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Minnesota bear is world’s oldest known in wild

  • Bear No. 56 peers from its den in the Chippewa National Forest near Marcell in Itasca County. At 39 years, No. 56 has lived longer than any other known wild bear. Although their body functions slow during hibernation, bears still occasionally awaken for brief periods. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT)

    Bear No. 56 peers from its den in the Chippewa National Forest near Marcell in Itasca County. At 39 years, No. 56 has lived longer than any other known wild bear. Although their body functions slow during hibernation, bears still occasionally awaken for brief periods. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dave Garshelis, bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Grand Rapids, measures the opening of the den being used by Bear no.56. The opening is about 15 inches by 15 inches. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT)

    Dave Garshelis, bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Grand Rapids, measures the opening of the den being used by Bear no.56. The opening is about 15 inches by 15 inches. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • When Bear No. 56 made its den last fall, she pulled dried grasses in to insulate the cavity. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT)

    When Bear No. 56 made its den last fall, she pulled dried grasses in to insulate the cavity. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bear No. 56 peers from its den in the Chippewa National Forest near Marcell in Itasca County. At 39 years, No. 56 has lived longer than any other known wild bear. Although their body functions slow during hibernation, bears still occasionally awaken for brief periods. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT)
  • Dave Garshelis, bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Grand Rapids, measures the opening of the den being used by Bear no.56. The opening is about 15 inches by 15 inches. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT)
  • When Bear No. 56 made its den last fall, she pulled dried grasses in to insulate the cavity. (Bob King/Duluth News-Tribune/MCT)

From the telemetry receiver, Noyce heard high-pitched intermittent chirps.

“That’s her,” said Noyce, a wildlife research biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids.

Somewhere just south of us, the oldest known wild bear in the world — 39 years old — rested peacefully in her den. Today she was going to have visitors.

In mukluks and canvas coveralls, Noyce plunged into the snow and began walking south. Along with Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s bear project leader, four of us were bound for the den to see the bear that has defied all the odds.

She hasn’t been hit by a car. She hasn’t been taken by a hunter. She hasn’t been shot by a homeowner for wrecking a deck or raiding a birdfeeder. “No known bears of any species have lived longer in the wild, based on age estimates from teeth taken from harvested bears,” Garshelis said. “(That includes) more than 60,000 specimens just in Minnesota and at least 1 million overall. It’s just incredible that we happened to collar a bear that outlived all those bears.”

Several hundred yards from the road, with the telemetry beeps growing stronger, Noyce paused and peered cautiously at a bulge on a south-facing slope. Now in whisper-mode, Noyce signaled that we should circle around to approach the den from the front.

And, there, under an upturned stump with roots dangling from a 15-by-15-inch opening, lay the old girl that biologists call No. 56. In the shadowy depths of the den, No. 56 stirred slowly from her winter lethargy. Her pink tongue licked at the air. Her big head rose in slow motion from where it had rested on her black paws. Her sizable hulk nearly filled the earthen cavity.

She was unlikely to stir more than that. In hibernation, Garshelis said, bears remain drowsy, their body temperature down from a normal 99 to about 90 degrees, their heartbeats slowed and intermittent. A hibernating bear does not drink, and may go the full six months without urinating or defecating.

It rests.

We could see, in a mound outside the den, where No. 56 had excavated soil to create her den. She had used her claws to pull dried grass onto the floor of the den to insulate her as she rested. The temperature in the den was likely about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the ambient air temperature, Garshelis said.

Wildlife biologists know that No. 56 is 39 years old because they counted seven rings in a tooth they extracted from her in 1981, when she was first captured and radio-collared. That reliable aging technique told researchers the bear had been born in 1974, likely during the third week of January.

No. 56 was collared as part of a population dynamics study that examines the density, reproduction and mortality of black bears for management purposes, Garshelis said. She has long outlived her purpose for that study, he said, but researchers continue to track her simply because her longevity is so remarkable.

She’s truly a survivor. Since 1981, the DNR has radio-collared and tracked more than 550 black bears. The next-oldest bear in the agency’s studies included two that reached age 23.

one of them a granddaughter of No. 56. Another lived to age 20.

In teeth submitted by hunters from more than 60,000 harvested bears, only three lived past age 30, one of them to age 33, based on annual rings counted in those teeth, according to a 2010 DNR report.

“Half the females in Minnesota don’t live past age 4,” Garshelis said. “Only 5 percent make it to age 15.”

A few bears in zoos have reportedly lived to their mid-40s, he said.

How did No. 56 happen to live so long?

“She has stayed away from houses and hunters’ baits,” Garshelis said, “at least until recently. In the past five years, we’ve made a concerted effort to ask people not to shoot her, even if she does come to a bait.”

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