More about Bears, Pine Nuts and Delisting

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are starting to hang around, making a ruckus with their characteristic nasal loud call.  They’re waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  The cones are still green; maybe a few more weeks.  But they’re anxious to begin their ancient fall ritual of collecting and storing seeds–tens of thousands each year–and incredibly they remember these locations.  The seeds that aren’t retrieved might just grow into young pines.

A Forest Service botanist gave me two hints when planting Limber Pine seedlings:

1.  Put two or three seedlings in one hole to imitate how a Nutcracker might have stored those seeds and

2.  Collect some soil from around a mature Limber Pine and place it in the planting hole.  That soil has the correct mycorrhiza (fungi) that is symbiotic with the pines.

I’ve been inspecting the cone production this year and although it seemed better than last year’s very low production, it appears not to be a boon year.  Many trees have no cones.  Others just a few.  I’d judge that around my home the production is going to be medium-low.

I was curious what the Whitebark production is this year.  Sometimes the Limber mirrors the Whitebark, other times it’s a good substitute.  In a hike up Windy Mountain yesterday, our last remaining live stands of Whitebark are up there.  There are lots of dead trees and a few young trees, but there are still some standing mature live trees.Grizzly cub

Whitebarks and Limber Pines cone at the top growth only.  Trees that are in the open will produce more cones.  Windy mountain has a fairly tight forest with upright trees.  Looking at the potential 2014 cone production, I estimated about the same amount as my Limbers. That got me wondering what the official report for 2014 of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is from the transects they use.

The IGBST is reporting a medium high cone production for 2014.  They define a ‘good’ production of average of 20 cones per tree, vs. 5 cones per tree last year. But here is the catch.  Total mortality on their transects (read ‘dead trees’ from beetles specifically) since 2002 is 75%.    So there are 3/4 less trees from which to obtain food, even if there is good production on those remaining trees.

At least 75% of this Whitebark forest is dead; in other places on Windy it is more like 90%

At least 75% of this Whitebark forest is dead; in other places on Windy it is more like 90%

The IGBST did the Whitebark Pine study required by a judge before delisting.  They concluded that the bears will find other foods in the ecosystem and so can be delisted.  The states are pushing for that delisting status in order to begin a hunt, for which they can charge high dollars for a grizzly bear tag.

Recently I was at a landowners’ meeting where a county commissioner gave a short talk. He mentioned he was on the grizzly bear committee, representing Park County.  This man is no scientist.  He is a politician first and foremost; and he said to this group of landowners that the study ‘proved’ the bear is doing fine without Whitebark pine nuts.  Don’t believe it.  He was simply chanting the line that politicians and state managers have been saying for years in order to delist.griz

I firmly disagree with delisting the Grizzly.  The bear has been dependent on these nuts for making ‘brown fat’ for hibernation.  Without this nut you can be sure to see the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly wandering into the bottomlands where more people live, eating foods like Russian Olive nuts that grow in the drainages, or even livestock.

There are several reasons why I am NOT for delisting the Grizzly:

1.  Grizzly bears are highly intelligent animals, at least as smart as the Great Apes, which puts them on par with humans.

2.  Bears primary food sources–pine nuts and cutthroat trout–are compromised

3.  Climate Change is a big unknown for food for these large carnivores.  Moths that the bears rely on are also a fragile food given pesticides loads in the prairie states.

and one of the most important reasons:

4.  Bears confined to the GYE do not, at this point, have adequate corridors for genetic diversity and may over time die out.   The IGBST delisting plan calls for flying in bears to the ecosystem if and when genetic diversity is compromised.  I’ll say that again  “FLYING IN BEARS”!

To compensate for reduced primary foods, as well as provide a buffer for climate change and provide genetic diversity, bears need to be able to move in and out of the GYE. Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) targets this need.  Presently there are large bear unoccupied areas of this natural corridor; swaths of public and private lands that were formerly bear territory (Central Idaho Complex is an unoccupied example).

