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Meeting the Bears of North America
Christine Roberts

"Wilderness without wildlife is mere scenery" - Lois Crisler

"People conserve only what they learn to understand and respect" - International Wolf Center, Ely - Minnesota.

Every traveler embarking on a wildlife adventure in North America is likely to have bear-viewing at the top of his or her "wish" list. But the chances of actually seeing bear in the wild are surprisingly slim. Even those living in bear country experience few or no bear encounters. So, when you can observe these magnificent creatures up close in a naturalistic habitat it is a real thrill, and bonus!

You can visit bear educational centers, zoos such as those of Calgary and San Diego which have excellent bear enclosures or spend time in one of the national parks like Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite where bears 
roam in the wild.

"Bears learn quickly," says wildlife expert, John Poimiroo. "It's educating people that takes the time". An article on by Howard Youth on "World Watch" suggests "the human relationship with wildlife is changing - from taking furs, food or sport to watching."

Of all the bear species that we read about or see on television, the Polar bear, American black bear "ursus Americans" and Grizzly bear "ursus arctos" are the ones which are most familiar. But, through man's infringement on or destruction of their habitat, through land development, unregulated hunting and killing black bears for their gall bladders, numbers are decreasing.

Dr Gale Ford, executive director and staff veterinarian at the Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana reckons "the key to the endangered grizzly's survival is in understanding the bear's needs and how we affect its environment".

At this amazing life-saving center, her team takes care of eight bears who've come to stay for a variety of reasons. Some were orphaned in the wild, became addicted to humans as a food source from garbage, camp food or ranch livestock or, due to human encroachment and intolerance of them, a human-bear conflict ensued.

If wild bears are hand-fed or encouraged to feed on garbage they often have to be relocated some 150 miles, or more, but invariably find their way back. Federal policy dictates that after three relocation attempts, they must 
be removed by government agencies to a zoo or research facility, or they will end up dead.

Several problem bears who've not benefited from relocation and continue to return to their former environment have been referred for aversion therapy - some with good result - to reaquaint them with their natural fear of humans!

At the Grizzly Discovery Center, the bears' needs are the top priority! After all, it's their home and visitors are expected to always treat them with respect. 

There's Fred from Denali Park, brother and sister Sam and Illie, twins Revel and Stoke from Revelstoke, Canada and 12-year old Toby, an 800 lb Kodiak bear. Newest arrivals are Kobuk and Nakina.

Each bear has a private "room" - denning area - where some are permitted to socialize. The aim is to give them as diverse a lifestyle as possible in captivity. No day is the same for them to ensure they don't get bored. They are rotated onto their 2-acre habitat, which includes a swimming pool and their favorite logs in various social groups for different lengths of time each day. 

Various treats are hidden under rocks, log piles and in tree stumps to foster their natural senses to forage for food.

Some 3 000 golden-colored Kodiak bears, the largest sub-species of grizzly, like Toby, are resident on Alaska's Kodiak Island. This bear sanctuary is blessed with an unlimited supply of salmon. Along with the renowned McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on the mainland, these are the best wild bear viewing sites in the world. However, only 10 permits a day are issued to visitors at McNeil between June and mid-August. The lucky ones 
are selected by a random lottery each year from thousands of applications received. 

One of North America's best loved bears was "Mildred The Bear" who died in her den at the Grandfather Mountain bear habitat in North Carolina on New Year's Day, 1993. Acknowledged as the best black bear ambassador ever, she passed away within a few weeks of her 27th birthday. She had borne ten cubs and adopted a further three. 

Messages of condolences and tribute were received from all over the US from a wide range of age groups. The tremendous public concern was attributed to her incredibly gentle nature and the widespread public appreciation she generated throughout her life. 

Another headline maker is Trouble, a 350 lb brown bear from the Chugach Mountains, near Anchorage, who wandered down to Anchorage's Zoo in search of a meal. She met up with a half-ton grizzly, Jake, after causing havoc killing a snow-white goose and breaking through the zoo's chain-link perimeter fence. After two further visits to see Jake, she was caught, sedated and housed in the polar bear display prior to being transferred to a new home at Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minnesota.

