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Minn. bear tale evokes memories of Quagmire

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sometime during the winter of 2010, a West Virginia black bear named Quagmire perished, likely from natural causes.

Depending on what month she died in, she was either 29 or 30 years old.

That's a long, long, loooong life for a bear.

Division of Natural Resources biologists, who had tracked Quagmire by radio since the early 1980s, marveled that the old sow lived as long as she did.

Now word comes from Minnesota of a bear that is 39 and still ticking.

Wildlife biologists in the Land of 1,000 Lakes recently visited the den of the radio-collared bear they call No. 56, and found her hibernating comfortably.

Sam Cook, the outstanding outdoors writer for the Duluth Tribune, accompanied biologists on the visit and wrote an entertaining account of it.

Cook interviewed biologist Dave Garshelis, who said No. 56 appears to have lived longer than any other wild bear.

"No known bears of any species have lived longer in the wild, based on age estimates from teeth taken from harvested bears," Garshelis, bear project leader for the Minnesota DNR, told Cook. "That includes more than 60,000 specimens just in Minnesota and at least a million overall."

The growth rings on one of No. 56's teeth, collected from her in 1981 when biologists captured her for the first time, indicated she was seven years old at the time. She's worn a radio collar ever since.

From that standpoint, No. 56's life has closely paralleled that of Quagmire.

Both were captured when relatively young. Both were outfitted with collars. Both had their comings and goings tracked by wildlife researchers. Both produced lots of offspring.

Garshelis told Cook that No. 56 churned out 11 litters - 28 or 29 cubs - before she became barren. Chris Ryan, former bear project leader for the West Virginia DNR, said Quagmire produced about 20 cubs. Both sows bore their final litters at age 25.

Both also lived in states where a lot of bear hunting goes on.

According to Garshelis, fully half the female bears in Minnesota live fewer than four years. No such figures are available for West Virginia, but it seems reasonable to assume the averages for the Mountain State are roughly the same as for the Gopher State.

That Quagmire could evade hunters in Randolph County - one of the state's top bear-hunting counties - for so long is pretty remarkable. Garshelis told Cook that Minnesota officials recently started asking hunters who frequent No. 56's corner of the Chippewa National Forest to be on the lookout for a collared bear with half an ear tag missing, and to avoid shooting the old sow.

The story caught my attention for two reasons - its unusual nature and its parallels with Quagmire's life saga.

While I tip my hat to No. 56 for her superior and ongoing longevity, I contend that Quagmire by far had the more colorful name.

When Quagmire was captured, DNR researchers gave every radio-collared bear an alphabetically sequenced name to differentiate them. The letter "Q" happened to be next up, and after some discussion, biologists settled on "Quagmire."

The name certainly was memorable, and as Quagmire grew old enough that biologists began to take notice, outdoors enthusiasts around the state followed her exploits in my columns as well as those by the late Skip Johnson and Andy Hansroth.

Rest in peace, Quagmire. You might not have been the oldest, but you certainly entertained us while you were with us.


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