MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) — Minnesota wildlife officials say the world’s oldest known wild black bear has died of old age at 39 1/2.
Bear No. 56 was first captured and radio-collared in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was early in his first term. The bear was 7 years old at the time and was accompanied by three cubs.
From 1981 to 1995, the bear produces eight litters of cubs and successfully reared a “remarkable” 21 of the 22 cubs to 1 ½ years of age.
The Department of Natural Resources says data from the bear and her offspring has contributed significantly to the scientific literature on black bear biology.
“Getting this information about this bear has taken a lot of effort. This really attests to the value of a long-term study with a large sample of bears,” Dave Garshelis, DNR bear project leader, said. “Had we not studied so many bears, we likely would not have encountered this intriguing outlier. It was not just documenting that she lived to be so old, but understanding how she was able to live to be so much older than other bears that made this incredibly interesting and useful.”
Two years ago, the bear was a healthy weight, but her teeth showed excessive wear and her eyes were clouding, the DNR said. Since then, her hearing and eyesight continued to deteriorate. The bear was seen more often foraging along trails and traveling dirt roads, most likely due to the greater ease of travel than in the woods.
DNR researcher Karen Noyce recently found the bear’s decomposed body in a secluded, wooded area in northern Minnesota.
She says all indications are that it died a quiet death from natural causes. She calls it “a fitting death for a fine old bear.”
“This is the first bear in our study to die of old age, and there is something satisfying in that,” said Noyce, who, along with Ken Soring, DNR’s current enforcement director, conducted the first capture of Bear No. 56 as a rookie biologist in 1981.
“We knew she was getting feeble,” Noyce said. “It would have been sad to find her on the side of the road somewhere, hit by a car. After following her all these years, I’m glad to know she died peacefully. It was a fitting death for a fine old bear.”
Researchers suspect Bear No. 56’s longevity probably is best attributed to a combination of living in a remote area with few humans or major roads, wariness of people and luck.
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