THERE’S SPRING in the morning air, but the visuals all say winter. Leafless limbs stretch for soft, white February sunlight. Pines and cedars, along with gray-green lichen encrusted on timeless Ozark boulders, offer the only signs of photosynthesis in action. The forest is bright but dormant. And just 50 yards uphill, a mostly dormant female bear, called a sow, is denning with her cubs.

We’re on a steep and stony ridgeside somewhere in Izard County’s Sylamore Wildlife Management Area. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist Allen Cathey and AGFC technician Adam Green are preparing a cocktail of sedatives to ensure that bear F288—better known to Allen as Mariah—goes into an even more dormant state. Mariah, who has been collared for seven years, was named after the daughter of one of Allen’s former technicians. Assigning a number is the most efficient way to organize data on the 50 to 60 denning sows the AGFC checks in on every winter, but it’s also a clinical one—and that doesn’t jibe with the intimacy required of fieldwork. Bearded, broad, baritone-voiced Allen, a 12-year veteran with the AGFC, doesn’t seem the sentimental type, but then he says this: “Most of [the bears] are named after someone who means something to us. “I’ve named one after my grandmother.”

I ask about the method involved in darting an animal. “First thing is to keep from sticking myself,” Allen says, carefully loading the syringe dart, which sports a 2-inch needle, into the dart gun. “That’s my method.” As for sticking bears, it’s all about dart placement and needle length. Bears have a thick layer of fat and tough hide, so the needle must punch through and embed in muscle tissue rich with blood vessels in order to transport an immobilizing agent to the nervous system. “If you dart them in fat, it will take longer,” Allen says, “or they may not even go out.”

“What’s the test for when they’re out?” I ask.

“They don’t move,” Allen says with a casual dryness. “I’m going to dart her, then back off for five or 10 minutes. This is the first time I’ve used this mixture, so I don’t know exactly what it does.”

Wait … WHAT? “I don’t know exactly what it does” aren’t words you want to hear when discussing the sedation of a 200-pound bear only 50 yards away. A bear can cover that distance in three seconds.

I need to know exactly what it does.

“[Other bear biologists] have been using this stuff for a few years now,” Allen says reassuringly. He tells me a bear exhibits some tell-tale signs when the drugs kick in: Their heads will drop, and they’ll start licking and blinking their eyes. The bear won’t be completely knocked out; they can still see, hear, feel and smell. They’re just immobilized. “It’s safer for the bear than putting them completely under,” Allen says.

You may think a hibernating bear wouldn’t need to be sedated, that it would be dead to the world, oblivious to any and everything as it sleeps through winter. You’d be wrong. There’s a lively discussion among scientists about whether bears, the star of every kid’s nature book about hibernation, even really hibernate.

Hibernation is an extended and deep state of torpor induced by hormone changes related to reduced hours of daylight. For true mammalian hibernators, such as ground squirrels, metabolism bottoms out. Their body temperatures drop and hover just above the freezing mark on the most frigid nights. Animals in hibernation aren’t aroused by outside stimuli and will even sleep through being touched and handled. Bears, on the other hand, go into a shallow state of torpor driven by ambient temperature and food availability. Their metabolism slows—they can and do survive for months without eating—but their body temperature drops only about 10 degrees. And they’re often awake. “When I come to the den, they are fully awake and fully aware that I’m there,” Allen says. “They can turn that torpor off at the drop of a hat—heart pumping, breathing hard, and fly out of there if they want to. They just don’t want to.” So denning bears need a relaxing sedative before an up-close visit from the friendly bear biologist.

“I don’t want to crawl into a den and get my face slapped,” Allen says.

On warmer winter days in Arkansas, days like today, male black bears, known as boars, and sows with older cubs may venture out of the den, nibble on any available goodies and stretch out on a warm rock to soak up some rays. But Mariah is a sow with two young cubs (twins are the norm for black bears) that were born only a few weeks ago in mid-January. She’ll be in the den, drowsy and slumbering through April and maybe into May. Her cubs are growing incredibly fast, thanks to her rich, fatty milk, but they won’t be big enough to follow her over the ridges for several more weeks.

