Minnesota's bear man Dave Garshelis retires
After 37 years as the DNR's top bear biologist, Garshelis will now focus on international bear conservation.
Dave Garshelis won’t have the title of "Minnesota Department of Natural Resources bear project leader" anymore, but he’s still researching bears.
Garshelis, who retired last month after 37 years with the DNR, is turning his attention to his other “job” as bear group chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the largest conservation organization on the planet.
The group tries to match experts on more than 140 animal and plant species with researchers, often in developing nations, who need help with field projects or population issues in their homeland or region.
This week, Garshelis helped author a letter from the IUCN’s bear group opposing the Trump administration’s plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move scientists say will further diminish Alaska’s already troubled polar bear population.
“I’ve been the bear group chairman for about 20 years,” Garshelis said, noting he conducted the work as he could fit it in with his day job at DNR. “But I guess it’s going to be more full time now.”
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Garshelis, 67, had headed the DNR’s bear biology efforts since 1983. A New Jersey native, he earned an undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Vermont before gaining a master’s in bear biology from the University of Tennessee studying bears in the Great Smoky Mountains. His doctorate, from the University of Minnesota, is on sea otters, which he has studied in Alaska.
In addition to Minnesota black bears, Garshelis has studied Andean bears, Asiatic black bears, brown bears, sloth bears, sun bears and polar bears — missing only pandas among the eight bear species. He’s often used his vacation time to study bears in far-flung places like Bolivia, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Tibet and China.
“The retirement goal is to do more of that,” Garshelis said. “After COVID-19.”
Garshelis’ Minnesota bear research at first focused on the Chippewa National Forest north of Grand Rapids, where he was based for his DNR career. He later added study areas in Voyageurs National Park, the Camp Ripley military reserve and in northwestern Minnesota. Gashelis’ work here will be taken over by Andy Tri, a DNR bear research biologist who has worked with Garshelis for the past five years.
“Dave’s hard work leading the bear project the past 37 years has left some incredible shoulders to stand on and take bear research forward. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Dave,” Tri said. “Thankfully, Dave will remain active with the (DNR) bear project, volunteering at dens and working on (research) papers with me. His institutional knowledge of the program and the ebbs and flows of DNR are invaluable, and I’m thankful he’ll be around to share that sage wisdom with me.”
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Tri said Garshelis was a master of the long, sometimes agonizingly slow belly crawls up to open bear dens (the bears are often awake) to get the work done in the field — tranquilizing, collaring, weighing, aging bears and more — in often harsh winter conditions.
While Garshelis has mostly avoided the limelight, his work — mainly using radio telemetry to track bear movements, habitat and den sites — has helped keep Minnesota's black bear population on a stable course. That’s a sometimes fine line to walk between hunters, who want more bears so they can get more hunting permits, and farmers and rural residents wary of the damage bears can do to crops, bird feeders, gardens and garbage cans.
Minnesota now has 12,000-15,000 adult black bears. That’s up from as few as 8,000 when he started work for the DNR and down from a high of as many as 20,000 in the late 1990s, when complaints about bears causing problems flooded the agency.
“We’ve tried to balance the demand from hunters to shoot more bears, to have more permits available each year, and the complaints we get from the public, especially in a year like this (with a poor wild food crop) when bears are causing damage,” he said. “We have some hunters having to wait five years to get a permit in some permit areas … yet we had conservation officers in some areas this summer where pretty much all they did was take bear complaints. It’s a balancing act.”
North American black bears — upward of 900,000 ranging from Alaska and Canada down to northern Mexico — are doing pretty well. That compares to generally fewer brown bears and declining polar bears as well as declining numbers of several Asiatic bears. In large part it’s been the black bear’s ability to adjust to changing habitat (New Jersey has a dense population of black bears even among millions of people) and the increasing willingness by more people to live alongside black bears.
Whereas a half-century ago Minnesota black bears were routinely shot and killed in garbage dumps as vermin, they are now a highly prized big-game animal by hunters and an exciting addition to the Northland's wild landscape for most visitors and residents. Since Garhselis started work in the 1980s, “people have changed their attitudes about black bears,” he noted, with bruins now higher on the iconic Northland critter list with wolves, bald eagles and moose. Most Minnesotans now realize that black bears, while deserving distance and respect for their size and power, are almost never a threat to people.
