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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: McHenry, Md.

Mama Bear keeps coming home to prime real estate

For the second time, she tries to hibernate under an expensive back porch. After all, it used to be her territory.

March 20, 2011|By Candus Thomson

When it comes to picking real estate for her long winter's nap, Mama Bear has expensive taste.

She's 327 pounds and likes her space.

So it was no surprise to state wildlife managers that for the second time in three years, the pregnant bear chose to hibernate and give birth under the back porch of a high-end vacation home near Deep Creek Lake in the Appalachian Mountains.

And for a second time, Harry Spiker came to evict her and her family.

No hardhearted landlord, Spiker is chief bear biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. With a team of experts, he removed the mother and her three cubs last week from their $925,000 den and relocated them to a custom-built, camo-covered abode with wall-to-wall straw on a ridge overlooking the lake.

Like all moves, this one was not without some drama.

After assembling a team of biologists, veterinarians and zookeepers from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Spiker set up shop beyond the back porch. The mother greeted her company by clacking her teeth and huffing loudly, hoping bluster would scare them off.

Spiker shot her with a tranquilizer gun and then attempted to dislodge her by gently jabbing her with a pole.

No dice.

He tried again.

This time, she came charging from the darkness, two darts embedded in her fur, and dashed toward the front of the house, biologists giving chase. But instead of continuing, she reversed course and scattered her pursuers. During the ruckus, biologist Nick Stonesifer darted her again.

The bear ran a short distance into the woods and up a hill, where the drugs finally started to kick in.

Meanwhile, other team members scooped up the squalling cubs — each about the size of a puppy — and tucked them under their coats. Although the 6-week-old cubs have fur, they lack a thick layer of insulating fat.

Quickly, the sex of the cubs was determined — two females and a male — and each got a mini-checkup, a pair of aluminum earrings with ID numbers and a small microchip placed under their skin.

Keeping tabs on Maryland's bear population is a major part of Spiker's job.

Once, bears were hunted to near extinction, prompting the state to enact a moratorium on bear hunting that lasted more than half a century. Now the population numbers about 550 adults in Garrett and Allegany counties — the two westernmost counties in Maryland — and there have been confirmed bear sightings in 10 other state counties.

"We average 3.1 cubs per sow," Spiker said. "That compares to two to three cubs elsewhere, and one to two cubs in the Southwest."

Mama Bear, who is about 13 years old, was fitted with a GPS collar in 2001. Spiker calls her "a good research bear" for all the information she has supplied about diet, range and overall health.

One thing biologists know for sure is that a lot of western Maryland habitat so beneficial to bears is also attractive to humans. Nestled in the mountains of Garrett County in the far northwestern corner of the state, Deep Creek Lake is a popular vacation spot and has an abundance of picturesque homes straddling its 65 miles of shoreline.

"The landscape is changing. We're taking her dirt," Spiker said of Mama Bear. "She's a territorial animal, and we're taking her land away. This porch is just a dark cave to her."

Hence the relocation.

The owners of the five-bedroom, 4 1/2-bathroom house, a couple from affluent Potomac, have it on the market. Real estate agent Terry Boggs said the owners would put up a barrier to discourage wintering bears.

About an hour after the bear began her nap, she was loaded into a pickup with her cubs and driven to her new home. As a housewarming gift, she got a smear of Vicks VapoRub on the side of her muzzle to mask human scent, and the cubs got a dab of the goo on their heads.

By this time next year, the cubs will have bulked up to 80 to 100 pounds. A season later, when Mama Bear is pregnant again, they will move on.

Then they'll be looking for a place of their own.

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