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During the third week of March, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a PA bear survey in Pike and Monroe Counties. Every year around mid-March, the PA Game Commission (PGC) surveys known bear dens and checks on the litter of young cubs that were born in January. By mid-March, the cubs are big enough to process. The female mother bear spends the winter hibernating in her den; the cubs spend these four cold months with her, mostly sleeping and feeding on milk from the female.
The PGC does these surveys to keep track of the cub population produced from year to year and therefore get an idea of the bear population in a given geographical area; this aids the PGC in bear management. The cubs produced this winter may be 200 pounds or more in two years time. Length of hunting seasons in specific regions is one thing that is determined by bear population statistics within these areas. Bear dens are usually tracked down by telemetry from female bears that have been previously trapped and fitted with a radio collar. Dens are usually used year after year by the adult females.
During a den visit, the adult female is sedated and given a medical evaluation by a veterinarian, and blood samples are drawn to screen for mange and other pathogens. Mange is an upcoming concern with bears and other fur-bearers, and if the adult has evidence of mange, she is treated with medication during the survey. The cubs are checked for health, and blood samples are drawn. They are weighed, and numbered ear tags are fitted. If a bear is trapped or harvested in the future during bear season, its number can be traced back to when they were fitted. This is a tool for scientists to track bear movements.
After the cubs are processed, they are placed back in the den with the female. After a last check of the female, the cubs are situated near Mom so that they can readily nurse, and that is what they do. A nursing cub sounds somewhat like an old belt-driven vacuum pump; listen to the sound file below.
The day’s results from three different dens yielded eight cubs, a litter of four cubs and two litters of two cubs. According to PGC Game Warden Bob Johnson, there can be up to five cubs in a litter.