Anchorage Zoo is often in the news. They housed two orphaned bear cubs, a while ago - a polar bear and brown bear who have been inseparable ever since, sharing the same enclosure. It is unheard of for two different bear species to live and play together. And, they will remain together as long as they continue to get on.

While black bears are avid tree climbers, not all continue this practice in to adulthood. Gary is the exception. This 550 lb bear resides in the new, treed and grassed bear enclosure which he shares with females Thelma and Louise at Moncton's Magnetic Hill Zoo in New Brunswick, Canada.

Gary enjoys climbing seventy-footers, daily. Following a vasectomy, he was integrated with his two orphaned female furry friends, both of whom were hand-raised and cared for by the Zoo's general manager, at his home, until they were ready to live at the zoo. Needless to say, it was a period of little or no sleep for this dedicated bear man who managed to finally reschedule their two-hourly feeds to a more normal routine!

In the year 1820, on Cape Breton Island (Canadian Maritimes), bears became so numerous and adept that they used to dig up all the potatoes that had been painstakingly planted by the early settlers, resulting in the 
latter having to move to new pastures!

A wildlife expert at Cape Breton's National Park related an amusing bear tale. His friend was walking along a road in the Park with his young son seated on his shoulders when he happened to look down at the ditch beside the road only to see a black bear lying there gazing straight up at him. He panicked and ran for his life down the road. After a couple of minutes, hearing heavy breathing he turned his head to one side to find that instead of running in the opposite direction, the bear was running beside him. Needless to say, he veered off at the first opportunity!

In Yellowstone National Park, visiting time could mean the park's wildlife gets the chance to observe YOU! A remarkable photo appeared recently in one overseas newspaper. It showed two young bears seated on an ideal viewing perch watching a couple of tourists as they drove their vehicle through the Park!

While not everyone has the pleasure of seeing a bear in their back garden, one New Hampshire woman found one standing within five feet of her! She'd just contacted the local Fish and Game department to report bear activity in her garden. They'd advised her to remove any bird seed she might be storing in her basement and, as she rounded the corner of her house, carrying the remaining seed, there was the bear at her bird feeder! Fortunately he ran off and has not been seen since. 

Another encounter, I heard about, took place between a pensioner and a black bear at a picnic site. The bear rushed across to the hungry man, snatched his lunch packet away and lumbered off into the woods. The man was furious and ran after him to retrieve it. The bear, realizing he was being pursued, turned around and walked towards his stalker. The man then raised his hands above his head, walked slowly backwards but then fell over on the path. 

The fearless bear gave him a sharp smack, dropped the "lunch" at his feet, and disappeared into the bush. Moral of the story is don't chase the bear! 

I met a delightful couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary at a country inn not far from Saint John's, in New Brunswick. Over dinner, they revealed they'd met in Banff. His work in the wilderness entailed him staying in a remote cabin by a lake some 18 km outside this resort.

Early evening on their first date, Dave decided the occasion warranted a really good bath. So, placing his tin bath outside the cabin door, he filled it with water, stripped, climbed in to the tub and vigorously covered himself with soap. Looking up, he was horrified to see a huge bear walking towards him. Within seconds, the paralyzed bather 
was being sniffed at by the curious furry intruder after which he gave a mighty "Woof", turned around and vanished in to the woods. Bears have an incredibly strong sense of smell but this particular brand of soap was not 
to his liking!

A few Bear Tips

Learning to respect and understand a bear's behavior is tantamount to yours and their survival, should you ever encounter one. They need their space so never get too close! Travel in groups and make a lot of noise when walking in bear country, to ensure there are no surprises. Don't rely on bear bells, sold at some tourist outlets, to alert bears of your presence. And never turn your back and run away from a bear. If one appears in your path, move slowly backwards off the path and give him right of way. 

Bears love food. Other than their attraction to human food, black bears given the chance will forage through campgrounds, trash containers that are not bear-proof, berry bushes and fruit orchards. Interestingly, some 13 bears in the Grandfather Mountain Habitat in North Carolina are hooked on watermelon!

