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Missing Mama Grizzly

Last October our game warden was hunting in my valley when he was bluff charged by a sow grizzly bear.  This bear had three cubs of the year (COY) by her side. She first gave a bluff charge, but then turned around, huffed, and came at the warden again. It was then that Chris Queen discharged his hunting rifle and killed her. After some deliberation about what to do with her young, small cubs, the Wyoming Game and Fish decided to let nature take its course, giving them a slim chance to make a den and survive the winter.

Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for about 2 1/2 years. Born blind and helpless in the winter den, cubs need to learn everything about bear survival from their mother. What foods to eat and where to find them. One fall I was in Tom Miner Basin. A pair of two year old grizzlies were roaming together. I was told they’d lost their mother the previous fall, but somehow managed to survive the winter and thrive through the summer. COY surviving without their mother is a rare event.

Grizzly Cubs 2 years old

Tom Miner basin. Two cubs that survived when their mother was killed the previous year

When I heard about the sow’s death, my heart ached. I knew that bear. In fact, I’d just observed her and the cubs the week before. She was ambling across a pasture while the cubs pranced and played behind her. A few years ago, I watched her with two two-year-old cubs cross a meadow on the opposite side of the road. Every spring I would drive up the nearby drainage across from these meadows and find her tracks with cubs in tow. Little Sunlight, where the warden killed her, was not far from the area I’d observed the family. These were her haunts.

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Mama grizzly with her three COY in September shortly before she was killed

I wondered if those cubs survived. The Game & Fish said they counted them in their tally as dead bears. How many bears died in a previous year would determine how many could be hunted in the following. I’m sure they ear-tagged them though. My plan was to drive up their mother’s favorite drainage and see if I could either spot the cubs, or at best, locate their tracks. Mom always walked down the dirt road, then veered off into the meadows at a predictable place. Since I saw her there (either by sight or by sign) early spring and late fall, I thought maybe she tended to den in that area so the cubs might too. At the very least, I felt this was an area the cubs knew. To my disappointment, after an extensive search, the only tracks I could see were the faint sign of an adult male. That doesn’t mean the cubs didn’t survive, but the odds are low.

Grizzly print

Male griz about 12″ long and 5″ wide. He’s traveling towards the left of the print.

Just last week a person shot and killed a female sow in what they said was self-defense. She had several cubs with her. There was no mention in the article of the hiker carrying bear spray. It also appeared he was hiking alone, so his story can never be verified.

Last week I attended the very important Wyoming Game and Fish commission meeting. After hours of public comment, running 5:1 against a hunt, the commissioners voted unanimously within a few minutes to let the first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 in over 40 years proceed. We all knew the outcome of that vote before we even attended. Regardless, it was important we be heard. A spokesman for the tribes read a comment. The tribes requested that instead of a hunt, those bears be transferred to various tribal lands. If the Wyoming Game & Fish along with residents who say “have a hunt to reduce bear numbers” really believe that meme, then why not transfer bears to other areas where they once lived instead of killing them for trophy.

I was in Silver City, New Mexico last month. One of the last grizzly bears was killed in that area in the 1930s. An extensive study was done in the 1970s to see if the Gila National Forest would still support a small population of grizzlies. The study concluded that although there had been fire suppression which hindered some of their food sources, grizzlies could survive there. Since that time fires have come to the Gila and opened up the habitat. With livestock protections, grizzlies could once again roam the Gila National Forest and surrounding areas. The tribes could be the catalyst who help expand grizzlies into areas where they once lived where habitat is still suitable.

Grizzly habitat SW 1860

Yellow indicates grizzly range in 1860 in northern Mexico and SW USA

Wyoming has it backwards. The state feels it has to hunt the bear to reduce conflicts and bear population. Instead, they should be ramping up their efforts to teach people how to live around grizzly country, like carrying bear spray and protecting food sources. Plus they should cooperate with the tribes, transferring the 2018 hunt quota of 23 bears to tribal lands.

