Words and photos by Wes Larson. Wes is a trained biologist who’s research focuses on bears in the wild... and he knows what he is doing. Follow Wes on Instagram @grizkid.
One thing I’ve learned in my few years as a bear biologist is that crawling into an occupied bear den isn’t something you can really prepare for. You can bring the right equipment, plan your approach, and take every precaution necessary to try to remain safe and keep the bear safe as well, but there are some mental hurdles that are hard to get over.
When you see the entrance to the den leading into a dark rock or earthen crevice, and you know a living, breathing bear is inside, part of your primitive brain kicks into gear and lets you know that you are making a bad decision. But wildlife experts who work with predators need to figure out a way to bridle that fear, while still being able to accomplish their field work. I had a trial by fire in early 2016.
That year I returned to Southern Utah to study black bears I had previously outfitted with GPS collars. As bears settle into their winter dens, biologists have an opportunity to visit those dens and check on the bears to make sure the collars have enough battery life to make it through another season. Black bears show a relative level of tolerance to intruders in their dens (a grizzly bear would kill you) but they can get pretty cranky and it’s important to get the bear sedated and worked on, then tucked back in as quickly as possible.
Hiking in 10-degree weather, myself, my brother, and an undergraduate student trudged up a mountain to follow the last known GPS location of the bear. When we found the entrance to the den, I broke out in a cold sweat. All the other dens I had seen so far were shallow enough that the bear could easily be sedated from outside of the entrance. This hole extended 80 feet into the darkness and was barely wide enough for me to fit in. As I lowered my head to shine my headlamp into the back of the hole, two glints of green light reflected back, almost too faint to see. The bear was back there, he was bigger than I remembered, and he was awake.
My team suggested we abandon the den, as I would have no way to get out in time should the bear decide to charge. But the collar on this bear was nearly out of battery. My brother crawled in behind me and as we approached the glowing green eyes he became understandably nervous. “Don’t do this,” he whispered over and over again. Finally I hissed at him to shut up, and his mantra changed to “You’re the bravest person I know” on repeat.
When I was within eight feet of the bear, I extended my syringe pole and sat with it near the bear for ten minutes, waiting for any sign that the bear was going to respond aggressively. When he finally put his head down, I decided to go for it and poked him in the meat of his shoulder, simultaneously holding my breath and waiting for him to charge. This deep in his den, bear spray would be useless: the bear would have nowhere to escape and may just become enraged from the stinging pepper. My only option would be to flatten out and hope he would run over top of me.
To my infinite relief, the bear hardly even noticed the injection and I slowly backcrawled my way out of the den, shaking from both adrenaline and relief. Two more doses were necessary to sedate the big bruin, and by the time the drugs finally kicked in he had walked out of the den and passed out under a nearby tree. We quickly replaced his collar and slid him back into the den--not an easy task with 350 pounds of limp bear weight.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My bursts of adrenaline didn’t fade until the next day. I can’t help but feel as though I will never be in a situation where I have to so completely face and suppress my natural fears again. I returned to the den later that fall with another student, and he couldn’t even bring himself to go inside the narrow sandstone hole, even without a bear inside. When most people enter a cave or crevice the idea of confronting a predator in that darkness will flit across their mind, and then they can dismiss it, as that kind of encounter is extremely unlikely. Crawling into that dark space knowing that a bear is waiting for you on the other end is a lesson in fear management, and an experience that I will never forget.
Cover photo by Jeremy Vessey on Unsplash