It took over 30 years to bring the GYE grizzly numbers up to about 650 bears, from less than 200.  If delisting, and hunting, returns, it won’t be long before those numbers begin to decline again.

Grizzly bears are not just critical to the ecosystem.  They provide something critical to man–the power of the Present moment.  There is nothing more wonderful than that ‘alive’ feeling of walking through woods where grizzly bears at present.  The grizzly bears gift to man is the Power of the Present.  Let us honor that.

This tree has a blaze and to the left a bear left its own blaze

This tree has a blaze and to the left a bear left its own blaze

What the Lamar Valley has to offer in May

A cloudy, snowy, cold Mother’s Day.  I like to head into the park on Mother’s Day and try to see babies.  I’m so close to the Lamar Valley, just one hour to the Buffalo Ranch, that I usually don’t get much further, and don’t need too.  All photos below are from today.

A few Mother’s Days ago there was so much activity in the valley–wolves on wolves competing with bears, coyotes and bison babies, you-name-it.  Today was a different Mother’s Day.  The Lamar activity has calmed down in general.  With few wolves, there is just less activity.  But spring is always an excellent time to see bears and today was no exception.

I saw a total of 5 grizzlies in the Lamar–a mom with 2 yearlings, and two boars. Grizzly The boars had a brief face off for a few tense moments, but the bigger one just went his way.  Bighorn sheep rams stood by the roadside; a coyote was on a bison calf carcass, and the bison babies and moms were all along the road.  I watched a wonderful scene of a young frisky bison calf jump around, then come back and nuzzle his mom.  The mom and him butted and rubbed their heads, then he was off romping again.Bison and nursing calf

What strikes a person traveling through the Park is how many people LOVE to visit this area, and some many times a year.  I spoke with a fellow who travels here at least 4 times a year from Rhode Island.  He comes in winter to Jackson to photograph elk on the refuge.  Then he returns for the antler auction, trying to match up his photos with a matched set of antlers (75% goes to the Refuge, 25% to the local boy scout troop who do the collecting of the antlers).  He comes other times just for wildlife watching.  Many of the people I spoke with come out every May, staying outside the Park at the gateway communities.  Some people come from as far away as England.  Some have even bought second homes here.  And what are people looking for when they come–they all want to watch predators!  “I want to see a bear” one person told me.  They’d like to see wolves, bears, foxes.  It’s easy to see elk, bison, and antelope.  But predators are exciting for people to watch.Bison babies

And the predator that is now obviously ‘missing’ in the Lamar viewing experience is the wolf.  Although there is a pair there who have pups, two grown wolves are hard to spot, as compared to over a dozen in the pack just a few years ago.

From where I sit in my valley, the wolf hunt has hit the Lamar hard as these wolves travel back and forth in the winter time following the migratory Lamar elk herd outside the Park.  The Wyoming Game and Fish has proposed an increase in the 2014 wolf hunt numbers.  Most areas would have an increased quota–my area 2 would be increased from 4 last year to 5 this fall.  In 2013 5 wolves were killed, one above the quota.  There is a confirmed pack of 6 wolves here.  Why is the quota most of the adult pack?

Please take a look at this sane proposal below from Brushback Guide Services.  They propose Tourist and Science zones next to the Park with either 1. no harvests, depredation only or 2. extremely low quotas with a buffer of 10-15 miles around the Park, thereby tightening the areas or 3. very limited shortened seasons in these special zones.

This proposal would protect the tourist economy as well as balance with those who want to hunt wolves.  A continued increase in the wolf hunt will only have continuous impacts on the Park and the wolf population and pack structures in the Greater Yellowstone area.

