All We Have To Fear… by Jungle Pete Corradino
When people fear them
When they kill them
This makes me mad
Please would you respect my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad
When people fear them
When they kill them
This makes me mad
Please would you respect my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad
I spot the animal along a roadside in a national park, a glimpse of something large and dark, rustling in the undergrowth. The highway is devoid of oncoming traffic, so I whip a quick U-turn for closer inspection. Mystery solved. Planted on all fours near the roadside is an American Black Bear.
Parked, with full attention to focus on the bruin, I realize the animal is frenetically mouthing and mauling a bush for its berries. Although midday, the bear is feeding as frantically as one of my teenage sons after missing three meals. It’s late summer, a time of bounty. Ripe berries abound. There are lots of nutritious insects and scores of rodents and other mammals for Blackie to hunt, not to mention a bounty of roots and plants. All of these things are palatable to a black bear, perhaps the most omnivorous creature in North America. Why is it attacking this berry bush as if it may be its last meal?
In contrast to humans seeking to shed a dozen unwanted pounds, Blackie is bulking up. Yes, there’s plenty to eat at the moment. But in its haunts here in the northern Rockies, this black bear will retire to a den soon, spending the entire winter underground. To maintain the energy needed to survive its hibernation, the bear relies on fat. The typical black bear loses around 30% of its body weight during hibernation.
In late summer and fall, instinct propels black bears to bulk up. They eat ravenously and nearly continually when food sources are available. At this time, bears prefer high-calorie foods that convert easily to fat such as nuts and berries. Has our bear missed a meal? Probably not. It’s just bulking up for winter.
Many biologists believe humans have some innate potential for hibernation, just like bears. From now until November, if you catch me pigging away at the all-you-can-eat buffet, I’m not over-indulging, just preparing for winter.
I just finished writing a book about grizzly bears and it will be available from FalconGuides next year. As books go it’s a short one: a pocket guide describing the natural history of our nation’s most feared and revered bruin. Researching the book was a tedious affair, but along the way I uncovered some intriguing tidbits about grizzlies.
One research project in Canada’s Northwest Territories recorded an average home range for grizzly bear males exceeding 3,150 square miles, an area handily exceeding the size of Delaware. Another revealed that grizzlies commonly move over a ton of earth when they excavate a den.
But perhaps my favorite discovery was a grizzly delicacy, the army cutworm moth. The moths show up during the summer among very high mountain slopes in the northern Rockies in places such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Cutworm moths burrow into rock slides to avoid sunlight. Literally millions of moths may inhabit rock slides in the high country. Although they might not seem too appetizing to a human, moths pack a high punch of nutrition for bears, especially in the form of fat. Each moth contains around a half-calorie of fat. It is estimated that an ambitious bear may consume in excess of 10,000 moths per day, with some estimates ranging as high as 40,000 moths per day. Thus, a moth-munching grizzly might easily consume 5,000 to 10,000 calories in a single day. Some biologists believe an enterprising grizzly that finds a bumper moth crop could account for nearly one-half its yearly caloric requirements in a single month. However, the moth crop is highly variable. Some years they’re abundant, at other times they’re not.
I’ve heard wildlife watchers describe scruffy grizzlies in the process of shedding their winter coats as “moth-eaten.” But now I know for every moth-eaten bear on the plant there’s probably a 100,000 bear-eaten moths.
Every spring I eagerly anticipate my reunion with the high country above my home. Just a few weeks ago the Forest Service finally opened the gates that provide access to the local mountain roads. The snow is mostly gone although above 9,000′ one may on some of the secondary roads still find drifts sufficiently large to resist the summer sun. But their days are numbered.
