IT’S interesting that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has decided to again expand research on the state’s black bear population, this time starting a new study to analyze den activity and to estimate reproductive rates in each management zone.

The agency periodically re-evaluates portions of its animal species population models. Last time it undertook such a project, using a method that involved the placement of meat containing materials that would show up on a tooth sample, they discovered that the bear population was about double what they had previously estimated.

That’s when we all learned, just several years back, that Wisconsin had been transformed into the Bear Capital of the United States. The adjustment in the population model suddenly propelled the state’s bear numbers into first place nationally, and today, there are an estimated 24,000 black bears roaming the state.

With this new research, the Office of Applied Science hopes to determine how many new black bears there are each year based on estimates of the average litter size, litter frequency and cub survival rates. They expect that will again improve the accuracy of the population model for each zone.

So they’ve established, on the DNR website, a place where people can report the locations of known black bear dens. They say such help is essential because bear dens are difficult to locate once bears go into hibernation.

“Known dens from prior years can be useful if they are still in use, and the public is encouraged to report as much information about the den’s location and recent use as possible,” the department stated in its press release.

Equipped with location details, in late winter researchers will collar female black bears and collect data at each den, including recording the sex, weight and body measurements of sows and their cubs.

Cubs are born in the dens each January as the mother bears sleep in hibernation, which in itself, puts bear reproduction in a category all its own.

Sows generally aren’t available for breeding more than every other year because in July, during the mating season, successful sows either can’t be bred or won’t allow it as they nurture their six-month-old cubs toward adulthood.

Personally, I’m excited about the new research and the possibility of revamping the population model because there still appears to be a higher bear population than what the state is telling us. And higher estimates could lead to a few more harvest authorizations, so maybe more hunters won’t have to wait 12 or 13 years to get a “tag.”

My observations are local and insignificant from a research standpoint, but I’m shocked every year in Three Lakes when a sow shows up with three or four cubs. Biologists of old talked about how rare it would be to get a litter of three or four bear cubs, and now it’s quite possible that such occurrences are common.

And why might that be happening? Does it have anything to do with the fact that property owners and hunters have been spreading hundreds of tons of corn, apples and other food in the woods since the DNR legalized deer baiting in 1980? And also, that despite current baiting and feeding bans related to chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, people are still buying and distributing hundreds of tons of artificial bait in the woods?

Because some of these local bears have only three legs, for whatever reason, my uneducated and somewhat tongue-in-cheek theory has been that the sows are encountering too many boars because they just don’t have the quickness or stamina to avoid being bred. I know, really scientific stuff from the scribbler.

Anyways, DNR researchers who’ve asked for the public’s help in locating bear dens are also working with state and federal biologists and tribal partners to locate black bear dens.

I know the Knitt boys of St. Germain fame know the location of one bear den in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest because on a grouse hunt years ago, they showed me exactly where it was.

And then they proceeded to tell me the tale of a hunt the week earlier, when they were standing at the entrance of the den talking as a bear bolted out of the hole and blew past them, right between two guys, to escape the human intruders. I’m guessing somebody had to clean out their shorts on that one.

I’ve come across several dens during late-season grouse adventures in the national forest, the latest off Perry Road near what they call the “whitetail area.” The former aspen clearcut borders a swamp that runs parallel to the north branch of the Pine River. That den was under the roots of a cedar windfall, right on the edge of the swamp.

I recall finding another in years past off the Fournier Road east of Eagle River, in the national forest. That one was also on the edge of a large swamp under the roots of a windfall. Some snow was melted and ice had formed in a small hole, likely due to warm breath or body heat escaping the den.

Hopefully area bear hunters, the most active of whom are houndsmen who run dogs, will get involved in helping researchers locate these dens. The bonus for them could be an increase in estimated bear numbers and more harvest authorizations down the road.

Hunters have long been some of the best conservationists in the state and country, so you can bet that they will help this research effort.