Wolves, and all predators, should be appreciated for their necessary impacts on ecosystems.  They are needed in the ‘web’.  They manage the meso-predators, they foster healthy landscapes, they provide food for other large predators such as bears, and for thousands of years ungulates have been evolutionarily healthier because of their presence.  Ram

Yet the reality today is economics and dollars drive the argument and the management policies.  So here is what Brushback Guide Services proposes that I think works.  Proposal #1 is what I prefer:

Proposal 1- Science & Tourism Units

Units that are important to wildlife viewing would be considered “Science & Tourism Units” to allow scientists a chance to keep ongoing wolf studies without having so many wolves taken mid-life before their full potential data is reached. The other purpose for these units is tourism. Tour companies can show people wolves in areas where they are not hunted better than areas where they are hunted. These units have good road systems for tourism and border national parks for ongoing studies. Scientifically, these units allow us to know how to manage wolves in areas where they do get hunted because we know how it should be when they are not hunted or very limited hunting is allowed.

Proposal: Science & Tourism Units- Unit 2, 6, 8, & 9
Depredation only OR extremely low quotas of 1 or 2 wolves
Depredation only is preferred in “Science & Tourism Units”.

Proposal 2- Cut Units In Half Along Park Borders

Give units bordering the national parks an approximate 15-20 mile “wolf hunt free zone”. Delegate these by nearest large landmark such as creeks. For example: Creek No Name is 15 miles from east side of Grand Teton National Park border, hunters can hunt the east side, but not the west side of No Name Creek. Another option would be to START the hunt unit 15-20 miles away from the park designated by large, easy to use and not mistake landmarks/roads.

Proposal: Start wolf hunt units 15-20 miles from park border
Keep original quotas as Game & Fish has designated
Park wolves will be less affected helping science and tourism.
Depredation still in place.

Proposal 3- Keep The Current Plan/Units, Lower Quotas & Shorter Season

I’m going to focus again on national park border units. This approach gives “Science & Tourism” people a chance to have a better experience by showing and recording wolves. This will also allow hunters a chance to hunt units away from the national park keeping hunters happy. Quotas that would have less impact to us would look like this:

Unit 1- 3 Wolves October 1- December 31st

Unit 2- 2 Wolves November 1st – November 30th (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 3- 7 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 4- 4 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 5- 6 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 6- 2 Wolves November 1st – November 30th (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 7- 1 Wolf October 1st- December 31st

Unit 8- Depredation Only (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 9- Depredation Only (Science & Tourism Unit)

Unit 10- 3 wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 11- 2 Wolves October 1st- December 31st

Unit 12- 1 Wolf October 15th- December 31st

 

Please get your comments into Wyoming Game and Fish regarding the proposed hunt by May 30th.  

Bears and wolves

They usually go together–bears and wolves that is.  They’ve adapted and lived with each other for thousands of years; more than we’ve been around.  So it was no surprise when I saw some fairly fresh wolf tracks and then saw a nice looking grizzly bear scouting around for food before his winter slumber.

Wolf Print

Wolf Print; Quarter for size at left

Symphoricarpos berries

They say this year’s White Bark Pine crop is down which drives grizzlies elevationally lower looking for food.  Those lower elevations are where we, people that is, like to live.  White Bark Pines grow around 9000 feet or higher.  Their seeds, collected by squirrels and placed in middens, are robbed by bears and provide a lot of fat and nutrition, concentrated in a small seed.  Bears are physiologically driven in the fall to put on weight for their long sleep, during which time they do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate till spring.

I went out yesterday in pursuit of a Sorbus bush to dig up–Mountain Ash. They provide good berry food for critters and I want some in my yard. Although I found no Sorbus, I did find a lot of bear scat, so I knew there was a bear in the neighborhood.  Besides a lot of grass and rose hip seeds in the scat, what surprised me were Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus).  I’d always read that snowberries (named as such because they are pure white and usually white berries are poisonous) were poisonous and not edible.  On the other hand, in general, 80% of a bear’s diet can be eaten by humans, except grass which we can’t digest.  What I’d been finding in Grizzly and Black Bear scat is A LOT of snowberries, and they looked fairly intact, as if they went through whole and didn’t provide much of anything nutritionally.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

