Death, and life, of bear No. 56 helps put our lives in perspectiveSAM COOK: I would love to have been with bear researcher Karen Noyce that day in June when she last saw Bear No. 56 alive.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
I would love to have been with bear researcher Karen Noyce that day in June when she last saw Bear No. 56 alive.
The 39½-year-old black bear, first radio-collared at age 7 by Noyce and another Department of Natural Resources employee in 1981, was the oldest-known living wild bear in the world. Noyce found her dead of natural causes last week in the woods near Marcell.
No. 56 reached her advanced age by living in an area with sparse population and few roads, by avoiding people and by luck, researchers say.
No other bear in the DNR’s long-running bear study has died of old age, Noyce said. She last saw No. 56 alive in June. The bear was deaf and probably blind, she said.
“I came up on her from downwind,” Noyce said. “I was probably 10 feet away. She was sound asleep, taking a nap. I just spent some time and watched her.
“When I came around to her upwind side, probably 20 feet away, she suddenly stirred a little bit. She could smell me. She immediately got herself up and headed off.”
A friend of mine, a hunter and writer and consummate outdoors person, was moved by Noyce’s account of watching No. 56 sleeping in the woods that day. Like many of us, he couldn’t help pondering this bear’s life.
“I like imagining the winters and summers and litters of cubs passing through her life like so many chapters in a book, and yet there was still wildness around her,” he said. “How many close calls did she have? We’ll never know. Maybe that adds to the mystery, too.
“There’s no privacy in the world anymore — but enough privacy in the woods around Marcell for an old bear to go die and not be found for several weeks. There’s not sadness, but beauty in the imagining of a bear’s long life — its fullness, its wildness and its end.”
DNR researchers gained a lot of information from No. 56 in 32 years, about reproduction, survival, movements and, eventually, aging. It should be noted that they did this without compromising the bear’s wildness.
Though numbered, she was not named. She was never hand-fed. She was observed largely by biologists and just a few others. No cameras were placed in her den, although remote still cameras were sometimes placed near her den so researchers would know when she left in the spring.
As much as researchers learned about bears from No. 56, a lot of wonder remains about the thousands of small choices she made daily. Why did she so rarely visit the baits placed by bear hunters? What did she know about raising cubs that allowed 21 of her 22 to reach age 1½, a “remarkable” achievement, according to researchers?
What daily patterns, den sites and long-range movements to seek richer foods in late summer allowed her to outlive — by 16 years — all of the 360 radio-collared bears in the DNR’s study?
I would guess a few longtime deer hunters have asked similar questions in those private moments after shooting a big buck. What angler hasn’t wondered the same thing after pulling an old lake trout or walleye from the depths?
Nearly all wildlife is fascinating in the way it has evolved, in the way it has adapted to its surroundings, in the way that it fits into the larger ecosystem.
But some, like No. 56, transcend the ordinary. Their lives provide an opportunity for us to put our own lives in sharper perspective, to draw what parallels we might in the choices we make, to imagine ourselves growing older and someday dying.
And what it will have meant for us to spend this time on the planet.