As William Wright so succinctly put it over a hundred years ago:  “grizzly bears are minders of their own business.” We can honor that bear temperament by leaving them be.

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Tired COY leans on Mama. I still haven’t seen any signs of the COY this spring

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An Incredible Bear Story–Addendum to Previous Post

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) of Cody sponsored a hike today in the Francs Peak area.  The Shoshone National Forest Bear Biologist, Andy Pils, led the hike.

I had an opportunity to speak extensively with Andy about various bear subjects; but the most incredulous thing happened when I told Andy about my sighting last Sunday of a Grizzly mom and her three cubs of the year at Sawtooth lake.  Andy told me that those bears got a huge food reward, unfortunately, and this is what happened.

Grizzly mom and cubs

If you read that post, you’ll find that I walked the rocky road to Sawtooth Lake, approximately three miles.  At 1/4 mile from the lake, the road descends sharply and becomes even more treacherous to drive.  Parked on that rise was a Toyota 4-runner with Montana plates.  I wondered why they drove their vehicle on such a boulder-stricken road.

At the lake, I heard gunshots.  The Montana fellows were target shooting from a beach at the lake’s input, about 200 yards east around the lake front. I was traveling west to little Sparhawk Lake so I ignored them. Around 12:30 I began the hike back to my car.  I passed their 4-runner and entered a small meadow. That’s where I heard, then saw, the grizzly sow and her three cubs. The sow was running, heading directly to the lake.  I considered the fellows down there, thought maybe I might head back and let them know a grizzly was around, but then felt not only would the bear get there before me, but also they were way out on the east end at a beach, not near where the bear would enter.

Grizzly cub

This is where the story gets quite strange. Andy Pils tells me that just about the time the bear was approaching the lake, these guys were walking around the lake back to the road.  They’d just approached the road’s end at the lakefront when they saw the bear and her cubs, although they reported seeing only two cubs. When they saw the sow, they completely freaked out, dropped their packs, fishing tackle and rods, plus left their cooler full of food and ran back to their car.  Once at the car, they raced back to their home in Billings, MT.

By the next day I suppose they started to think about their encounter, and they had the “brilliant” thought that people finding their stuff strewn around might believe the bear ate them.  So they called the Forest Service to report they were still alive and told Andy what happened.

When Andy Pils heard they left their cooler there, he told them that was a huge mistake.  Their response “But it was a 1000 pound grizzly!” They of course had no bear spray.  Andy went to the lake to clean things up.  He found that the bears had demolished the cooler and ate all the food, throwing all the trash around. But the fishing tackle and backpacks were intact.  The Montana fellows told Andy they wanted their stuff back (“There’s about $1000 worth of stuff there”.  “No way” says Andy, just a cooler and some backpacks), but they said getting to Cody would take some time because they broke their car axle leaving Sawtooth Lake.

There are so many parts to this story that are incredulous, and downright full of stupidity.  Let me break it down:

  1. Not one of these guys had bear spray
  2. Greater Yellowstone Bears do not weigh 1000 pounds.  Being a sow she probably weighed about 300-400 pounds.
  3. They did everything wrong when they saw this bear, and who knows how far away she was when they even spotted her.  They should have talked to the bear and slowly walked to their car.  More than likely she would have taken her cubs away from the area.
  4. They ran.  Number one NO NO rule.
  5. They gave her an incredible food reward.  Now those cubs will never forget and will associate humans with food.  Maybe not this year or next, but at three years old when they are out on their own, they might become nuisance bears.  Fed bears are dead bears, period.
  6. That bear and her cubs were bothering no one.  I do not know for certain why she was running along the trees when I saw her.  I postulate that she smelled me and was taking her cubs away.  Therefore, she would have done the same with these guys if given a chance.

This story made me so angry.  The only thing they did right was not shoot those bears.  (As an aside, I was pretty shaken up when I got to the lake and heard gunshots.  I only hoped they had enough sense not to shoot across the lake. Having hiked into a beautiful pristine area, the last thing I wanted to hear was gunshots going off when it was not hunting season.)