A few miles up one of these roads I stop at a public campground. I am surprised to find it deserted but the reason is immediately apparent. There are large signs everywhere announcing that marauding bears have closed it and the public is forbidden to enter. Knowing full well that these signs are only posted when the threat is imminent and the danger real, I leave my truck and walk beyond the gate, enjoying the silence but preternaturally alert. I make it only a short distance before the campground host emerges from his trailer. He is apologetic and polite but unyieldingly firm. I note the sidearm he is wearing and surrender to common sense, deciding I’d rather watch birds than be chased and eaten by bears. But the problem is the same the entire length of the canyon – bears, bears, bears, unseen at the moment but lurking all the same, a clear and present danger. The canyon is uncommonly empty, even for a Monday. It is a beautiful morning in a beautiful place but the feeling is oppressed, repressed, depressed.
I drive out of the canyon and a few miles later deliberately turn onto a rough road that drops into a narrower, deeper, wilder drainage. There are as many bears in this canyon as in the one I just left but on this road I am free to do as I please. There are no signs to warn me or armed men to protect me. There is no one else traveling this road nor, judging from its condition, have there been many since last fall. I accept the responsibility for my own safety. I choose my stopping points with care and remain alert. And the bird gods respond. A brown creeper aggressively defends a crack in a dead aspen from an enquiring chipmunk, chasing the tiny rodent down the mostly barkless bole as fast as its four little legs can carry it. The hills are alive with the sounds of hammering and I see downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers, red-shafted flickers, and American three-toed woodpeckers hard at work. An olive-sided flycatcher calls from the top of a tall spruce. A western wood-pewee mews from an adjacent fir. The flute-like songs of hermit thrushes fill the air, in vivid contrast to the din of tin trumpet sounding red-breasted nuthatches and rasping mountain chickadees. Lincoln’s sparrows call from the willows along the stream and Brewer’s and vesper sparrows reply from the open spaces. A trio of Clark’s nutcrackers chases an American kestrel in a chaotic feathered arc across the azure sky, squawking their dominance, asserting their territorial prerogatives. The sun is hot on my face and aspen leaves dance slowly in the cool breeze. It is a good day not to be eaten by a bear.
During a recent trip I was lucky enough to see a Black Bear up close. While I took pictures, a family stopped and brought their toddlers over to the bear despite my objections. I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I know bears and kids don’t mix.
Humans have perfected the art of bad parenting. Balloon Boy and the teenager who attempted to sail solo around the world are famous examples, but how often do you see wildlife make bad decisions?
It’s a boring name for a beautiful bird but the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) has a distinct red shield above the bill that make them easy to spot in the wetlands of Florida. Moorhen chicks are a tasty morsel for just about everything including Snapping Turtles, Large-mouth Bass and Alligators. This explains why moorhens lay an average of eight eggs per brood and why both parents tend to their young until they are fully grown. It’s a tough job and I’ve seen a brood of eight dwindle down to two in a matter of days. Mom and dad want to make sure at least one survives.
I watched this happy family bobbing about on a lake in Weston, Florida. The six birds paddled about, feeding on insects and seeds. One of the adults veered off on its own while the other herded the chicks. When one little bird found itself away from the group, the parent herding the brood darted over, rounded the little ones up and made an audible and seemingly angry peep to its partner.
I can’t tell a male from a female moorhen, but since I enjoy anthropomorphication, I will assume the wayward adult bird was the father. (I’ve seen enough fathers stray off to the automotive section, while their kids turn the toy aisle into Wrigley Field to know which parent to stereotype as irresponsible.)
The mother, having grouped her young ones in the cattails, ran across the lily pads to her partner and pecked him ferociously on the back of the head. They both returned to their hatchlings and resumed foraging for lunch. The goal is survival and for moorhens cooperation is required. The consequences range from a small family tree to severe neck injury. It’s probably best to pay attention.
We had a day of sunshine in between last week’s storms and I headed for the mountains. Despite it having been a cool, wet spring, the winter snows have melted up to nearly 8,000′ and the snow that fell the previous days was mostly melted, leaving many roads wet but passable for the first time in months. As I slowly coasted down the two-track road in a steep side canyon, a bear exploded from the brush in front of me, dashed with remarkable speed up the hill, and disappeared in the vegetation. Not knowing if it was a sow with cubs, I reached a point at which I could turn around and left it in peace.
