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Karl Malcolm, a bear researcher at the University of Wisconsin, holds a female black bear he pulled from its 
winter den.
Karl Malcolm, a bear researcher at the University of Wisconsin, holds a female black bear he pulled from its winter den. / Submitted

When it comes to choosing where to eat, explore, hang out and hibernate, Wisconsin's black bears are about as fussy as 18-year-olds renting their first apartment.

At least that's what it sounds like as Karl Malcolm discusses his bear research in west-central Wisconsin. Malcolm, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, is studying how black bears are expanding southward in numbers and in space.

Malcolm said black bears which number 26,000 to 40,000 statewide are expanding their range for the same reasons any group seeks new frontiers: to avoid competition for food and cover. That means starting a new life where they won't get smacked around by bigger, meaner bears.

"Baraboo is the new Eau Claire where black bears are concerned," Malcolm said. "Twenty-five years ago, bears were a novelty around Chippewa Falls. People there are still excited to see bears, but they're no longer a novelty. They're now established in the area's fragmented habitat. The novelties today are the sows raising cubs in the Baraboo Hills."

Bears forced to find new turf each summer are typically gangly yearlings that only months before were hibernating for the second and final time with their mothers. The most nomadic of these yearlings are males, which sometimes wander hundreds of miles before settling down. They're the ones that often make news by crossing Main Street at dawn or raiding backyard birdfeeders at dusk.

Ultimately, black bears colonize new areas because they're flexible foragers who adapt to their surroundings. Although their preferences and tolerances vary by individual, they often live near humans. They also grow fat and fertile in the farm country of central and west-central Wisconsin.

"Of the world's eight species of bears, the American black bear is the most adaptive of them all," Malcolm said. "The patchwork woods that dominate our agricultural areas offer little forest cover, but that's now home for many bears."

Part of the reason is the region's abundant food. Between farm crops in the fields, and mast crops of acorns, raspberries and black cherries in the woods, bears in central Wisconsin never starve. The most impressive example is a sow Malcolm collared that has twice raised five-cub litters to adolescence. Two- and three-cub litters are more the norm. This sow even gained weight while nursing her cubs.

That was just one of the nearly 20 bears Malcolm monitored in recent years after crawling into their winter dens and fitting them with GPS-equipped collars. The collars also emit a radio signal he can follow when it's time to retrieve the collars and download their GPS coordinates.

While tracking down hibernating bears, Malcolm discovered they often den where he never suspected. Some simply curl up on the ground beneath a fallen tree limb. Others crawl into deep brush and grass. As the snow falls throughout winter, it piles up around the sleeping bruin, sometimes covering them.

Among their favorite den sites are culverts beneath roads, trails and berms. Malcolm once tracked a hibernating bear to a culvert beneath a busy snowmobile trail. When he crawled inside and tranquilized the bear, he heard the nonstop buzz of snowmobiles mere feet above his head.

When he pulled the bear out to weigh it, draw blood samples and collect other data, a crowd of snowmobilers gathered to watch.

None suspected a bear had been hibernating beneath their trail, and they complied with Malcolm's request to not disturb the bear when it resumed hibernating.

Another sign of culverts' popularity as den sites: When spring temperatures melt snow and flood entire regions, Malcolm's GPS collars record a flurry of activity as bears get flushed out.

Malcolm also recalls a bear that hibernated beneath a toppled tree, its head within feet of a rural gravel road.

"When snowplows came through, they piled more and more snow atop her," he said. "The blade missed her face by about 12 to 18 inches. They had no idea she was ever there."

Now that's some serious hibernating.

It's hard to imagine even an 18-year-old sleeping so soundly, even on a Saturday morning.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. E-mail him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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