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DNR employees Karen Noyce, Ken Soring and Dave Garshelis with No. 56, a 36-year-old blackbear that researchers have been monitoring for 29 years. DNR photo

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Anderson: Bears have been Garshelis' business

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • July 30, 2013 - 12:28 AM

Lynn Rogers, the Ely bear researcher whose lawsuit against the Department of Natural Resources will have its first hearing Monday, perhaps has enjoyed more media attention in the past decade than any other animal scholar, of bears or otherwise.

So some observers might be surprised to learn the DNR employs one of the world’s foremost bear experts, Dave Garshelis, whose work often is conducted far from the media spotlight, out of an office in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Garshelis, whose expertise extends from Minnesota black bears to sun bears in Borneo and sloth bears in Nepal, seems unopposed to the relative obscurity.

A New Jersey native, he earned an undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Vermont before gaining a master’s in bear biology from the University of Tennessee. His doctorate is from the U, where his focus — paradoxically, given his bear specialty — was sea otters.

“I could have continued with sea otters, but I would have had to move to Alaska, and my wife preferred not to,” Garshelis said Thursday from his office. “Which was OK. I’ve always had a strong interest in bears.”

Garshelis signed on with the DNR some 30 years ago as bear project leader, a title he still holds today. His one assistant, Karen Noyce, holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology.

Garshelis’ career spans a veritable lifetime of bear-management changes and challenges.

In 1982, for example, a year before he joined the DNR, a state bear hunting-permit quota system was instituted, thus beginning a complex Whac-A-Mole game that continues today as Garshelis and other wildlife managers attempt to match hunting pressure with various Minnesota subpopulations of bears.

“Keeping everyone happy regarding bears isn’t easy,” Garshelis said. “Some people think we have way too many. Others think we don’t have enough.”

In bad berry years, bears and bear managers alike suffer, and 1985 was horrific for blueberries and other food that bruins prefer. As a result, nuisance complaints skyrocketed as bears knocked over garbage cans and bird feeders, while also entering garages and other buildings, in some cases inside the Duluth city limits.

To minimize these conflicts, while attempting to optimize their overall bear-management strategies, Garshelis and Noyce research the animal’s food requirements, migration tendencies and health, among many other factors.

It was thought at one time, Garshelis said, that bears died most often because of starvation, or fighting among themselves, or for other natural reasons.

“It took quite a while to understand that what limits the bear population in Minnesota,” Garshelis said, “is hunting.”

Numbering about 20,000 a decade ago, Minnesota bears now hover at about 15,000. Wildlife managers reduced hunter permits this year by 36 percent in an attempt to boost the population.

But managing the state’s bears requires more than raising or lowering hunters’ harvest quotas. Northern Minnesota forests have aged considerably in the past 20 years, for example, and those alterations must be considered, along with the black bear’s seemingly endless range expansion in the state, among other factors.

“We’re studying now how far bears will migrate to the west and south,” Garshelis said. “Bears today extend almost to the North Dakota border, and while you might not expect it, bears in the northwest are the state’s healthiest. They’re the biggest, with the highest reproductive rates. Yet the region is only 20 percent forested.”

From diet studies on Minnesota black bears, Garshelis and Noyce have produced “calorie maps” of the northern part of the state, showing food availability in various regions.

They’ve also implanted heart-rate monitors in bears to determine how much energy the animals are willing to expend to cross poor habitat — say 2 miles of hayfields — to reach new country.

These and other investigations help Garshelis and Noyce estimate the size of future bear populations, given the state’s various landscape changes, past, present and future.

Helping the two researchers periodically are grad students that Garshelis advises as an unpaid adjunct associate professor at the U.

Garshelis also peer-reviews about 30 scholarly papers submitted for publication each year, and regularly travels worldwide to study … more bears.

“It started in 1989 with a friend from graduate school who was studying tigers in Nepal,” Garshelis said. “He told me about sloth bears and threats to them. That sparked an interest. Now, of the world’s eight bear species, I’ve studied seven.”

And his wife, Judy, who wouldn’t move to Alaska?

“She agreed I could spend three weeks a year of my vacation studying bears elsewhere,” Garshelis said. “I want to help make the world a better place, and undertaking these additional projects allows me to do that.”

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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