The animal I saw was a black bear, in spite of it’s cinnamon brown fur. Grizzly bears were extirpated from Utah in the 1920s. An old timer once taught me how to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly: walk up behind it, give it a hard kick in the rear, and then climb the nearest tree as quickly as possible. If it climbs the tree and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it knocks the tree down and eats you, it’s a grizzly. Please note: this advice is, practically speaking, not the safest way to make the distinction and should only be attempted by trained experts.
Bears are intelligent, curious, opportunistic, and powerful. If you find yourself in bear country, act appropriately and respectfully. Assume they are around, even if you don’t see them. Keep a clean and bear-proof camp. Avoid surprising them. Bears don’t like it and may react badly. Should you encounter a bear, don’t run. Bears are faster than you. Don’t climb the nearest tree. Bears can climb more quickly than you. Should you encounter a bear, don’t disturb it. Leave it alone, give it plenty of room, and leave the area.
But what if a bear finds you, and worse, it won’t leave you alone? Pepper spray, if legal in your state, may act as a deterrent – but not always. Firearms are at times a necessity, especially in grizzly country. Many black bear attacks can be averted by fighting back. Yell. Scream. Swear. Question your attacker’s parentage, education, manners, and political party. Pray if you like but do it loudly. Throw sticks and rocks. Make yourself look as big – and as little like a “free lunch” – as possible. Retreat to safety as slowly and as calmly as circumstances permit.
This advice saved a good friend’s life. One night several years ago, not far from my bear sighting, he was forced to inch backwards down a trail, in the dark, for nearly two miles, a black bear charging him over and over again. The attacks lasted for over an hour, until my friend reached the safety of his truck. He carried no weapons. But he kept his nerve, alone in the dark, as he fought for his life. And he lived to tell the tale, frightened but unscarred.
If you have further questions about bear identification, I wish I could you refer you to the old timer mentioned above. Unfortunately, he was eaten by a bear while field-testing his method.
I was twelve at the time, as were many of the boy scouts. As their guest, I was seated front row and center in a natural horseshoe amphitheater where I surveyed the nocturnal scene around me. Tiers of earthen benches rose up behind me and around me, covered by the huddled masses of scouts who had descended from their tents to listen to the evening presentation. In front of us, a six foot deep chasm separated us from the speaker, my father, who stood in front of a blazing bonfire. We listened nervously as his gargantuan, fire-lit shadow danced among the oaks, pines and palms all around us. The night’s topic was the mythological Skunk Ape.
I grew up on the Florida Monkey Sanctuary in Venice. My parents owned the refuge for unwanted primates, where over a 20 year span, more than 450 individual monkeys and apes called the sanctuary home. As the local expert on primates, my father was often called to investigate reports of a big-footed, ape-like creature that caused disturbances in the rural areas of south Florida. I had the good fortune of going on ride-alongs to help search for hair samples and create plaster casts of footprints.
The creature blamed for chicken-coop raids and other mischief was Bigfoot – know locally as the Skunk Ape. Standing over 7-feet tall with the appearance of a primate and smell of a skunk, the hairy, mythological giant was said to live in alligator dens and roam the swamps of the Everglades at night. The creature is theorized to be an omnivore and potentially the descendant of Neanderthal Man. My father never said he believed such a creature existed but we investigated anyway. Recent DNA analysis of an old Skunk Ape hair sample points to the Florida Black Bear (Ursus americanus floridanus), an omnivorous, hairy mammal that could resemble a large hominoid when they stand on their hind legs.
Back at the boy scout bonfire, my father concluded his tale of headless, bloodless chickens, destroyed chicken coops, clumps of hair on barb wire fences and massive footprints that eclipsed his size 13 shoe. The embers dimmed and the talk ended. The boys were now tasked with finding their way back through the darkness to their tents and for at least that one night, I’d bet those boys believed in the Skunk Ape.
