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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.

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