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Fairview — The den was spotted in the fall by a resident who was searching for sites to hunt deer or birds.

“I spotted this large area of fresh dirt,” Mike Goy said. “ It looked to be some large animal, not a coyote or something small. It turned out to be a black bear’s den.”

Visits to the site by Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologist Mark Boersen confirmed a bear was spending the winter in the den, which led a team of technicians and biologists to return this month to inspect the bear.

Boersen, who coordinates den locations and guides survey crews through the Roscommon Customer Service Center, and his team drove deep into the snowy woods east of Fairview in Oscoda County earlier this month, then loaded medical and tracking equipment onto a sled for the hike to the den.

Boersen loaded a hypodermic needle with a tranquilizer to ensure the bear would sleep during the survey. A thermal camera and flashlight were on hand when biologist Vern Richardson joined Boersen at the den’s opening, where the bear was watching them from her home. Richardson managed to place the needle and inject the tranquilizer moments before the bear bolted from the den, fleeing into the woods.

“Bears sleep during the winter,” Boersen explained. “They don’t truly hibernate. It’s nature’s way to protect the animal when there’s severe winter weather and lack of food.”

The work is being done as part of the state’s annual bear survey to document the health of a growing population, which due to warmer weather is more active this year than usual.

And northern Michigan residents say these early risers will extend the amount of damage to bird feeders, beehives and garbage cans.

Crews have found several bears at other sites sitting outside their dens.

“It’s not very common to find a bear outside their den, that’s because we usually visit them in February and early March when they are still sleeping,” Boersen said. “There is no concern about early rising bears. They usually stay around their den and travel as they get hungry, and bird feeders and garbage cans become their targets.”

This den held several surprises: two yearling cubs ran from the shelter and into the woods after the mother bear ran away.

“Female bears mate every other year,” Richardson said. “The cubs will be born in January and will stay with the mother for the next 15 months and set on their own in the spring of the following year.”

The Oscoda bear was tracked and found asleep from the drugs. A crew gently lifted her onto a sled and pulled her back to her den. The cubs were in the woods nearby, the crew speculated, and would return after the humans left the area.

A radio collar was fitted to the female bear and a tooth was extracted to discover her age and provide DNA material for their records. A lip was tattooed for future identification and ears were tagged. The animal also was weighed to find her at 155 pounds. She was found to be healthy and gently placed back into her den.

The team will visit about six dens this year.

The black bear population in Michigan has increased over several decades, with an estimated 19,000 adult bears and cubs living in the state.

State DNR wildlife technicians and biologists say 90 percent of the bears are in the Upper Peninsula with most of the remainder are in northern Lower Michigan. But bears are now being spotted as far south as the Indiana border.

The annual bear survey is held early in the year when radio-collared bears and bears in known locations are checked for health, age and whether cubs have been born over the winter. The goal of the survey, according to the DNR, is to ensure the long-term survival of the species.

The black bear in Michigan has been elevated from pest to prized game species, according to the DNR. Bird feeders and beekeepers have become targets for bears, as they come out of their dens hungry each spring and search for food. Bears are omnivores and will eat anything from sunflower seeds to beehives.

Tim Diller, owner of the Fairview Family Restaurant in Oscoda County, is a bear hunter and spends time in the woods in both Michigan and Ontario.

“There are so many bears around here,” Diller said. “We even see them right here in downtown Fairview.”

Wild Birds Unlimited in Traverse City sees an increase in bear traffic each spring when the weather warms.

“We see a lot of bent feeder poles and chewed-up feeders,” said Dan Kerby, who works at the bird store. “Our customer base is wide-spread and bear damage is more and more common each year.”

Kerby lives in Benzie County and takes his feeders inside each night to avoid bear damage. “It’s become a nightly ritual to take in the feeders and put them out again each morning,” he said.

Sleeping Bear Farms, a honey producer near Beulah, has 6,000 hives, and bears have become such a nuisance the facility has installed solar-powered electric fences to protect the hives.

“They work most of the time,” said Sleeping Bear’s Nathan Lane. “Some bears are pretty tough; they’ll take the jolt and go right through to reach a hive.”

Over the past nine years, Lane estimates 100 hives each year are lost at the cost of thousands of dollars.

“Bears are everywhere,” Lane said.

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist in Traverse City.

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