One of the highlights at the Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics was a giant, glittering puppet of a standing bear. The bear was in the Hymns of the North segment of the program; it rose from the stadium floor and towered over the performers on a simulated ice floe. Because of its white color and the arctic landscape, some thought it was supposed to be a polar bear. But the puppet lacked the long neck and sleeker head of a polar bear.
In fact, on the TV channel that I was watching the announcer claimed the puppet was meant to represent a Spirit Bear, a subspecies of the smaller American black bear more indigenous to British Columbia, the host province. And its pinkish translucence did make it look like a Spirit Bear.
The Spirit Bear (also called a ghost, spectral or, more scientifically, the Kermode bear) is not an arctic bear. It inhabits the temperate rainforests of British Columbia’s northern and central coasts, most particularly Gribbell and Princess Royal Islands. The Spirit Bear is rare and elusive, numbering as few as perhaps 500 individuals. Because the bear population in the area is so confined, the recessive gene for its white or cream color is more likely to manifest itself, but only 10 % of the bears in the area are white. Brother and sister bears in the area can be black, brown, reddish, or even orangey-yellow.
Among the local First Nations tribes in the area the Spirit Bear is legendary as the last remnant of a prior ice age. Perhaps that’s where the mix-up came in the Olympics’ opening extravaganza. The Ceremony was noteworthy for its acknowledgement and inclusion of many of Canada’s First Nations cultures. Some explanation of the Spirit Bear’s importance to local cultures would have helped. Otherwise it just looked as if the Australian who put together the show was either geographically or anatomically deficient.
Ever since Al Gore used them in An Inconvenient Truth as one of the tragic examples of the consequences of global climate change, polar bears have regularly been in the news.
This week at the Climate Change meetings in Copenhagen they are a featured animal. In the center of that city a life-size sculpture of a polar bear has been carved out of a nine-ton block of ice. It will melt down to nothing during the meetings, a vivid metaphor for the decline and possible disappearance of that majestic creature.
The idea probably came from Al Gore’s movie, but, as it turns out, there are some inconvenient non-truths in his documentary, and one of them relates to polar bears. An Inconvenient Truth claims that polar bears are dying of starvation and exhaustion because they have to swim so much due to the melting icecap. In 2007 some Brits tried to get the movie banned from schools because of this claim. That made a splash in the media.
A British judge eventually ruled that the polar bear assertion was one of the nine errors of fact in the movie. Polar bears were not dying because of a scarcity of ice. [It’s hard to argue with those who believe that Gore’s movie is further evidence that Academy Awards are no guarantee of artistic merit or that Al is just another fat documentary filmmaker with a big publicity machine and a flawed message.]
Just two weeks ago another polar bear incident hit the media and went viral. In Churchill, Manitoba on November 20, three weeks after I went there to see the bears, a large male polar bear separated a yearling cub from its mother and devoured it in front of a bunch of horrified tourists in a tundra buggy.
This was not the only incidence of infanticide by polar bears around Churchill. Eight other examples have been reported this year.
It’s been a tough year for all the bears in the Churchill area. A very mild autumn and subsequent late freeze-up have meant that the bears have been stuck on shore. Since they don’t eat much during their summer hibernation, the longer they wait to get onto the ice to hunt seals, the hungrier they get. To adult bears, cubs are fair game.
The problem is exacerbated because the polar bear populations on the western shores of Hudson Bay have shrunk from 1200 to less than 950 in recent years. The decline is dramatic enough that the Manitoba government is taking serious action.
In the past couple of days the Manitoba government has set aside 4,000 square kilometers of coastline along Hudson Bay for the protection of polar bears, seals, beluga whales, caribou and migratory birds. This follows a commitment of $31 million for a polar bear research center and exhibit at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo.
That’s big news here. And big enough elsewhere to get the current premier of the province, Greg Selinger, and his predecessor Gary Doer, now Canada’s ambassador to the US, invited to the Copenhagen meetings to talk about polar bears and what needs to be done to save them.