Over Garshelis’ tenure, the DNR has stopped relocating bears that are causing problems. The goal now is to get people to change their behavior — keep garbage cans locked away, empty bird feeders in summer and fall, or keep them well out of reach — so the bear moves on.
Old No. 56
Garshelis may be best known in Minnesota for his work with bear No. 56, a female born in 1974 that the DNR radio-collared in 1981 that went on to live for 39 ½ years before she died in summer 2013. That’s the oldest bear even known in the wild — not just in Minnesota, not just among black bears, but any bear anywhere in the world.
“It was pretty remarkable that we could follow her that long,’’ Garshelis noted.
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Biologists age bears by counting rings on teeth. But the rings get closer together as they age, and without having been so closely studied as a youngster, no one may have known how special No. 56 was. Of the teeth submitted by hunters from more than 60,000 harvested bears over decades, only three lived past age 30, one of them to age 33. Half the female bears in Minnesota don’t live past age 4, Garshelis said. Only 5% make it to age 15.
No. 56 was deaf, blind in one eye, her teeth had worn down to nubs and she had stopped having cubs years ago. She probably only survived in later years because her human neighbors looked out for her on the roads, and because hunters who saw her let her pass unharmed, as the DNR had requested. But she continued to provide data near to the end when she became one of the very few Minnesota bears confirmed to die of natural causes.
“She just curled up and died. We really don’t know why,” Garshelis noted, adding that her remains were consumed by the forest’s wild scavengers and that something — likely an eagle — absconded with her radio collar and left it hanging in a nearby tree.
Here are some of the other Minnesota black bear research results verified during Garshelis’ tenure, gleaned from a chapter Garshelis helped write for a new academic book, “Bears of the World; Ecology, Conservation and Management,” set to be published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press:
Minnesota black bear sows on average have 2.6 cubs over winter. DNR researchers have visited 315 den with litters over the years and tallied 819 cubs. Litters contained 1–5 cubs, with three being most common, found in 54% of dens.
Black bears arise from their dens after a Minnesota winter having lost between 15 and 50% of their body weight. They consume primarily green vegetation in April and May, mainly ants and pupae in June (and for a few weeks, some deer fawns) various sorts of berries in July–August, and then hazelnuts and acorns in September until they den in October.
The average lifespan for a bear in Minnesota is about 4 years for males and 6 years for females.
Humans are responsible for 95% or more of all adult bear deaths in Minnesota. The most common mortality by far is hunting, followed by nuisance bear shooting and collisions with motor vehicles. A few uncollared cubs apparently died of accidental falls, etc. But among the 387 bears where Minnesota researchers confirmed the cause of death, only one bear (old No. 56) died from natural causes.
Primary bear food sources down 70%
Of all the findings gleaned from his work, Garshelis says he remains most puzzled by how nonchalant bears are about where and how they den. Far from creating substantial structures, or going into sheltered caves, most bears don’t seem to care where they spend half their lives — six months each winter — not eating anything and often exposed to the elements.
They rarely go back and use a den for a second winter, even if it’s a good one.
“It just amazed me that this wasn’t a bigger factor, or more important factor, in their survival and behavior,’’ Garshelis said. “Here they are at the coldest reaches of their range and it just didn’t matter if the snow piled up on them or the wind blew on them or even freezing rain. ... You or I could walk 100 yards and find a spot that would look better to us. But they don’t seem to care.”
Another seemingly important finding: Key black bear food sources in the Chippewa National Forest study area have declined 70% in recent decades, and it’s not clear why. Hazelnuts and berries are 70% less abundant, mostly because the plants are still there but are not bearing as much fruit. Reduced timber harvest appears to play a role, with more shade and less disturbance, but it’s a small role, Garshelis said.
Climate change doesn’t seem to be the driving issue. A decline in pollinators (same plants, fewer blooms, fewer berries) may be a key issue, but it’s too soon to say. So far, however, the decline in food hasn’t impacted bear health in any big way. They just have to travel farther to eat.
“What it’s done is expanded bear home ranges by two and three times what they were before,’’ he said. “But they surprised us again by being just as healthy as they were before.”