Snowberries are a member of the Honeysuckle family, along with another familiar berry–Elderberries. Their berries contain saponins which is widely found in plants and is a glucoside poison:  it destroys the membranes of red blood cells and releases the hemoglobin. Fortunately, saponin is not easily absorbed by the digestive system, and most of what we eat passes straight through the body.  So plants like beans, spinach, and tomatoes that contain saponin are rendered harmless to us.  Saponins stimulate the digestion and clean out the intestine.  They facilitate the body’s use of certain substances like calcium and silicon.  And they forth or whip up into a white foam that can be used as a soap.  They also can be used (illegally though) as a fish poison because fish assimilate saponin into the blood stream directly through their gills, but won’t harm the fisherman who eats them. Plant books say snowberries are poisonous, causing vomiting and diarrhea.  Yet here are some Native American uses:

Common snowberry fruit was eaten fresh but was not favored by Native Americans in Washington and Oregon. The fruits were also dried for winter use. Common snowberry was used on hair as soap, and the fruits and leaves mashed and applied to cuts or skin sores as a poultice and to soothe sore, runny eyes. Tea from the bark was used as a remedy for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. A brew made from the entire plant was used as a physic tonic. Arrowshafts and pipestems were made from the stems

And one more thing:  Snowberries make a great garden plant addition.

Yellowstone in June

A blustery, unpredictable June brought with it fantastic wildlife watching in my three days in the Park.  I spent two nights in Mammoth and did several hikes.  On one, we ran into that herd of Rams you see.  150 years of no hunting leaves the wildlife very relaxed around people.  The rams hardly noticed us, moving slowly across the trail and up the hillside about 20 feet away.

From what I heard today, so far not too many cubs of the year (COY) have been spotted.  But I was a lucky one to get to watch a mom and 2 cubs for about fifteen minutes before they disappeared into the trees.  The cubs spent the entire time playing, rolling around, and then catching up with mom…..soooo cute!  One the way home I watched a courting pair of grizzlies.  The female was collared.  They rested together for quite some time under a tree while dozens of people watched about 100 yards away.

Yellowstone in May/June is the best time of the year.  One woman told me she spotted 71 bears last year in two weeks.  In early July grizzly bears move up into the high country to hunt for moths.  The elk follow the grasses higher up as well.  Wolves tend to follow the elk.  So although you may see these animals in summer, the sightings will be fewer and more difficult to find.

The wildlife, the thermal activity, the incredible setting–that is the magic of Yellowstone and spring is the best time of year to come.

The right thing to do…Niagara falls and Yellowstone

I just returned from helping my son with location scouting at Niagara falls.  Its strikingly beautiful, especially in the winter.  The crowds are gone and its bitter cold, but there are ice floes in the river and parts of the falls are frozen.  The Canadian side still lights up the falls at night and the sheer power and magnitude of so much water flowing (in fact only 50% is allowed to release as the other 50% is used for power) overwhelms and puts us humans in our proper perspective relative to the awesome power of nature.

Falls at night

Power of the falls

But along with my visit to Sedona, Arizona last year, (which also is a natural wonder but not a National Park) what really stood out was its contrast to where I live now, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Although I live next door to a National Park, I don’t of course live within the Park, but within what was designated a few decades ago as its larger ecosystem.  This is an actual mapped area, you could call it a ‘buffer zone’ where its recognized these large megafauna need room to roam to survive.

And, true to its name, I regularly see all the large and small animals that make up this complete ecosystem in the lower 48, which includes wolves, grizzlies, elk, and the occasional bison that is allowed to leave the Park.

So what’s so great about this area  you might say, as opposed to Niagara or Sedona?  Both have the power to overwhelm through their sheer beauty and immense landscape.  The difference are the animals.  Even the Sierras, as incredible a jewel as they are, are NOT a complete ecosystem.  Many animals that were there just 150 years ago are gone forever.

