Birney Imes: To wake a sleeping bear

March 1, 2014 9:37:37 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Not everyday do you run up on someone who has crawled into a bear's den, roused its hibernating inhabitant, jabbed him with a sharp stick ... and lived to tell about it. Craig Jamison is one such person, and if you were among the 800 or so folks at the wild game dinner at Fairview Baptist Thursday night, you heard his story. 


Jamison, as the featured speaker, had to compete with a menu of duck, rabbit, rabbit stew, squirrel, deer, fish, wild hog and Brunswick stew.  


"It was the largest crowd we ever had for a wild game supper," said minister Tommy Gillon, who has known Jamison since he was a child. 


The two go back to Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Independence, a rural community midway between Sardis Lake and Olive Branch. Gillon, then the church's minister of music, went to Jamison's home for a visit. He remembers the young boy being painfully shy, though not too shy to hum a tune while in the presence of the minister. That was all the audition Gillon needed. He drafted Jamison for the church choir. 


"He developed a great voice," said Gillon. "He always had it and never knew it. It's a great thing. He can sing country music like you wouldn't believe."  


Jamison has sung the national anthem in front of 10,000 people, something he says is less intimidating than speaking to a roomful of people at a wild game supper. 


Jamison's parents had always dreamed of living in the West. In 1985 they bought a piece of land in Cody, Wy., and began building a cabin. The day after Craig graduated from high school in 1992, he and his parents lit out for the territories. He's lived there ever since. 


After graduating from the Univ. of Wyoming in wildlife management, Jamison got a spot on a team conducting a NASA-sponsored study on black bears. The space agency wanted to better understand bear hibernation, to see if and how it might relate to long-term space travel. 


Black bears hibernate four to six months. During that period, they don't eat, drink, urinate or defecate, yet they only lose 23 percent of their muscle mass. While hibernating (more of a torpor than deep sleep, says Jamison), the bears recycle their urea, a waste product normally eliminated in urine and the fibrous diet eaten during pre-hibernation creates a 6-inch fecal plug. 


"That's probably why they are in a bad mood when they get up in the springtime," Jamison said. 


Bears spend the winter in earthen dens hollowed out of the side of hills, rock caches covered by snow and even in the cavities of trees. Jamison's team would locate the hibernating bears from the air by radio signals emitted from collars they had put on the bears during the summer.  


Using snowmobiles and snowshoes to get to the site, they would set up an onsite surgical room near the hibernating bear. Here's where it gets crazy. With a rope tied around his ankle, Jamison would crawl into the bear's den with flashlight in one hand, a jab stick -- a four-foot rod with a syringe at one end -- in the other. 


He would distract the bear with the light, poke him with the jab-stick, then pull on the rope around his ankle and his cohorts would pull him out. After waiting the four or five minutes for the tranquilizer to take effect, they would go in and drag the bear out of the den. 


They would take hair and blood samples (for DNA), remove a tooth (like a tree, the age of a black bear can be determined by the number of rings in the root of a tooth) and implant a pacemaker to measure muscle activity in the stomach wall. 


Jamison remembers an implant surgery in zero-degree weather lasting four hours. 


"I had a numb toe for three weeks," he said. 


At the end of the hibernation period, the process was repeated, to remove the pacemaker. 


Thirteen years ago Jamison got a job as a hand at Fish On Ranch, a 600-acre private guest ranch near Laramie in Wyoming's Centennial Valley. He is now ranch manager and lives there with his wife and two children, Dayle and Jessie. He also runs an online photography business ( 


You wonder about the lessons learned from his time with the bears. Jamison thinks about the question for a moment: "I have an appreciation of just how tough those animals are, how resilient they are. And -- I don't know how you could say this -- to see how they work in such a delicate balance, how their bodies are so finely tuned to the world around them." 




Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.