Tundra Buggies are what make Churchill, Manitoba what it is. Built locally on 8-foot high tires, they’re like giant monster trucks with triple-wide buses pancaked on top. They ferry tourists to polar bear alley about 35 kms (20 miles) east of the Hudson Bay town.
In 1984 when I first went to Churchill, there were only two tundra buggies. Now there are two dozen or more, including two small trains of them that serve as movable lodges where you can sleep right out among the bears.
Polar Bear tourism has become a big deal in Churchill. It may get even bigger if President Obama accepts the new Canadian ambassador’s personal invite to visit the place with his family.
I saw three or four bears in the summer of 1984 when I went there. They were scavenging in the town dump, now closed. With blackened faces, legs and underparts and, often, large painted circles on their haunches targeting them as ”nuisance” bears, they were hardly the Great White Bears of legend. I went back to Churchill a week ago to replace that soiled image.
Over 1,000 Wapusk (the Cree name for them) call this part of Canada their home. They winter on the ice on Hudson Bay, hibernate over the summer in the extensive reserve of Wapusk National Park south of Churchill, and then amble north to wait for the ice to re-form in the fall. October and November are prime viewing times.
Our day was not promising. Seventy kilometer winds and snow squalls reduced visibility to almost nothing. Worse, the winds made the bears hunker down in the low willows. On our 90-minute trip to the best viewing spots all we saw were two adventurous ravens cavorting in the stiff breezes and a grayish-white lump off in the distance that could have been a boulder but evidently had not been there yesterday. It was checked off as our first bear sighting.
All of a sudden out of the snow appeared several other tundra buggies. They had formed an arc about 25-30 feet from a large bear, standing on an iced-over pond. The bear was lazily scraping the ice with its huge right paw and then licking the spot, probably tasting sticklebacks frozen in the ice. Three gulls (Herring and Glaucous) swirled in to see if there’d be any leftovers. And a small Arctic Fox skittled around nearby, occasionally chasing a gull, occasionally also pawing the ice.
Our driver found another bear nearby just as it was rousing itself from a nap. It sat like the RCA dog for quite a while and provided better photo ops than the ice-scraper.
For lunch we parked parallel to the wind whipped bay and looked down at a small bear nestled in the sea kelp. Cute, little guy, probably a second-year bear of 200 kilos, that couldn’t care less that a huge tundra buggie with 40 photographers was less than 20 feet away. Like the lions and cheetahs of the Serengeti, the bears are habituated to tourist vehicles.
Later we returned to the frozen pond where a huge beast had replaced the ice-scraping bear. This guy stood six feet at the shoulder and probably weighed 1,000 kilos. It too was rather absently scraping the ice and licking the shards. After a half-hour of this monotonous activity, it headed toward the RCA bear about fifty feet away. The RCA bear raised itself onto all fours.
Everyone on the buggie tensed with anticipation; we all hoped for a battle royal or at least a playful scuffle.
As the huge bear approached, the RCA bear moved off. A comic chase ensued, almost in slow motion, around the entire perimeter of the pond. The pursuing bear would occasionally try to catch up to the pursued with seven or eight rapid steps. But once it got within a mighty swipe’s distance, it would slow down and let the other bear quickstep its way to a more comfortable distance. This occurred four or five times until the pursued bear ambled off and the pursuer returned to its ice-scraping.
An unresolved chase is rarely satisfying, especially when the audience is looking for good photographic action. But this almost surreal encounter probably said more about these bears and their “natural” fall behavior than any physical encounter could. I had read about the bears‚ state of “walking hibernation” and if this wasn’t a fairly good example of it, I don’t know what it was. Rather absent-minded, almost dazed, and purposeless activity. Just waiting for the ice to form and the opportunity to get their first meal in probably months.
On the way back to town we saw a couple more lumps of sleeping bear in the distance for a day’s total of seven. Not as many as we’d hoped to see, and not as exciting as it might have been, but a rewarding day nonetheless.
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