What Lewis and Clark encountered 200 years ago on their journey West is no longer, but a sliver of it can be glimpsed here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Just a sliver, but that sliver is our history, our heritage.  No one would think of selling Monticello to create senior housing or a Walmart!  Why should we not value our original landscapes and the animals that were here before us in the same way?

Everywhere in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, animals have been pushed out to accommodate the biggest and toughest animal–humans.  And that is no exception in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  The controversy rages here too as to who should have primary use of the lands–hunters, atvs, developers, ranchers, oil and gas?.  Wolves are villified for killing elk that hunters could have taken.  Grizzlies are constantly moved around when they get into lands too close to homes or into unprotected garbage.  Bison are not allowed to leave the Park boundary.  Ranches are sold to developers who parcel up the land into lots, crowding out habitat for large animals.  Snowmobilers feel they should have the right to go wherever they choose, including the Park even when the science says differently.  The animals are last on the list.  And when that is how the priorities are set, what becomes of the land is Niagara Falls, Sedona, or at best a ‘safe’ wilderness like the Sierras; at worst we become like Europe, where their natural history is in the so-distant-past that its entirely unreachable in present-time.

Yellowstone and its ecosystem, unlike Alaska, is easily accessible by car to people from all walks of life, rich or poor.  It is an opportunity to view in the flesh our rich natural past.  Any person can do that from the safety of their car, and watch wolves or bears in the Lamar Valley.  Or one can take more risks and venture into the back country.  Even today, with this area protected and the reintroduction of the wolves, thereby completing the ecosystem fauna, the landscape doesn’t hold a candle to the enormous amounts of wildlife that was once beheld by the mountain men in the 1830’s.  Yet, they are all still here, thanks to the enormous efforts of many men and women conservationists through the century.

Black wolf

In the U.S., there are many unique and beautiful areas, but there is no where like this area.  Here we have the Serengeti of North America.  And in my mind, we are not valuing nor protecting it enough, nor are we holding it in the proper perspective.

Our Serengeti

The proper perspective:  This area, as well as more large tracts of contiguous land (Yellowstone to Yukon idea) is a wildlife first policy.  This is our gift to our children and the future.  This is our gift to the wildlife here.

Once we all realize what we have here, a jewel that is found no where else in the U.S. (Do we really want the last place where wild animals roam to be in Alaska, out of the reach of most ordinary folks?), we will change our approach and our views on a daily basis.  No longer will we have on the Wyoming books archaic 1890 laws that allow trapping, an indiscriminate way to kill wildlife.  No longer will we confine bison to the tiny Island of the Park because the cattle industry fears losing their brucellosis stamp.  Nor will people call for the extermination of the wolves because they are having a harder time hunting in the spots they are used to.

We will make new laws to help support the wildlife in any way we can and preserve this area; not for ourselves or for any use we desire today, but because we recognize its’ specialness, and because, frankly, its the right thing to do.

There was a time, not long ago, when out of 60 million Bison that once roamed the entire United States, only 100 survived.  In fact, it was thought that all bison were extinct, and that was what we, as a country, as a government, was trying to achieve.  But in the early 20th century, around 100 Bison were found living in Yellowstone.  An immense effort was made to bring at least some bison back and the bison that you see today living in Yellowstone are the result of that effort–the last pure genetic stand of bison living today.

When you go to Yellowstone, there is a power, a respect, a wordless reverence that wells up in your being just seeing these animals.  Something deep and ancient reverberates in their presence.  Imagine if those bison hadn’t been preserved?  Those conservationists who helped preserve the bison of Yellowstone did an incredible service to future generations.  We, living today, are the beneficiaries of their efforts.

We must make those same efforts today for generations that will be living 100 years from now, just as they did for us 100 years ago.  That is how we should be looking at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  That is how we should be making our laws, our plans, our actions.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

Becoming Bear

This fall I followed bears around so much I began to feel that I was becoming sympathetic with ‘bear consciousness’.

