Meet the oldest black bear of all time

Categories: Animals
56 grey face humpnose Mar 2007.JPG
The DNR has followed Number 56 for 30 years.
In 1981, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources caught and tagged a female black bear. DNR researchers put a radio collar around her neck, returned her to her den, and made no note that the bear was remarkable in any way.

But she was remarkable -- or, rather, she is. That female, "Number 56," is still alive today, and the Department of Natural Resources' Dave Garshelis thinks she's the oldest black bear ever documented in the wild. Three other bear experts from across the country agreed, saying they'd never heard of another black bear reaching that age.

Bear Number 56 has had a strange, often tragic life, and she's spent more than a decade of it completely alone. The last time Garshelis and his researchers checked her she was in good health, but her teeth were rotting, and he worries about how well she can chew and eat these days. Garshelis has taken to setting out every few weeks just to find her, and make sure Minnesota's phenomenal bear is still alive.

As of a few weeks ago, she is, ambling around the woods near Clubhouse Lake, walking away from strangers, and walking further and further into biological history.

56 sleeping grooming 2011.JPG
Seen here in a private moment, Number 56 grooms herself like a dog.
When Number 56 was first tagged in 1981, DNR researchers pulled one of her teeth to find her age. Like tree trunks, bears' teeth acquire a ring for each year, and analyzing teeth is still the most accurate way to tell a bear's age. In that first tooth sample, Number 56 was documented as seven years old.

Garshelis joined the DNR two years later, and began making the annual trips out to bear dens, where he and others would tranquilize the collared bears and bring them in for physical testing. To tranquilize a bear, researchers put a syringe on the end of a stick, reach it into the den and slide the needle into a muscle. He says Number 56 was never a tough case.

"She's been a very calm bear," he said. "She generally just sits there and kind of looks at you."

Over the years, Number 56 proved to be a great mother. Bears typically produce one litter of cubs every other year, and through the first 16 years they tracked her, Number 56 dutifully produced eight litters. Of those, 21 of 22 cubs survived to more than a year old, an astonishing mark of mothering.

Once the bears were out of her sight, they had less fortune. The DNR tried to track her 18 female cubs, but three disappeared before they were collared, and another removed her collar. Of the remaining 14 female cubs, 13 were killed by hunters. Garshelis says this is a typical rate, attributing roughly 80 percent of all Minnesota bear deaths to hunting -- 3,000 state-issued bear hunting licenses are given out each year -- and another 10 percent to other human causes.

By 1999, Number 56 bore a single cub, rather than a litter, and in 2001, her next due date, Garshelis found her lactating, but alone. It's the first time the DNR has ever followed a bear past reproductive age.

Garshelis says this means that for the last 11 years of her life, Number 56 has been utterly alone.

"We've never seen her with another bear," Garshelis said.

On page 2, follow City Pages' quest to find out if she really is the oldest black bear ever.

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