Though taxonomically in the order Carnivora, black bears (Ursus americanus) are omnivores, which means they’ll eat just about anything. Arkansas black bears rely largely on mast—soft mast such as berries and other fruit in spring and summer, hard mast like acorns and hickory nuts in fall and winter—to survive, while most of a bear’s animal protein comes from insects. Do bears sometimes act as predators in Arkansas? “Yeah, but for the most part, our bears aren’t going to exert the energy to chase down and kill something,” Allen says, “not when they can roll a rock or tear up a stump and get all the protein they want.” Bears will also occasionally predate livestock, he says, but only during stressful times—years of poor mast production or drought.

With the dart ready, Allen creeps up the hill, gun in hand, and peeks into the den, which is really nothing more than a stony lean-to. Mariah and her cubs are literally denning under a rock. It’s just a big flat stone, probably 10 feet by about 15 feet, resting at a 45-degree angle against a boulder. On another trip with Allen a few weeks ago, we found a sow and cubs under a root wad. In eastern Arkansas, where flooding is an issue, most bears will den high in a hollow tree. In the Ouachitas, they just dig out a hole in the side of the hill. Most Arkansas bears take their winter naps in unassuming places. I wonder how many I’ve walked past, oblivious, on winter hikes.

After surveying the scene, Allen steadies the compressed-CO2-powered pistol, which looks not unlike a paintball gun, takes aim through a holographic sight and pulls the trigger. Response from the den is silence. Allen watches for a minute or so, then quietly walks back down to us. And we wait.

Allen says the gold standard for knowing when you can enter a sow’s den is hungry kids. “When you start hearing those cubs squall is the best indication,” he says. The sedative stops secretion of body fluids, including lactation. And sure enough, about 10 minutes after darting Mariah, the sound of impatient youngsters reaches our ears.

That sound, though frequent around these parts these days, wasn’t always so commonplace. Mariah’s cubs, born weighing 12 ounces and measuring 8 inches long, will be a continuation of an incredible conservation story. But like all conservation success stories, a conservation tragedy preceded it.

THERE WAS a time when black-bear numbers in Arkansas were considered incalculable and inexhaustible. Before Arkansas became The Natural State, before it was the Land of Opportunity, the Wonder State, the Bowie State and the Toothpick State (those last two nicknames refer to the fearsome knives common during a rougher time in our state’s history), the state’s unofficial nickname in the 1800s reflected a wilder character: the Bear State. As a backwoodsman in Thomas Bangs Thorpes’ 1841 tall-tale “The Big Bear of Arkansas” said, black bears were “about as plenty as blackberries, and a little plentifuller.”

No one has a number for bears in those days, but legend speaks of a legion of outsized brutes. Native Americans hunted bears for food, clothing and for the ornamental and ceremonial use of their claws and teeth. Euro-American settlers in Arkansas saw the bears as a vital component of survival and the frontier economy. Bear meat, including bear bacon, was a staple, and bear skins were valued for durability. But the top prize from Arkansas wildlands was bear oil. Rendered from bear fat, bear oil had a longer shelf life than butter and a multitude of uses, including fuel for lamps, insect repellent and even hair gel. Fetching up to $1 per gallon in 1834 ($29.32 with 2018 inflation), thousands of barrels of Arkansas bear oil were shipped to New Orleans through the 1800s. Oil Trough, Arkansas, in Independence County, got its name from commercial hunters storing bear grease in troughs made from hollowed logs and readied for shipment down the White River. “Not a lot of people know that,” Allen says, but Allen knows. He’s from Oil Trough.

It wasn’t just the commercial hunting, though. As wilderness fell to the ax and plow, rapidly changing land practices in Arkansas altered and often destroyed habitat. All in all, it was a lethal combination for what was once a booming population of bruins. By 1927, when the AGFC officially ended hunting season for bears, it was almost too late. By 1942, only an estimated 40 or 50 had survived, mostly found in the vast, swampy hardwoods of the lower White River bottoms with a very few others scattered here and there through the Ouachita and Ozark highlands.