Its not that I was actually seeing lots of bears, although I did see a black bear as well as a Mama Grizzly (not Sarah Palin by the way) and her 3 cubs, but I was tracking and back-tracking them, exploring their sign and where they’d been feeding.

This fall was a lean year for the bears.  Poor pine nut crop combined with a lousy spring made for difficult foraging.  In addition, the ecosystem is full and their habitat needs to expand.  But every time a Grizzly tries to move into range not outlined in the ESA as reintroduction habitat, he gets moved.  I’d swear that the WG&F Grizzly guys must spend their entire summer moving bears–from Jackson to Crandall, Crandall to Dubois, Dubois to Gardiner.  Its really crazy, and there is plenty of good habitat beyond the designated reoccupation areas–habitat that has few people, but may have a lot of forest service grazing allotments–in other words, cattle and sheep.  Our government at work protecting cattle on our public lands.  A negative cash flow investment every year and meanwhile our nation’s grizzlies are caged in a large ‘zoo’ called the GYE.

So, that being said, there was more bear activity and close encounters reported this year than any other year.  Hungry bears were coming around looking for anything they could find.

In September, on my quest in the Wind Rivers, I had a profound dream-image of a Black bear who pointed the way for me.  Soon after that, Black bears began leaving sign everywhere around my property.  Almost every afternoon I backtracked a black bear and watched him dig up every Limber Pine middens on the flats above me.  Limber pines are not bears’ favorite pine nut.  They are smaller than White Bark Pine nuts and so carry less bang for the buck.  Also White Bark pine cones easily shatter or dehisce when they open, while Limber pine cones are difficult to open and full of sticky sap.  That means the bears must rely on the squirrels to do all the work instead of doing some of it themselves.  Robbing Limber middens in the spring is usual, but not as much in the fall when the bears prefer the White Bark at the higher elevations.  But this little black bear robbed every midden he could find.  His scat was full of pine nuts, mostly.  Occasionally I’d find one with rose hips, another favorite fall bear food.  Bears need lots of fat in the fall to get ready for hibernation.  Nuts do that, rose hips don’t.

Black bear in my driveway

One evening after tracking this bear I walked up my driveway to find a roll of barbed wire in my neighbors yard displaced about 10′.  After inspection I saw some bear hair and realized the bear had gotten tangled and dragged the roll of wire along until he’d gotten loose.  I tried to haul the wire back to its location but couldn’t make it budge.  That roll must have weighed 75 pounds!  I was duly impressed with this bears strength.

On another occasion I was driving out the driveway, came around a corner and there was a huge log in the road.  I stopped and got out to move it off the driveway.  The log had obviously rolled down a steep embankment.  As I pushed it out of the way, I noticed from where it had come:  a gargantuan old midden way up at the top of the hill.  This midden was surrounded by logs and that bear had pawed his way through the stumps and completely devastated the middens.  A squirrel chattered away at me.  “I’m not your culprit”  I told her.

Those two incidents taught me about Bear Power.

October was an unusually hot month here in Sunlight and Cody.  Days were in the high 60’s.  One afternoon I took the car up a draw on a bad dirt road.  As the road got more and more rutted, I decided to walk the rest of the way. The view was wide as the gradual uphill was surrounded by sagebrush.  The road paralleled a narrow gulch where spring runoff once flowed before our 10 year drought.  A lone pine tree grew in the dry stream bed.  Koda was in front of me as we walked up the road.  Koda the sentinel, the sign talker I call him, as he is my alert signal, watching for sign along the way.

Koda suddenly stopped, sniffed the air and looked around.  I stopped too.  But after a few moments he continued on his way, and I suspected all danger had passed.  But to my right, from under that lone tree, a black bear appeared.  He must have smelled Koda and I because we had made no noise.  That bear took off roly-poly as fast as he could across the sagebrush and straight up a hill.  He was the bear of my dream from a few weeks previous.

