Bear crew member Jake Feener of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife prepares to move three bears into a Presque Isle den that he and fellow crew member Ethan Lamb constructed. The bear family's original den was unearthed by a grooming machine on a ski trail at the Nordic Heritage Center. Credit: John Holyoke

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With one jab of a needle attached to a long pole, and one resounding growl of displeasure, most of the risky work of Friday’s unexpected bear relocation effort was done.

Jake Feener, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife bear crew member, handled the first chore, and the not-too-happy momma bear voiced her momentary concern.

And after that, everything worked according to plan: The crew sedated two yearling cubs. Feener and coworker Ethan Lamb constructed a better-than-before super den for the three not-so-little bears. And the whole bear family was transported down a hillside and tucked into their new abode, which was then covered with fir boughs and snow.

It was just another day of work for the bear crew, which scrambled into action after the bear den was unearthed by a grooming machine on a ski trail at the Nordic Heritage Center.

“I wonder what the insulation value of snow is?” Feener joked as he piled shovels full of freshly fallen white stuff on top of the new den’s roof.

Feener even constructed a bed for the hibernating critters, fashioning one out of evergreen branches that offered just the right new-tree smell.

Lisa Feener, a bear crew member and since last summer, Jake’s wife, often handles the “stick” during den visits. On Friday, she said Jake had earned his ups.

“He’s been practicing up all this week, so it’s best to have him on the stick to drug mom,” Lisa Feener explained. “But I’ll go ahead and hand-syringe the yearlings.”

And that’s exactly how it played out: Crew leader Randy Cross, Lisa Feener and wildlife biologist Amanda Demusz stayed at the breached den and finished tranquilizing two yearlings, while Jake Feener and Lamb moved a few hundred yards down the steep hillside to find a blowdown that would be both off the trail system and a suitable place to build a new den.

Cross has been running the bear crew for more than 30 years, and estimated he’s had his hands on more than 3,000 individual bears during that time.

He said the crew has become very proficient in building new dens for bears.

“We do a lot of that, actually. What happens sometimes when they run away from us and get far away from their original den — and their original den a lot of times is all wet, from flooding or whatever — and we can actually build them a better den,” Cross said.

Cross took data records of each of the bears and noted any scars or other problems they might have had. Weights were also determined, and each bear received numbered ear tags and a lip tattoo that will allow biologists and wardens to identify them if they come in contact with the bears again.

The mother bear weighed in at a healthy 150 pounds, while her two yearlings, which were born in their den a year ago, were also fine specimens. A male yearling weighed 73 pounds, while a female weighed 59.

Mark Shea, the venue manager at the Nordic Heritage Center, said he began to hear rumblings about the bear incident on Saturday, when the den was breached just five minutes before the start of a women’s race during a day of collegiate action at the cross country and biathlon ski area.

Shea wasn’t on site at the time, and said the reports he heard left him fearing the worst.

“I started to hear some information trickling in, and I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened,” Shea said. “When I first heard about it, it sounded like there were bears running around on the trails while the skiers were out there.”

That wasn’t the case, and on Monday, he went out on the trail looking for the den. An original plan called for closing the trail for the rest of the winter, but officials at the center feared that curious visitors might head onto the blocked trail to try to find the bears.

On Thursday, a plan was hatched that called for the bear crew — which was working all week in Aroostook County, conducting den visits of the state’s research bears in the area — to intervene and relocate the bears.

“We had a couple of options, but Inland Fisheries and Wildlife staff, not just Warden [Alan] Dudley, but the biologists have been great to work with,” Shea said. “I agree with [the biologists] and they know what’s best for the bears and how they’re going to act or not interact with people. I think it made a lot of sense to move them.”

Cross said he wasn’t entirely sure that the mother bear would remain in the den after the commotion on Saturday.

“I was fairly impressed, to tell you the truth,” Cross said. “I wasn’t actually certain that they were still there [when we arrived today] because they might have decided they’d had enough, and they might have decided to get up and move. Because they really were poked with ski poles and had a groomer the size of a dump truck go over their den and cave the roof in … but it’s good now. They’ll have a peaceful rest of the winter.”

The bears stayed. On Friday, were loaded into a sled, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and hauled down the hill behind a snowmobile before they were tucked into their new winter digs.

Shea said one of the things he loves about the Nordic Heritage Center is its abundant wildlife, and this episode emphasizes that close relationship between the land and its natural residents.

“We share this land with the wildlife, and wildlife is part of being active in the outdoors,” Shea said. “We want to make sure that we’re good stewards of the land and we take care of the wildlife that lives here as well.”

Here are the bears being prepared for relocation:

Here are the bears being removed from the exposed den:

Here are the bears being transported to their new den:

Here are the bears being placed in the new den:

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...