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Kammermeyer: In search of the backyard bear

POSTED: June 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.
For The Times/

Bears have been popping up in Hall County and it's best to leave them alone.

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Bears are in the news again, mostly in Cobb County this year, but whether you know it or not, Hall County has had its share.

According to DNR Wildlife Biologist Kevin Lowrey, bears have recently been sighted near Gillsville, Rabbittown and Thompson Bridge. One bee hive was damaged and that is pretty much all that happened.

Left alone, they all wandered away without incident. This area is not bear habitat and the bears know it. They get here by mistake and they get out of here on purpose. There is more on avoiding conflicts with bears in my column next month.

Occasionally, biologists are forced by the media and police departments to chase suburban bears around with dart guns, attempting to catch the animals and relocate them to the mountains where they came from. This is mostly a futile effort and bad for the bears, pushing them into traffic and dogs. They often end up dead on the highway or wandering even worse than before looking for a way out of their suburban predicament.

Young bears, it seems, have a habit of getting into all sorts of trouble in the springtime – raiding bee hives, garbage cans, camping areas or maybe just wandering through town on a Saturday night looking for an escape route. These are mostly yearling males pushed out of their home ranges by adult male bears during breeding season in June.

Years ago, wildlife biologist David Carlock and I both happened to be in Atlanta working at Georgia Tech on some sort of computer analysis.

We snuck out of there to get some lunch (our first mistake). Our state band truck radio was blaring continuous conversation about a bear in Marietta. Our Atlanta office was looking for the nearest wildlife biologist with a dart gun. Well, David and I were both biologists and we did have a dart gun. So, forgetting the old army principle of never volunteering for anything, we found ourselves quickly on the way to the scene of the crime, discussing the pros and cons of volunteering (our second mistake).

We arrived at a subdivision near Sprayberry High School and the scene was nothing short of chaotic.
Three television camera crews were there from channels 2, 5, and 11, neighborhood kids were running everywhere and police cruisers were constantly circling the block. When we came to a stop, the news media assaulted our game and fish truck asking where the bear was. Since they had been there longer than we had, we thought that question was a little out of line.

David whispered over to me to be prepared for a long, dull afternoon since real bears rarely show up at bear complaints. We loaded two doses of drug anyway just to look prepared.

We had just finished all preparations when a voice shouted, “There he is!”

Sure enough, loping across a vacant lot toward us was our bear, a real one.

David grabbed the dart gun and won a foot race with the camera crews over to the bear, who also got in the race. Meanwhile, I frantically loaded another dart with drug. The shot went off from David’s gun. I ran over to him with a fresh dart. He was just picking up his discharged dart. We opened it and could tell it had made a good clean hit, injecting all the drug.

We held off the eager camera crews for nearly 10 minutes, allowing the drug time to take effect. Then the search began; I went one way and David the other.

We met halfway between that small patch of woods and still had not found the bear. We began scouring the edge of a small pond, when David found him and called me over. The bear was lying in the mud with his nose partly under water and bubbles rising from his nostrils. Another inch or two and he would have drowned.

We quickly lifted his head and checked his vital signs – they were ok. Meanwhile, the camera crews were tip-toeing through the mud and water and brush and briars to get a close-up. After obliging the media, we lifted the 100-pound bear and carried him to our truck.

One more picture and short interview session, and we loaded the groggy, drugged bear in the back of the pickup truck and headed for the nearest bear cage in Gainesville, about 50 miles away.
Soon, we got stuck in rush hour traffic in Canton.

Waiting at a red light, we felt the truck rock back and forth a little and looked back.

As the drug had begun wearing off, the bear had sat up and was looking over the back of our tailgate wobbling back and forth contemplating escape.

There were cars on all sides of us in the traffic jam, horns blaring and women screaming and pointing at the sight of the staggering bear.

I loaded another syringe, ran back there and quickly injected the tranquilizer into the bears butt before he could launch himself over the tailgate. He soon slumped over again. All we had to do was get to Gainesville where a bear cage was waiting. We made it.

We collected all of our standard data from the bear – weight, measurements, age and sex and gave him a pair of ear tags for identification and a radio collar to track his future movements. After releasing him in the remote mountains, the reality of the event sunk in.

We had captured a suburban bear with a dart gun, a rare feat, virtually nothing went wrong, and all of it in front of TV cameras without a bear cage. Old Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler (of “Wild Kingdom” fame) could not have done any better (or been any luckier).

But this is not the best way to solve a suburban bear incident. Given time, it’s best for the bear to work it out for himself.



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