I was at the grocery store in Cody when I ran into my neighbor.  “My son heard a noise on the porch of his cabin in the middle of the night.  He looked out and saw a grizzly and 3 cubs.”  I had heard about this bear but hadn’t seen, after over 2 months of walking my woods and land, any sign of grizzly, just sign of my black bear friend.  I doubled my attention-efforts, always mindful of sign, noise, and bear spray close bye, but saw nothing after several weeks.

One day late in October a hunter illegally shot a buck by my property (I say illegally because the buck was shot less than 25 feet from the road and dragged across my neighbors property).  Then he gutted the deer out and left the gut pile right by my mail box.  That was no picnic.  Although I enjoy tracking bears, even ones on my property, I’m not interested in feeding and drawing them here with gut piles.  Nevertheless, I saw it as a rare photo opportunity and set up my trail camera.  Next morning the gut pile was gone with bear tracks around it but the camera was conveniently broken!  That was a double cursing moment.

Bear sign was everywhere this fall hunting season.  I went with the Forest Service archeologist up a dirt road to a nearby old Indian hunting grounds.  Koda found a gut pile by the road and grizzly tracks were everywhere.

It was only at the end of October that I saw her.  It was my birthday.  Koda had finally lost all of his tennis balls.  It was near dusk and I decided to help him find balls, so we walked into the meadow by my house.  I didn’t have my bear spray with me as I wasn’t going anywhere.  I walked along the meadow, our usual route to my nearby stream when something caught the corner of my eye.  It was a stump that, like so many stumps, looked like a bear.  Usually I pay those stumps no mind and since all the logging that was done last year in those woods, there are plenty of those stumps that fool me all the time. But for some reason I morphed that peripheral glance into my full direct attention and by golly, it was a bear!  And a grizzly at that.  Then I noticed the 3 cubs with her.  They were all quietly feeding in the woods about 75 yards away.  Strangely, they hadn’t noticed me nor the dog, nor had the dog noticed or smelled them.  I called Koda to me and we began slowly and deliberately walking back towards the house.  And we were getting pretty close too, except Koda realized we were going back so soon and began to balk.  He was crying and jumping “Let’s play”, and it was then, when I had to reprimand him, that that Mama Grizzly took notice of us.

I saw at once her moment of decision.  She had that question of “Flight, or Fight” going through her body.  I could feel it.  I handled the dog and we kept slowly walking back towards the house, me without my one time of bear spray!  But she decided we weren’t a threat, her cubs were close, and they all loped towards the forest.  I got back to the house with even enough time to get a fuzzy photo of  two cubs before they disappeared into the woods.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear photograph

A few days later I went to check what those bears were digging for at this time of the year.  That Mama had to feed 3 hungry cubs.  Those bears weren’t digging middens, but digging up thistle roots.  Hungry bears and not much nutrients there.

The denouement of this long story comes in CA.  Just after my birthday bear sighting, I left for 6 weeks of work in CA.  One evening I was relaying a few bear facts and stories to some friends at a party.  I then walked into their kitchen to see the headlines of the local Independent Journal:  Bear spotted at Point Reyes. Now this is a big deal because although there are bears up the coast in northern counties, there haven’t been bears around the Marin/Point Reyes area for over 100 years.  The article said not to worry, as its only one black bear and there’s thousands of wild acreage out there.

I saved the article and a few weeks later was visiting a friend who is the head of the Marin tracking club at his home in Point Reyes Station, the town near the National Seashore.  Interestingly enough, he told me that along with biologists and Forest Service people, he was called out to verify that this was a bear track (although how you can mistake a bear track for any thing else, I can’t figure).  So he actually saw the track!  In addition, two different people gave him scat that they wanted to have verified as from a bear.  One person was in Inverness which is part of Point Reyes, but the other person lived in Lagunitas, a good 15 miles away inland.  Richard brought out two baggies with the sample scats and yes, there were both bear scat.  In his analysis, the one bear from Point Reyes had lots of bird seed in his scat, probably from a bird feeder on the person’s property.  The other scat was full of apple peel and seed, from that womans orchard.  Clearly if suburbanites are going to live around bears, they are going to have to change some of their habits.

