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DNR: Oldest known wild black bear dies of old age

  • Article by: STEVE KARNOWSKI
  • Associated Press
  • August 27, 2013 - 5:45 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — The world's oldest known wild black bear, a shy but prolific female simply named Bear No. 56, has died of old age at 39½, Minnesota wildlife researchers said Tuesday.

Karen Noyce was fresh out of graduate school when she joined the Department of Natural Resources' bear project in 1981 and helped radio-collar the then 7-year-old animal. She found the bear's remains in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota last week and said it appeared to have died of natural causes.

Noyce said she was fond of the bear, but mostly glad for the chance study her for so long.

"I spent a couple of hours out there at the site ... and said a little thank-you for the opportunity to watch this bear through my whole career," she said in an interview.

She lived 19 years longer than any of the 360 other radio-collared black bears DNR researchers have followed since 1981. The bear probably lived so long because she was in an isolated part of the forest, was wary of people and simply had good luck, Noyce said.

It's rare for any study bear to hit 30. The second-oldest was a brown bear that lived to 34, the agency said.

Bear No. 56 delivered eight litters with 22 cubs, raising her last in 1999. Her range was near Marcell, about 30 miles north of Grand Rapids.

Noyce last saw her alive in late June. Bear No. 56 had worn teeth and clouded eyes.

Noyce said she couldn't pick up the bear's signal last month, and stopped getting reported sightings of the skinny, wobbly bear with ear tags. She guessed Bear No. 56 left its normal range, as they sometimes do in late summer to seek richer food sources to fatten up for the winter.

A DNR pilot picked up Bear No. 56's signal last Monday, several miles from her usual area, with no movement.

Noyce said all signs pointed to a quiet death in mid-July.

"It looked like a pretty peaceful setting, a cool, shady spot in the woods," she said. "Just the kind of place a bear would have taken its midday nap."

Bear No. 56 was an early subject in the still-continuing DNR study on the population dynamics of black bears in Minnesota.

"Had we not studied so many bears, we likely would not have encountered this intriguing outlier," Dave Garshelis, the DNR's bear project leader, said in a statement. "It was not just documenting that she lived to be so old, but understanding how she was able to live to be so much older than other bears, that made this incredibly interesting and useful."

Researchers collared many of Bear No. 56's cubs. They know most females in that area are her offspring or descendants. One of her cubs is now 18.

Noyce said it might have been nice if Bear No 56 had lived to 40, but she's relieved the bear didn't end up as roadkill or hadn't been shot by a hunter.

"It was time for her to go, and it was good for her to go," she said.

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