Bear and her cubs evicted from pricey Deep Creek digs

Family of bears had taken up residence under high-end vacation home

March 15, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

McHENRY — — When it comes to picking real estate for her long winter's nap, Mama Bear has expensive taste.

She's 327 pounds and likes her space.

So it was no surprise to state wildlife managers that for the second time in three years, the pregnant sow chose to hibernate and give birth under the back porch of a high-end Deep Creek Lake vacation home.

And for a second time, Harry Spiker came to evict her and her family.

No hard-hearted landlord, Spiker is chief bear biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. With a team of experts, he removed the mother and her three cubs Tuesday from their $925,000 den and relocated them to a custom-built, camo-covered abode with wall-to-wall straw on a ridge overlooking the lake.

Like all moves, this one was not without some drama.

After assembling a team of biologists, veterinarians and zookeepers from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Spiker set up shop just beyond the back porch. The mother greeted her company by clacking her teeth and huffing loudly, hoping bluster would scare them off.

Spiker shot her with a tranquilizer gun and then attempted to dislodged her by gently jabbing her with a pole.

No dice.

He tried again.

This time, she came charging from the darkness, two darts embedded in her fur, and dashed toward the front of the house, biologists giving chase. But instead of continuing, she reversed course and scattered her pursuers. During the ruckus, biologist Nick Stonesifer darted her again.

The sow ran a short distance into the woods and up a hill, where the drugs finally started to kick in.

Meanwhile, other members of the team scooped up the tiny squalling cubs — each about the size of a puppy — and tucked them under their coats. Although the six-week-old cubs have fur, they lack a thick layer of insulating fat.

Quickly, the cubs were sexed (two females and a male), given a mini-checkup, fitted with a pair of aluminum earrings with ID numbers and had a small microchip placed under their skin.

The microchips are called PIT tags, short for Passive Integrated Transponder. Each one is about the size of a grain of long-grain rice and costs $8. The tags can be read by biologists using hand-held scanners, much the way vets read similar internal ID chips in dogs and cats. A hibernating bear doesn't have to be disturbed to read a tag, putting less stress on both animals and humans.

Keeping tabs on Maryland's bruin population is a major part of Spiker's job.

Once, bears were hunted to near extinction, forcing the state to enact a moratorium on bear hunting that lasted more than half a century. Now the population numbers about 550 adults in Garrett and Allegany counties and there have been confirmed bear sightings in 10 other Maryland counties.

"We average 3.1 cubs per sow," said Spiker. "That compares to two to three cubs elsewhere, and one to two cubs in the Southwest."

In addition to the PIT tags, Maryland collects hair for DNA tests and places $2,000 GPS collars on some adult bears.

Mama Bear, who is about 13 years old, was fitted with a collar in 2001. Spiker calls her "a good research bear" for all of the information she has supplied about diet, range and overall health.

One thing biologists know for sure is that a lot of Western Maryland habitat so beneficial to bears is also attractive to humans. That's why this sow keeps showing up in the neighborhood she once ruled.

"The landscape is changing. We're taking her dirt," said Spiker. "She's a territorial animal and we're taking her land away. This porch is just a dark cave to her."

Hence the relocation.

The owners of the five bedroom, 4 1/2-bathroom house, a couple from Potomac, have it on the market.

Realtor Terry Boggs said the owners will put up a barrier to discourage wintering bears.

About an hour after she began her nap, the mother bear was loaded into a pickup truck with her cubs and driven to her new home. As a house warming gift, she got a smear of Vicks VapoRub on the side of her muzzle to mask human scent and the cubs got a dab of the goo on their heads.

By this time next year, the cubs will have bulked up to 80 to 100 pounds. A season later, when Mama Bear is pregnant again, they will move on.

Then, they'll be looking for a place of their own.

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