TARVERSVILLE -- By the side of the road, Mike Hooker hunches over his tailgate, rifling through plastic tubs filled with an assortment of weights, pliers, wipes, clippers and eye ointment.
As cars whiz behind him on U.S. 29, he shoves clinking glass vials of anesthetic into his pockets and loads a syringe. Then Hooker, a wiry, slightly grizzled University of Georgia graduate student, fires pink-tipped darts into a target.
Hooker is ready to sneak up on someone. Or rather, something.
Hes one of three researchers making their first visit to a black bears den. Its the middle of March, and UGA graduate students are starting a new phase of their three-year study of the Middle Georgia bear population and its movements.
But Hooker was the one who would walk in alone and dart a mother bear with cubs.
More often than not (the mother bears are) just going to stay put, says Hooker, who has done this in other parts of the country. Theyre going to be up showing some signs of agitation, popping their jaws, maybe huffing. Sometimes they move away from the den and circle it. Or they may just run off.
Hooker says hes less worried about the mother becoming aggressive than he is about her abandoning her cubs. It happens sometimes.
But hes banking on her maternal instincts keeping her close.
Theyve got a strong bond with their cubs, and we use that to our advantage, he said.
Nearby, researchers Casey Gray and Josh Sylvest huddle in the cold. Having bunked in Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area the night before, they joke about Joshs snoring.
They call each other by their first names. Hooker, who has already handled bears for 20 years, is never called anything but Hooker.
Weeks earlier, Hooker and Casey had scouted the dens of female bears that had been fitted with radio collars last year. Six of the 16 had cubs, but researchers dont yet know how many. They are trying to check a small female and what might be her first litter.
How many darts you taking? Josh asks Hooker.
Two, Hooker says.
Josh stares at him. His silence stretches long enough to offer its own commentary.
Youre optimistic, he finally says.
Hooker shrugs and pats his pockets before he tromps off into the woods.
Then theres nothing but the sound of wind and waiting.
Josh and Casey scuff their boots in a slick of wet leaves next to Albert Jenkins Road, holding out for the sun to burn through the mist. After about 15 minutes, Hooker texts that he had darted the mother bear.
But then an hour passes. The wet trees sparkle as the sun rises higher over a distant ridge. Hooker hasnt returned.
This den research is just part of a broad study funded through the Georgia departments of Transportation and Natural Resources. It was prompted by several potential threats: The widening of Ga. 96 through the heart of the bears territory, and the number of bears killed during the last two hunting seasons.
During Middle Georgias first open season on bears in 2011, 32 bears were killed, half of them female. That was believed to be about 10 percent of the entire bear population. Fourteen more bears were harvested last year, including several that had been collared as part of the students study.
To figure out whether the bear population can withstand these pressures, researchers need to know more about how many cubs are born each year and how many survive.
What big claws they have
Thats the story the dens can tell. Casey is mapping the dens and recording the surroundings bears prefer. Middle Georgia bears dont have the luxury of caves or big, hollow trees. So they make their dens on the ground, often near debris from old clear-cuts like this one in Twiggs County.
This mother bear had holed up in a briar patch that sprouted after a clear-cut. The briars seem to have caught Hooker.
Finally he comes striding back, muttering, She did not want to go down.
Hooker had shot the bear twice, from just eight feet away.
The second one I thought was a good injection, and I thought she was out, Hooker said. And I actually reached up and went to pull one of the darts out of her, and she sat up. And there we were. And so thats when I hand-injected her with the rest of the drug.
Now everyone hurtles into overdrive, packing supplies into a bag: GPS collars, leather spacers, a receiver, a fleece to wrap the cubs in.
The group picks through briars 8 feet tall. The den is nothing more than a spot next to a rotting log under a thick canopy of thorns.
The mother lies quietly, a white cloth protecting her eyes. The cubs cuddled against her are the size of puppies -- but with big claws.
They must be moved so Hooker can check the mothers vital signs.
Casey wraps the cubs in a fleece, but they keep trying to crawl off. Their cries sound like a cross between a human baby and the squawk of an angry bird.
Put them in your jacket, Hooker tells Casey. And Casey: Dont name them!
Giving animals human characteristics -- or names -- is a no-no among scientists.
Im not! Casey protests. Then, just to get under Hookers skin, she tells the cubs, Youre Casey Junior, and youre Casey II as she carefully zips them into her coat. They cry every time one of their toes pokes out the bottom.
You sound like little gremlins, she tells them affectionately. Eventually they start chuckling a little. Thats what biologists call the huffing sound contented cubs make, the bear equivalent of a cats purr.
Hooker gives the mother a new GPS collar and pulls a hair sample using pliers.
It will join roughly 3,500 others samples taken last year using wire snares. The DNA from the hair is being analyzed, and Josh will use the information to more accurately estimate how many bears there are. Hes rushing to provide results to DNR in early summer, hoping it will help game managers set better bear hunting rules.
But the DNR isnt waiting. Its poised to set bear hunting regulations for the next two years, said John Bowers, chief of game management. Although the hunt has been somewhat controversial, Bowers said he expects the only change to be shifting the hunting date to later in the fall.
By then, females may be less active, making them less likely targets.
Back at the bear den, its time to weigh the cubs, a male and a female who bawls with more determination than her brother. They are each zipped into a camo bag the size of a fanny pack, which dangles from a scale hooked over Hookers finger. The female weighs in at 2.5 pounds to her brothers 4 pounds.
Thats too bad, Hooker said. Little brothers going to out-compete her.
Hey, shes feisty, Casey points out. Maybe shell give him a run for his money.
Hooker flashes a sideways grin. The females are always louder, he says.
Each bear is injected with an electronic ID tag beneath its skin, like the ones people use for their pets.
Hooker hands the cubs back to Casey, estimating that theyre six weeks old. This time they fall asleep with their tiny heads hanging out of her jacket.
Later that day, the researchers go on to visit two other dens. At one, the mother bear runs off. After seeing a sickly female cub, the students leave to return another day. At the final den, they find a male cub that weighs only 1.5 pounds, the smallest Hooker has ever seen so late in the winter.
After a visit to all the dens, Caseys research will continue. Shell track when the bears leave the den in the spring, and shell follow the families, which stay together about 18 months. The plan is to repeat the research next year, just as Josh collects more hair samples and Hooker tracks bear movement around Ga. 96.
Its a long process. But on a sunny day when two bear cubs fell asleep in her coat, Casey is grinning.
Its super-exciting, because Ive done all this den work and never even seen the cubs, she says.
The cubs are tucked under their mothers arm. Its 48 degrees in the middle of a Twiggs County briar patch, and Caseys shaking the feeling back into her legs.
Days like this, she says, I really love my job.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.