Two bears and a collar

On Sunday afternoon, a growl yanked my attention from the undergrowth, at which I’d been peering intently; a few dozen yards from where I stood in a cluster of pine trees that opened onto an expanse of meadow high in the Absarokas, two bears were locked in what appeared to be combat, standing on hind legs, batting each other. One was pitch black, the other cinnamon. Their trajectory as they circled and growled and wrestled was straight towards me, although they hadn’t seen me yet. I beat a hasty, silent retreat up a nearby slope, slipping between blackened trunks of a burn, trying to keep one eye on the bears and the other on my footing. The telemetry antenna and receiver that I was carrying were awkward, and more so as I fumbled to make sure my bear spray was within reach. At the top of the slope, sweating and covered in ash and charcoal from the burn, I slumped against a charred tree trunk and began to take the antenna apart.

Back in March, en route to one of the research traps in Montana, Jason pulled over on the side of the road to test the GPS collar that we were about to put on M57. Jason tuned the telemetry receiver and then removed the magnet – which keeps the collar turned off until we’re ready to deploy it – and the steady pulse of the radio signal filled the cab of the truck. We drove on, and a few hours later, M57 took off into the trees, carrying the collar. It was scheduled to record locations via satellite every two hours. This allows a more refined understanding of how wolverines move over the landscape than radio telemetry locations, which are sporadic at best.

The collars that we’d put on M57 and F3 were scheduled to release in October, but by June 1st, both had managed to escape their collars; wolverines are notorious for their ability to do this. M57’s was relatively accessible; F3’s was further back in the mountains. I’d never been on a collar retrieval before, so I volunteered to go after M57’s. With telemetry receiver in hand, I figured it would be easy.

By the time the bears interrupted my search, I’d spent two afternoons in the vast meadow trying to pinpoint the telemetry signal, working off a single GPS point that the pilot had taken. It had been so easily within reach when Jason tested it back in the truck, a tame example of a technological object designed to do a task for humans, sitting benignly in the palm of Jason’s hand.

In the meadow, impossible to find and yet clearly somewhere nearby – the telemetry signal was persistent and loud – it seemed to have a devious life of its own, a capacity for illusion and elusion derived from the animal who had briefly worn it. I’d walk in the direction from which the signal seemed strongest; it would fade. I’d turn around and try again; the signal would appear to be coming from somewhere completely different. The previous afternoon a friend had gone with me, but even with her assistance in searching where I directed, we couldn’t find it. I was certain that Jason would have walked into the meadow and tracked down the collar within twenty minutes, but I’d never used telemetry to hunt for something in this way.

Preparing a collar for F3, March 2010

I’d finally found a strong signal and was following it downslope, closing in, when the bear juggernaut rolled across the meadow, across the path of the signal. The clock read 3:00 pm, and I had to be back in Jackson – many hours away – by the evening. I took it as a sign that the search was over. Sitting on the slope, I tried to keep an eye on each bear while simultaneously packing up the telemetry equipment. I accidentally kicked a few rocks downslope; the cinnamon bear froze and looked in my direction for a  second, before suddenly charging towards the black bear. The black bear evaded, and ran into the trees where I’d been standing looking for the collar. Summer, of course, is bear mating season, and as the black bear stood behind a tree and peeked out at the cinnamon bear, I realized that this could be courtship, which meant that I might be on the hill for a while. Then, the black bear turned and began walking up the slope towards me.

The telemetry equipment was still in disarray and at this point, I wasn’t sure where the cinnamon bear had gone; if I went down the other side of the hill, it might have circled around. I kicked a few more rocks loose, and then let the bear know I was there, speaking softly, which is what I had been told to do in a bear situation. Despite hours and hours on the trail, this was the first time I’d encountered bears out in the wilderness while alone. Black bears are much less intimidating than grizzlies, but I was still surprised by how calm and unthreatening the situation was. The bear looked up the hill, startled, and then wheeled and trotted into the trees on the far side of the meadow. I waited for a few more minutes, and when neither bear reappeared, I slid back down the ash-covered slope and then walked cautiously down through the meadow. The bears did not return. At the bottom of the meadow, I turned and asked that if either of them found a collar, they leave it there, so that when we came back, it would still be there to find.

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