The saga of a female black bear only known as “No. 56” has finally come to an end. Researchers found the 39-year-old black bear dead in Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, seemingly of natural causes. At the time of her death, No. 56 was only months away from her fourth decade of life, making her the oldest living wild black bear. According to the Associated Press, the bear’s remains were found by state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) researcher Karen Noyce.
“It looked like a pretty peaceful setting, a cool, shady spot in the woods,” she said. “Just the kind of place a bear would have taken its midday nap.”
For Noyce, it was a bittersweet realization that the bear she had known—and been studying—for the majority of her career was gone. The researcher had just joined up with the DNR’s bear program after graduating when she helped collar No. 56 in 1981. The seven-year-old animal was just one among the 550 black bears collared by the agency in a project on bear mortality. No. 56 outlived all of her compatriots and many of the younger bears caught years later. The elderly bear also manged to outlast every collared bear of any species, only captive bears have lived longer.
“No known bears of any species have lived longer in the wild, based on age estimates from teeth taken from harvested bears,” Dave Garshelis told the Duluth News Tribune earlier this year, when No. 56 was just starting to stir in her den after a long winter. Garshelis is the leader of the DNR’s bear project.
“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,” Garshelis said in a statement. “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.”
No. 56 has lived a full life, including raising 22 cubs. Expects believe that many of the bears in the surrounding area are her descendants and the eldest has already reached 18 years of age. No. 56 entered the her long twilight years at 25, but a mix of good health and luck has ensured that she enjoyed the next 14 years in relative leisure. Researchers last checked up on her in 2010, when they recorded the bear to be in good health despite signs of age.
“This is the first bear in our study to die of old age, and there is something satisfying in that,” said Noyce.
In the last years of her life No. 56 began to approach hunting blinds. The old bear was well known to local hunters, who let her pass by out of respect. The DNR also requests that hunters avoid shooting collared bears. The collar on No. 56 transmits a signal that allowed researchers to keep track of her movements, but she dropped off the radar in late June. A pilot next picked up No. 56’s signal last Monday while flying over the national forest. Noyce believes the bear to have died sometime in July.
“I spent a couple of hours out there at the site […] and said a little thank-you for the opportunity to watch this bear through my whole career,” she told the AP.