2000 Fall - Whileheart killed by hunter

Whiteheart's life brought new knowledge to the scientific world and to the internet world.  She was killed August 23, 2000, by a hunter.  She was one of about 4000 black bears shot by hunters in Minnesota and about 55,000 black bears shot by hunters across North America.  That is the fate of nearly all adult bears in hunted populations.  In Minnesota, hunting accounts for nearly 98 percent of adult deaths-the average death at four years.  The potential lifespan of black bears is 30 to 40 years.  Nevertheless, the bear population in Minnesota is thriving with a growing population of over 25,000 according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates. 

As researchers, we know that our study animals will eventually be killed, and we do everything we can to have that happen later rather than sooner.  Fortunately, our efforts have resulted in longer lives for research animals than for other bears in this hunted population.  This is partly because most hunters refrain from shooting the radio-collared bears.  Last year, none were killed.  Hunters reported seeing two of them and just enjoyed watching them.  We know that sooner or later the odds will catch up with these bears whose lives we have come to know so intimately.  Even so, each death leaves us with a deep feeling of loss.

The loss is felt especially deep in the case of Whiteheart, who was a particularly mellow bear with tremendous research potential.  She had already given us the first ever look at an undisturbed wild bear in a natural den when she became the first bear to have her hibernation behavior broadcast to the web.  Her web site at discovery.com got over a million hits and stirred a kind of interest in bears that is not obtained from outdoor magazines.  People wrote poems about her.  Elementary school classes tuned in daily and did reports on bears.  She helped change people's attitudes toward bears and gave us new insights into bear life, including life in the hidden world where bears spend the cold half of their life.  Bears like Whiteheart and other intensively studied bears provide benefits that can help their whole species forever if their lives can be viewed by enough people through the media and the internet.  Human attitude is the main limiting factor for bears, and Whiteheart was a great ambassador for her species. 

The day of Whiteheart's death, August 23, was routine for her until 4 PM.  I got up at 3 AM to intercept any hunters and tell them about her before they got settled in their tree stands over-looking their baits.  Whiteheart was asleep in a grove of balsam fir and aspen,  At 6:15 AM, her radio signal showed that she was active.  I moved in and saw that she was foraging on hazelnuts.  She didn't visit any baits.  I didn't see any hunters.  Shortly after noon, she lay down for a nap.  The situation looked safe so I left to take care of some urgent errands.  In mid-afternoon, hunters (names withheld) arrived at a bait they had established the day before about a half mile east of the Northwoods Research Center.  Whiteheart awoke and moved a half mile southwest and discovered the bait.  The hunter saw her white radio-collar but knew it was legal to shoot a radio-collared bear.  He filled his license.  I returned shortly and found no radio signal.  I called the closest bear registration station and they said they had the collar.  I picked up the collar and found out how to contact the hunter.     

A couple days later, the hunter returned my call.  I told him about the study and Whiteheart.  He said, "Sounds like I wrecked your day.  I guess I feel kind of bad."  The next day his brother (name also withheld) shot Spirit, another radio-collared bear. 

I didn't notify the media about the deaths because it was a touchy situation that could make hunters in general look bad, but in a few days, I got a call from a local reporter who'd heard about it.   His article was picked up by other newspapers, and coverage soon mushroomed to USA Today.  I didn't mention the hunters' names, but one diligent reporter sleuthed them out.  He quoted one of the hunters on September 7 as saying "I'm not going to be hunting bear any more.  I feel too bad now."  At that same time, however, a third member of his party who had not yet filled his license continued to maintain the baiting site where Whiteheart had been killed.  The second hunter's wife called me irate that her husband's name was in the paper and said that she didn't care about the bears and would just as soon stuff them and put them on her lawn. 

Whiteheart's full potential was yet to come.  She probably would have produced cubs in January 2001 and would have revealed to the world through the media how mothers take care of their cubs and communicate with them.  However, she was elusive in 2000.  She took her radio-collar off before leaving the den area in mid-April and simply disappeared for four months.  This alone was good information.  Many people assume that bears prefer human food and will seek it out if they become familiar with people.  This is a subject to be explored in depth in a future newsletter, but there is mounting evidence that there is much more to it than the simple untested assumptions that underlie much of the conventional thought on bear/humans relations today.  This year, for Whiteheart, natural food was abundant, and the only reported sighting was her crossing a road in early summer a couple miles from her den.  In mid-August, she finally put in an appearance at the Northwoods Research Center where she has learned to trust us enough to let us take her heart rate and fit her with radio-collars.  Her new radio-collar showed us that she did most of her foraging a half mile to two miles from the research center.  The hunter's bait was in that area, and she unfortunately found it. 

Many people and a couple of newspaper editorials have asked that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources exempt radio-collared bears like Whiteheart from hunting.  We, of course, hope for that also.

Meanwhile, Blackheart, Whiteheart's sister,  provided a lot of data on food preferences and helped explain why most bears stayed out of sight this past spring and summer.   Early spring foods were abundant as usual.  When fresh greenery emerges in early May, much of its nutrient content is in a fluid form that is easily digestible.  Bears eat these abundant treats and seldom show up for dinner at residences.  Later in spring, when the plants mature and much of the fluid content becomes incorporated into the cell walls as indigestible cellulose, some bears will supplement their diet with garbage until berries ripen.  But not this year.  A tent caterpillar outbreak from late May until late June filled in that period and kept the bears out of trouble.  We offered Blackheart handfuls of caterpillars and handfuls of nuts-her usual favorite.  She preferred the caterpillars.  

When caterpillars disappeared into cocoons and berries ripened, she showed her preference for serviceberries (Amelanchier sp), wild sarsaparilla berries (Aralia nudicaulis), and wild cherries (Prunus sp) over the wild blueberries (Vaccinium sp) that I prefer.   Later in summer when hazelnuts (Corylus cornuta) ripened, these nuts became her favorites.  The nut crop was abundant enough that hunters complained that their baits were not attracting enough bears, and the hunting kill ended up lower than predicted.  Blackheart and her cubs Dot and Donna were among those that escaped, along with other members of the study clan.  We are looking forward to next spring when we hope to get permission to radio-collar all seven members of the study clan including the  matriarch Shadow, Blackheart's daughters Dot and Donna, and to the drama of Blackheart forcing Dot and Donna to live on their own.  We hope to get more detailed information on their shared and separate use of food patches in the territory and how they relate to other members of their clan and to unrelated intruders into their territory.  We are requesting permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to conduct these expanded studies.