|Dr. Dave Garshelis was recently featured in the Fall 2012 University of Minnesota Alumni Magazine.
By Greg Breining
Dave Garshelis relies on technology and a lifetime of experience to learn all he can about the world's bears, including black bears in Minnesota, but the bruins still retain some of their mystery.
Photograph by Sara Rubinstein
Check out the article, "The Secret Lives of Bears."
Redolent of moldering bacon and chocolate-covered cherries, Dave Garshelis (Ph.D. ’83) and his student volunteer, Chris Anderson, hike down a logging road north of Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota. Garshelis spots some scat and squats down to pick at it with a twig until, impatiently, he simply picks up a piece with his hand to see what this creature ate. Ants. In early summer, before berries ripen, ants can make up 80 percent of a black bear’s diet.
On they slog, wading up to their calves in puddles, swatting at deerflies and mosquitoes. They veer into the woods and come to what looks like a corral encircled by two taut strands of barbed wire.
This is one of Garshelis’s “hair snares,” clever devices for snatching samples of black bear DNA. “A bear’s sense of smell is more than 1,000 times greater than ours,” says Garshelis, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota and the bear project leader for the state Department of Natural Resources. “Their sense of smell is better than the best bloodhound.”
Such a keen sniffer hardly seems necessary, for as Garshelis scans the wires for tufts of hair, Anderson, a student on the U’s Crookston campus, refreshes the bait. He suspends a mesh bag of bacon that’s been unrefrigerated for six days, drizzles honey from a local apiary on a wool-stuffed plastic cup and hangs that out of reach, and smears fast-food cooking grease on a pile of sticks in the enclosure. The final touch, courtesy of a candle-making shop, is a liberal spritz of chocolate-covered-cherry scent.
Garshelis finds several hair deposits and tucks each sample into its own brown envelope that Anderson marks with a series of numbers and letters. Garshelis and his students are paying weekly visits to 120 hair snares distributed over 120 square miles north of Grand Rapids to collect DNA and estimate the number of bears in the area. By some indications, the bears have become scarcer. But that’s not Garshelis’s impression. “We’re getting a lot more hits on these sites than I ever imagined,” he says.
Since 1983, when he started this work, Garshelis has been the DNR’s point person on bear research and management—tracking bear numbers, determining reproductive rates and principal causes of mortality, responding to conflicts between bears and humans, including farmers, and consulting with wildlife managers to set the quota for hunting permits, the primary method of controlling the bear population.
Garshelis, 59, might have left it at that—bear expert in a state known for north woods and black bears. Instead, he has also become a globally renowned researcher—contributing to conservation efforts for bear species around the world and even investigating the physiological secrets of hibernation that may one day benefit human health.
“No matter who you bring to the den, he’s there to educate—to talk about bears and conservation,” says Paul Iaizzo (B.S. ’78 UMD, M.S. ’80, Ph.D. ’86), a University of Minnesota heart specialist and one of Garshelis’s coauthors on several studies that have monitored the physiology of denning bears. “It’s really fun for me to work with probably the number one bear expert in the world.”
January 1, 2014 (KSTP News)
U of M Researches Connection Between Black Bears and Heart Health in Humans
October 29, 2012 (Medical Bulletin, University of Minnesota Foundation)
Black Bear: Medical Marvel
U researcher heads to the woods to learn more about the human heart
August 17, 2011 (The Independent)
Beware the black bear- Even if it looks asleep
June 7, 2011 (MPR News)
Understanding bears could help us survive heart attacks, researchers say
March 15, 2011 (MPR News)
Photos: Bear research in northwestern Minnesota
February 23, 2011 (Health Sciences: Academic Health Center Archives)
Look Inside: The Visible Heart® Laboratory seeks solutions for muscle atrophy
January 20, 2011 (WCCO, Minneapolis)
Good Question: How Does Hibernation Work?
January 6, 2011 (KSTP, Minneapolis)
U of M Bear Study Could Help Critical Care Patients
December 26, 2010 (Star Tribune, Minneapolis)
Can dormant bears help us heal?
March 14, 2010 (Grand Forks Herald)
Learning from the bears