In 1981, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources caught and tagged a female black bear. DNR researchers put a radio collar around her neck, returned her to her den, and made no note that the bear was remarkable in any way.
But she was remarkable -- or, rather, she is. That female, "Number 56," is still alive today, and the Department of Natural Resources' Dave Garshelis thinks she's the oldest black bear ever documented in the wild. Three other bear experts from across the country agreed, saying they'd never heard of another black bear reaching that age.
Bear Number 56 has had a strange, often tragic life, and she's spent more than a decade of it completely alone. The last time Garshelis and his researchers checked her she was in good health, but her teeth were rotting, and he worries about how well she can chew and eat these days. Garshelis has taken to setting out every few weeks just to find her, and make sure Minnesota's phenomenal bear is still alive.
As of a few weeks ago, she is, ambling around the woods near Clubhouse Lake, walking away from strangers, and walking further and further into biological history.
When Number 56 was first tagged in 1981, DNR researchers pulled one of her teeth to find her age. Like tree trunks, bears' teeth acquire a ring for each year, and analyzing teeth is still the most accurate way to tell a bear's age. In that first tooth sample, Number 56 was documented as seven years old.
Garshelis joined the DNR two years later, and began making the annual trips out to bear dens, where he and others would tranquilize the collared bears and bring them in for physical testing. To tranquilize a bear, researchers put a syringe on the end of a stick, reach it into the den and slide the needle into a muscle. He says Number 56 was never a tough case.
"She's been a very calm bear," he said. "She generally just sits there and kind of looks at you."
Over the years, Number 56 proved to be a great mother. Bears typically produce one litter of cubs every other year, and through the first 16 years they tracked her, Number 56 dutifully produced eight litters. Of those, 21 of 22 cubs survived to more than a year old, an astonishing mark of mothering.
Once the bears were out of her sight, they had less fortune. The DNR tried to track her 18 female cubs, but three disappeared before they were collared, and another removed her collar. Of the remaining 14 female cubs, 13 were killed by hunters. Garshelis says this is a typical rate, attributing roughly 80 percent of all Minnesota bear deaths to hunting -- 3,000 state-issued bear hunting licenses are given out each year -- and another 10 percent to other human causes.
By 1999, Number 56 bore a single cub, rather than a litter, and in 2001, her next due date, Garshelis found her lactating, but alone. It's the first time the DNR has ever followed a bear past reproductive age.
Garshelis says this means that for the last 11 years of her life, Number 56 has been utterly alone.
"We've never seen her with another bear," Garshelis said.
On page 2, follow City Pages' quest to find out if she really is the oldest black bear ever.
Bear expert Roger Powell, who spent 20 years tracing the footsteps of black bears in North Carolina's Appalachians, was amazed to hear of a 37 year old bear.
"That's old," he said. "Wow, what a great gal."
Powell said before that interview, the oldest bear he'd ever heard of was in its early 30's. Powell said to reach that age, a bear would have to be good, or at least lucky, at avoiding humans. She'd have to have a steady diet of food, but not too much food: Recent mammal studies have found that a slightly reduced calorie intake can lead to longer life. Beyond those factors, he was simply impressed by the number.
"Thirty-seven is just damn old," he said. "That's pretty amazing, and I doubt you'll find anyone who's heard of an older bear."
City Pages next reached Kerry Foresman, with the University of Montana. When asked about a 37 year old female, Foresman's response echoed that of Powell.
"Wow," Foresman said, pausing for a moment. "That's off the charts."
Foresman said the most amazing thing about a bear at that age is that her teeth would've held up. A diet that's 90 percent berries, grasses and other vegetation wears down the teeth dramatically.
"A bear 20 years old looks like a 70 year old person that's never been to the dentist," Foresman said. "I'd love to see the skull of this animal [when she dies], because she can't really have any teeth left."
The final expert on our list was Gary Mattson, also of Montana, who has spent some time in Minnesota and is actually an old friend of Dave Garshelis. Mattson runs a private company that analyzes animal teeth for aging purposes, and he's run hundreds of thousands of black bear teeth over the decades.
Mattson's dealt with only a small number of teeth that age into the 30's. He's had a couple 35-year-old teeth, both from Idaho, one in 1987 and another in 1995. But only one bear competes with Number 56: A black bear in a New Hampshire zoo. Mattson aged the tooth at 35 years old, but her zookeepers claimed she was at least 39, and may have been as old as 45.
Even still, bears live a lot longer in captivity than they do in the wild. Mattson, who probably ages more black bears than anyone else in the world, is ready to bestow a special title on Number 56.
"Considering the rarity of those kind of events, and that kind of age," Mattson said, "it's a very reasonable assumption that this is the oldest known bear in the wild."
On page 3, find out where, and how Number 56 is today.
Foresman is right to think that Number 56's long life has worn down her teeth. With alternate touches of wonder and sadness, Garshelis describes Number 56's present condition.
"Her teeth are, like, horrible, very worn down," he said. "Several teeth are missing, several teeth are broken, her gums are very inflamed. It would look to me like she would have a hard time eating some kinds of foods, like acorns, which are very important for their diet."
She's also gone grey, especially around her face and paws.
In the last decade, to make it easier on her, Garshelis has taken to only tranquilizing and testing Number 56 every three years. As of her last check-up in March 2010, she was a stout 192 pounds, with 19 percent body fat. But the missing, and rotting teeth were a new sign of old age, and one of her eyes had gone cloudy as if cataract had set in.
In their attempts to keep track of the bear that beat the odds, Garshelis has grown attached to Number 56, having visited her den about 20 times over the years. There was a time earlier this summer when he and another researcher went out to look for her, but she was nowhere to be found.
"It was kind of nerve wracking," Garshelis said.
Not long after, another DNR staffer went up in a helicopter, and spotted Number 56, still living. These days she's moved toward Clubhouse Lake Campground, near the town of Marcel, about 100 miles south of the Canadian border.
Garshelis says his worst fear is that Number 56 dies and they don't notice. He doesn't want her to perish, unobserved, in the winter and then have someone stumble upon her eight months later.
"That," he said, "would be the worst ending, she just disappears and no one would find her."
Garshelis says the thing that's allowed Number 56 to live so long is the same thing that makes her hard to track. She's skittish, and she avoids human contact. Especially in the summer days, when the undergrowth thickens, and there's lots of shadow and brush.
For 37 years now, she's survived, a black shape in the woods, always just in the corner of your eye. So far as is known, there's never been another bear like her.