At this lowest point, two key political developments likely saved black bears in Arkansas. One was the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. More commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, it created a tax on guns and other hunting equipment earmarked for wildlife and habitat management. The second, Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 35, came along in 1944. It created autonomy for the AGFC, allowing the agency to manage wildlife independent from legislative oversight and to use revenue generated from license sales for regulation and management. It’s entirely possible that without these two groundbreaking conservation measures, Arkansas would be bearless today.

Records are shady on details of the first bear translocations to Arkansas. There was no public input, and publicity was limited by design. This was, after all, only a generation or two removed from a time when Arkansas was the Wild West, and the only good varmint was a dead varmint. But letters on file at the AGFC show that the first four translocated bears were released in Arkansas in 1949—two in Stone County and two in Franklin County. Though one of the Stone County transplants was promptly shot, documents indicate that there were other bears present in the area and that sightings peppered the Ozarks through the early 1950s. In 1958, the AGFC made a bold (and also hidden-from-the-public) move by trucking 40 Minnesota bears to their new home in the northwest quarter of Arkansas. More bears were released in the Ozarks and Ouachitas during the summers of 1962 and ’68, with some from Minnesota and some from Manitoba.

Best estimates are that a total of 254 black bears came to Arkansas from the North, and those bears prospered. Within just a few decades, the population had grown to the point that the AGFC reinstated bear season in 1980. Allen says Arkansas is now home to more than 5,000 black bears. This is considered the most successful reintroduction of a large carnivore in history—not in the history of Arkansas or even the U.S., but anywhere in the world.

Bear management must be closely monitored because bears reproduce only every other year. To track bear numbers, the AGFC tries to keep 50 to 60 sows collared statewide for den research. Adult sows are trapped in summer and marked with ear tags and tattoos, and a tooth is pulled for aging. Biologists note whether the sow has yearlings (cubs born the year prior) or cubs, or is on her own, and then she’s fitted with a radio collar.

When biologists visit the sow’s den in winter, they’re looking for cubs. If the sow has yearlings, biologists just need to know if the cubs survived. “She’s taught them all summer how to live, find food, water, how to be little bears,” Allen says. “Then she’ll den with them again the next winter.” When the cubs emerge during that second spring, the sow sends them on their way. Sometimes female cubs will stay with their mother for a while, but young boars are always driven away immediately to prevent inbreeding and to prevent competition among the young males. After the cubs have moved on to their own lives, the sow cycles again, breeds again, and hopefully, two new cubs will be born in her winter den.

“If they make it to yearlings, they more than likely make it into our population,” Allen says. “That doesn’t tell us that we know we have 5,353 bears in our state. It lets us know that reproduction is going on like it should.”

In some years, nothing is going on. A 2009 ice storm, for example, shut down a lot of bear reproduction in the Ozarks. “What we saw that year was that bears that should have had cubs didn’t have anything,” Allen says. “Bears that should have had yearlings had cubs again because the yearlings didn’t survive. And when we keep hunting them like we do in years like that, we could put ourselves in a hole real quick.”

Overall, the Arkansas bear population is growing, albeit slowly, with bears spreading into areas where they haven’t been seen in decades. It’s a bittersweet development. All the work by the AGFC has produced exactly the desired results, but it also means the bear population has run up against really the only barricade to its growth: people.

“We could support double, triple, quadruple the amount of bears with the habitat we have,” Allen says. “People are the limiting factor. The more bears we have, the more their territory will expand into more urban areas, and then more people are moving into rural areas.”

It’s a recipe for conflict. Just this summer, a sow and cubs moved into a rural neighborhood near my hometown. All was well until the sow decided to help herself to some pigs. She evaded AGFC traps but was ultimately destroyed by the pigs’ owner. It’s a story that’s been retold over and over ever since the dawn of animal agriculture. Large predators and livestock don’t often mix. Figuring out the delicate balance between bears and people promises to be one of the bigger challenges for the AGFC going forward.