If people are going to recreate in bear country, they need to know at least the most basic simple rules and take precautions.  I asked Andy about those young twin grizzlies that were moved which I wrote about here.  He said lots of cars stopped on the Beartooth Highway to watch them and he was certain a motorist had given them a food reward. Once that happened, they became nuisance bears and were moved to a remote section of the south Shoshone.

Bears are having a difficult season, with a poor berry crop, few nuts and a bad moth year, bears are being seen more than ever in the low country because they are very hungry. I worry how hunting season will go this year.

On a lighter note, here are some photos of our hike today:

Wood River Peaks

Wood River

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

 

Lunch at the summit

Lunch at the summit

Shed hunting

It’s that time of the year again–‘horn hunting’ season.  People do it for fun and for profit.  These ‘hunters’ are seeking deer, elk, and even moose sheds, which are not really ‘horns’ at all.  Horns are found in the bovine family, are a two-part structure, and are worn for the life of the animal.  The exception being the Pronghorn, which does shed them every year.  Horns are a two-part structure, with an interior of bone and a sheath of a type of hair follicle material, akin to your fingernails. So animals like sheep, bison, or cattle have horns for life.

Bison have horns

Bison have horns

Antlers, on the other hand, are also true bone but are shed each year and then regrown.  As the male adult animal ages, the antler gets bigger and wider.

Deer with emerging antlers--in velvet

Deer with emerging antlers–in velvet

When I first arrived in Wyoming, I knew the difference between antlers and horns and couldn’t figure out why everyone called this amusement ‘horn hunting’.  It was just wrong.  People who know the difference, like scientists, will usually refer to it as ‘shed hunting’.  But I’ve come to accept it and I suppose the h-h sound was adopted because it just slides off your tongue better.

Antlers are becoming big business and that’s why people go after them.  I personally saw a small 6 point elk antler in a California window with a $250 price tag.  Antlers are cut up and sold for dog chews, buttons, door handles,key chains, made into furniture, used as table centerpieces, or whatever art pieces you can think of.  But what’s really driving the market is the Asian desire for aphrodisiacs.  Although I think Viagra is cheaper and actually effective, the myth in the Far East is that antlers, ground up into a powder, will make a man virile.  I suppose people will believe anything as well as pay for it.

 

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This deer has a dropped tine, probably a genetic anomaly

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Last year I took all the old, broken, antlers that had been lying around my property when I purchased it.  I’d thrown them into a pile in the yard.  They were white and almost powdery from age, but a small loaded pick-up truck fetched over $250! New, browner, bigger antlers can get up to $10 pound.

So far this season, I’ve found about 10 deer antlers.  I don’t ‘hunt’ them.  I prefer to be gifted–‘shed gifting’.  I’m hiking around and there is a ‘present ‘ on the ground of a nice antler.  It’s a nice surprise.  And sometimes I leave them.  I enjoy making things out of antlers, but most of the people I’ve talked to say they just throw them in their garage, and now have a garage full of them.

Antlers provide calcium for small critters like mice, porcupines, and even coyotes will chew on them.  People ‘hunting’ them in early spring can ‘push’ the elk and deer at a critical time when they are still stressed from the winter and don’t yet have the benefits of a full green-up.  Sometimes I wonder if all this antler collecting isn’t robbing some of the smaller animals of valuable nutrients, as well as what shed antlers put back into the soil.

Just a last note.  If you are out shed hunting, carry your bear spray as grizzlies are out now.  Here is a great article touting the efficacy of bear spray vs. guns.   Bear spray had a 92% efficacy with the other 7% being minor, non-hospitalized injuries and all bears lived.  Guns on the other hand had only a 67% efficacy with a 100% fatality for the bear.

And one last note:  it is highly illegal to pick up and take home sheds from Yellowstone National Park.  You will be fined and probably barred for life from the Park if you attempt to take antlers home.