess up Kelcey Burguess’s whole day.
“Things could get real exciting here in a minute,” she says, standing just uphill from the den. “If she runs, she might run you over. It’s wise to step out of the way.”
Burguess is a biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. For three months every winter, this is his primary job. Working with a team of biologists and technicians, he crawls into dens with sleeping black bears. He shoots them with tranquilizers. The bears leave their dens, either sleeping and pulled out slowly by the humans, or awake, quickly and of their own accord. Once outside, the bears are measured, weighed, and tested for disease.
Most important, the bears are counted. This makes Burguess’s work controversial, since the census is intertwined with New Jersey’s annual bear hunt. Come December and the state’s six-day bear season, this combination of science and guesswork helps the Fish and Wildlife division decide how many bears may be shot by hunters.
There were 3,438 black bears living in the hills of northwest New Jersey in 2009. Four hunting seasons later the population is down to about 2,500, Burguess says. Even with 8.8 million people, New Jersey still has plenty of food and habitat for bears, which is why the species has been spotted in every county in the state.
“Biologically, we could handle a lot more bears,” Burguess says.
But biology isn’t the only factor, of course. Many residents and municipalities in bear country oppose measures that would require them to place household garbage in bear-resistant cans. And the state continues to build deep inside some of the best bear habitats. This proximity and easy access to human food increases the likelihood that bears and humans will meet.
Standing halfway up a steep hillside recently in West Milford, Burguess takes a break. Up here, the controversy over hunting feels distant. Closer at hand is bear number 8141, who lies with her cubs in a den near the top of this hill in torpor, a half-sleep state that falls short of full hibernation.
Down the hill, hidden under a layer of ice, is an upended field of boulders and stumps that threaten to grab Burguess’ snowshoes, dislocate his knees and twist his ankles. In his right hand he carries a metallic green, double-barreled Dan-Inject dart gun. It cost $4,000.
“Remember,” Burguess says, joking, to Paul Jackson, a volunteer. “We can get another volunteer. We can’t get another gun.”
The climb is slow. After about 45 minutes Burguess arrives at the hole, near the bottom of a boulder pile. The location is a problem. If the mother bear and her cubs are tranquilized and pulled from the den asleep, they land on a slick and snowy slope and possibly slide downhill.
If momma gets frightened and tries to escape before the drugs take hold, she will run straight uphill. Some bears run a mile and a half with tranquilizer darts sticking from their hides, Burguess says. He and his team must then carry them back to the hole, sometimes using an ATV or a green state pickup truck.
If the bear runs too far to carry, the workday grows longer. The team must return to the den, tranquilize and retrieve the cubs, carry them overland, and build a new den somewhere close to their fallen mother.
“If that happened often, I’d have to reconsider my profession,” Burguess says.
Occasionally the cubs run. If they are yearlings, they may weigh 160 pounds. To prevent them from getting too far, Burguess chases them down. He leaps onto their backs, wrestles them to the ground, and keeps them pinned until the drugs take effect.
“I try to keep away from the [dangerous part],” the one with all the claws and teeth, he says. “It’s a rodeo ride, but it can be done. I don’t recommend it.”
Peering into the den with a flashlight, the only thing visible is a wall of black fur. The air gun releases its first dart with a low thud. Nothing happens. Fifteen minutes later, another dart is fired. Still nothing. Mike Madonia, a senior biologist, crawls into the den and attaches a metal chain to the mother bear’s paws. The team drags her, asleep, from the den.
Burguess uses a skinny tree and his own leg to prevent the bear from sliding down the hill. With a tape measure, he finds she is 5 feet 6 inches from tail to snout; he estimates she weighs 188 pounds.
He slides a tool like a heavy hole punch around her ear and takes a sample of hair and skin. He slips a needle into her femoral artery and fills two plastic beakers with blood.
The work requires brute strength and soft attention. The eyes of a tranquilized bear stay open. So Burguess applies lubricating goop to keep them moist. A blue towel placed over her head prevents dirt from getting kicked into her face. Burguess grabs hold of her fuzzy shoulders, lifts and pivots her sideways to get her face off the snow “so she doesn’t freeze her eyeball,” he says.
Next come the yearlings. With nowhere else on the slope to put them, Burguess lays both cubs atop their mother, using her as an exam table. From four cubs born last year, two have died.
“We expected to find three cubs,” says Burguess. “These guys had a tough year.”
After the inspections are done, Burguess slings a cub over his shoulder and stuffs him back into the hole. With groans and grunts the team places the mother on the stone at the den’s entrance, her front paw dangling over. Burguess pulls on his heavy backpack, then stops to look at the sleeping bear.
“As a general rule they’re very timid, very docile,” he says. “You have to work really hard to get killed by a black bear.”