A day to remember I spent an enthralling day with the Pennsylvania State's Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer, Bob Johnson, who works closely with a world authority on black bears, Dr Gary Alt.

He told me: "It's always best for people to leave their garbage in the basement of their homes until the day of collection. A capful of ammonia might keep a bear away initially but they soon learn to swat the bag and 
pick up everything they want that falls out." 

Some bears in Pike County in the Poconos region where he works have even learnt to open refrigerators and garage doors. They often climb through windows, break down the kitchen door, if it isn't already open and head straight for the cookie jar or freshly baked cakes. And they eagerly jump on to restaurant dumpsters, breaking the chains, if there are no fences surrounding them.

They are very partial to dog food, food scraps, wild berries and doughnuts and even booze has been known to attract them if they get the chance of a tipple!

Comments Bob," If bears and people are to live harmoniously some compromise is needed. For instance, bear's love rabbits. If a resident raises rabbits in bear country, they must expect to lose one or two to the bears.

"When you live in bear country, you dare not feed them. Once they associate food with a house or car, in no time there'll be damage. And if they lose their fear of humans, it can be dangerous. However, during a good blueberry crop, our bear activity complaints slow down...bears cover an area of 60 sq miles or more."

He confirmed that bears readily adapt to living in private communities. "We have 10 000 black bears living in Pike County with room for 10 000 more. But the community would never tolerate that number. " I receive calls daily asking for bears to be removed. What's the bear doing, I always ask." 

Bears frequently rub their backs against trees, especially those smooth, wooden telephone poles. Also, they like to spend time in a cool "wallow" pool. Bob showed me a frequently-used bear trail which lead to a "wallow". It was fascinating to learn that these animals prefer to tread in previously-made bear footprints in the sand as the pads on their feet are very sensitive.

His job includes law enforcement, wildlife studies and tagging some 600 bears a year. Each county is given a quota to maintain their bear population, he said. Everyone can enjoy the bears, then. 

He sets regular bear traps for research purposes. I was fortunate to observe him preparing one and to watch him anaesthetize a black bear in order to weigh, tag, examine him, put lubricating eye cream in his eyes and extract a tooth to check out the bear's general state of health.

The bear trap comprised a large drum punctuated with holes so that the captive bear could be viewed and had plenty of fresh air. It was filled, on this occasion, with leaves on which were set irresistible doughnuts, sprinkled with a gallon of Grandma's Molasses and an ounce of anise - a strong odor, indeed! The doughnuts used are bought a day or so after their sell-by date.

It took Bob half and hour to "knock out" the bear with a long jab stick. The bear kept moving so the needle broke twice. He was intent on staying awake!

All 500 lb of this bear were then gently removed from the trap with the help of Bob's staff on to the lawn at the wildlife center. How exciting it was to hold this three-year old male bear's magnificent paws, examine his immaculate long claws, and stroke his wiry black fur - not as soft as I'd imagined, but he was in great shape!

Pregnant black bears den earlier as their cubs are born in January and tend to stay in and around the den until April. Bob explained that many a resident in Pennsylvania has been astounded to learn that bears are denning under their (patio's) "decks" for the winter. Often, the only way they discover this is if the bear is wearing a 
radio collar and a wildlife conservation officer advises the family of this.

One of the many fascinating videos featured on North American bears on the Discovery TV Channel is called" Wild things - Grizzly Diaries", It is produced by Timothy Treadwell, a young man who spent several months at a time over a number of years living among the Grizzlies in his tent on Kodiak Island. He tried to protect them from poachers and succeeded in developing a friendly relationship with many of them. At least one bear mother brought her cubs to show him. 

Bears are such fascinating, intelligent creatures and we can learn so much from them. Especially their amazing feat of survival during hibernation. Hopefully, the more people who learn to appreciate and respect them, the better their chances for survival in the next century. 

(Most of the contents of this article were first published in "The Citizen", August 2001).

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Email:  Christine Roberts


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