MORE HELP arrives at the den site in the form of A.J. Riggs, AGFC biologist supervisor, and a couple other assistants. Allen is under the rock, gently administering drops to Mariah’s eyes and covering them with Band-Aids because the sedative mixture stops tear production. He then lifts her muzzle, ensuring that she doesn’t inhale any dirt. I crawl around the den’s edge, scrounging for a good camera angle, and discover that Mariah’s body heat has made the den a toasty little haven for her cubs. Allen says it’s a sustained 80- to 90-degree environment, which is why we wrap the cubs in blankets as they blink hard in the bright sunbeams and cool winter air, their first look at and feel of a world beyond their den.

Before he weighs them, Allen says most cubs weigh between 5 and 6 pounds. But Mariah’s cubs come in a little lighter than expected. The male cub weighs 4 pounds even, and the female weighs 3 pounds and 12 ounces.With their sky-blue eyes, shiny coats and looks of endearing bewilderment, the cubs remind me of 4-week-old puppies. And like 4-week-old puppies, the cubs’ charms prove irresistible. Before you know it, I’m holding the swaddled twins and grinning like a fool, trying my damnedest to fight an urge to snuggle them up to my cheeks. Allen says it’s a normal impulse.

Those cute cubs will grow into large and intimidating animals. Adult black bears range from 4 to over 6 feet long from nose to rump and measure 35 to 48 inches at the shoulder when standing on all fours (big males can be 6 feet tall when standing erect). Arkansas black bears, with their Northern genetics and Southern easy living, are among the largest in the nation, but their weights can vary considerably over the course of a year based on food availability—males can exceed 600 pounds but typically range from 130 to 300 pounds, and adult females clock in at 100 to 200 pounds. The boars will roam far and wide searching for food, often with a territory of up to 50 square miles. Sows tend to live on about half that range and sometimes less. “If a female has good water, mast, denning and refuge habitat,” Allen says, “she may never leave a certain drainage.”

And they’ll be roaming the land for a while. Black bears in captivity have survived for 25 to 30 years. Here in the wild, the cubs will probably live for more than a decade.

Mariah is 9 years old, weighs 225 pounds and exhibits some of those Northern genetics in her cinnamon coat. She rests peacefully throughout the research, mostly untouched by Allen and his help. From time to time, Allen crawls into the den to check on her. “I’m in there hugging up on bears quite a bit, sticking them with needles, taking their cubs out, but they’re more than just research animals,” he says. “Having some passion in what you do means more than anything.” The line between professional and personal blurs a little, but maybe that’s the hallmark of a well-chosen career.

The fuzzy little beasts are weighed while resting in a potato sack. Paws and heads are measured and numbers recorded with only a few bawling squalls punctuating the soft scratching of pencils and whispered dialogue. And then each member of the crew enjoys a few brief moments of pure bliss with a bear cub nestled against their chest. Call it a perk of the job.

As things wind down and before Allen administers oxytocin to Mariah to get that milk flowing again and satiate the hungry cubs, I ask if I can crawl in there with her for a bit. Allen nods.

And so I do, cautiously. It’s not anxiety I’m feeling. I’m not worried about Mariah coming to, her snarling muzzle and claws turned on me like so many folks envision any encounter with a bear to be. It’s more of a warm buzzing anticipation.

I’m going to touch a wild bear in her den.

Actually, I do more than that. I crawl closer and run my fingers along her skull to the tip of her rubbery dry nose and back to her rounded ears. I bury my nose in her shaggy reddish fur, inhaling deeply of a pleasant scent that smells a little like my dog, a little like the mountains and a lot like something unknowable, ineffable and wild.

I leave Mariah after a long rub of her head and wish her luck for the coming year with the cubs, with the acorns and with the grubs. I tell her I’m glad they’re back, here in The Natural State, that we’re a richer, better place because of it. These hills belonged to her kind before my ancestors walked upright. Finding a way to share the hills with Mariah, her offspring and the generations to come seems the least that we can do.

Writer Johnny Carrol Sain is from the River Valley/southern Ozarks of Arkansas. He hunts, fishes and wanders the hills and creeks with camera in hand, and bear hugs are his new favorite thing.