So that ends my fall bear saga.  Something about tracking bears, following their flow, gets one into a bear mindset.  One night while I lay down to sleep, after days and weeks of tracking bears and seeing bears, I almost could ‘feel’ the consciousness of a bear.  It wasn’t that I now ‘know’ about bears.  But it was more like the beginnings of a ‘feeling’ sense, a bear feeling sense.  That was good.

Tell Bear stories

Its a perfect time to tell bear stories.  The bears have been foraging around, soon to bed down for the winter.  Last week a mama griz and her three cubs wandered through my adjacent forest.  Its been a bad year for bear food…lack of fattening pine nuts, the late cool spring, has made for poor forage.  These bears were digging up thistles and eating the tops of the roots.

But for me they were ‘birthday bears’ because I saw them on my birthday…signs of luck and power, and they all looked healthy with winter coats.  I felt as if I was walking close to a bear village, so many bears right by me and Koda.  I was reminded of this wonderful myth by the Haida peoples of Canada.

HAIDA BEAR STORY

Long ago, a group of girls of the tribe were out gathering huckleberries. One among them was a bit of a chatterbox, who should have been singing to tell the bears of her presence instead of laughing and talking. The bears, who could hear her even though some distance away, wondered if she was mocking them in her babbling. By the time the berry-pickers started home, the bears were watching.

As she followed at the end of the group, the girl’s foot slipped in some bear dung and her forehead strap, which held the pack filled with berries to her back, broke. She let out an angry laugh. The others went on. Again she should have sung, but she only complained. The bears noted this and said, “Does she speak of us?” It was growing dark. Near her appeared two young men who looked like brothers. One said, “Come with us and we will help you with your berries”. As the aristocratic young lady followed the, she saw that they wore bear robes.

It was dark when they arrived at a large house near a rock slide high on the mountain slope. All the people inside, sitting around a small fire, were wearing bearskins also. Grandmother Mouse ran up to the girl and squeaked to her that she had been taken into the bear den and was to become one of them. The hair on her robe was already longer and more like a bear’s. She was frightened. One of the young bears, the son of a chief, came up to her and said, “You will live if you become my wife. Otherwise you will die.”

She lived on as the wife of the bear, tending the fire in the dark house. She noticed that whenever the Bear People went outside they put on their bear coats and became like the animal. In the winter she was pregnant, and her husband took her to a cliff cave near the old home, where she gave birth to twins, which were half human and half bear.

One day her brothers came searching for her, and the Bear Wife knew she must reveal her presence. She rolled a snowball down the mountainside to draw their attention, and they climbed up the rock slide. The Bear Husband knew that he must die, but before he was killed by the woman’s brothers, he taught her and the Bear Sons the songs that the hunters must use over his dead body to ensure their good luck. He willed his skin to her father, who was a tribal chief. The young men then killed the bear, smoking him out of the cave and spearing him. They spared the two children, taking them with the Bear Wife back to her People.

The Bear Sons removed their bear coats and became great hunters. They guided their kinsmen to bear dens in the mountains and showed them how to set snares, and they instructed the people in singing the ritual songs. Many years later, when their mother died, they put on their coats again and went back to live with the Bear People, but the tribe continued to have good fortune with their hunting.

__________

Bear walking

“…myth-makers were trying to raise human existence to a greater level of participation in the total context of natural existence. Therefore, myths were, originally, psychic tools for the achievement of magical, mystical, and Spiritual “intoxication” and ecstasy, or the Realization of a psychic state of non-separateness, non-fear, and Ultimate Unity.”

–Adi Da Samraj

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