By Laura Pritchett –
A few years ago, I fell in love. Not the vague kind of fondness, but rather, the obsessive, zealous kind of love affair; the kind that affects your dreams at night and your activities in the day. I fell for bears, of all things, and I’ve never lost my heart for an animal like that before, or since.
The love affair started simply enough: A bear kept me up one night, banging on my neighbor’s trash can, and I got up to watch it from the deck of my house, which was far enough away to be safe. I suppose that in my mind, I told myself it was to keep an eye on my chickens, which were nervously cackling. And perhaps that is true. But mostly, I wanted to watch an active bear, uninterrupted, for a long time, which is not something I’d ever experienced before in my life, despite being a Colorado native and an outdoorsy gal.
I watched it try the Dumpster a few more times (my neighbor, intelligently, had bear-proofed it), then watched it stroll around, sniffing here and there, unhurried and unfettered. It moved to the ditch bank, where the wild plums grow. I watched it sit on its haunches and eat, then rustle around for a better spot. It did not even bother approaching my chickens. Perhaps the smell of my dog’s markings was enough, or perhaps it was too close to a house for its comfort or perhaps, even, it noticed me.
It was happy enough along the ditch, and it was a warm fall night, and the stars were out and, simply put, I fell in love.
I knew it would be heading into hibernation soon, and I knew it was a black bear and not a grizzly. Grizzlies were purposefully exterminated in Colorado, with the last one being killed by a bowhunter in the 1970s. But that is all I knew about bears, really.
But that evening, something changed, the way love suddenly changes us. Soon I was reading books about bears; and then bears started appearing in my own fiction. I searched for evidence of them everywhere, for there’s truth in that adage that once you start looking, the more, well, you see.
I started to notice claw marks on aspens, and claw marks on my yard swing. I would look up, into the cottonwoods, scanning the crooks and big branches, just checking. I looked for scat, knowing that this time of year, there was bound to be a pile or two of apple-seed-laden stuff, crumbly and pleasant. I would pause on my quiet morning walks to gaze up at the foothill. Somewhere in the mountain mahogany, willows, wild plums and rock outcroppings, a bear was hanging out, preparing itself for winter, and I decided I wanted to meet it.
Maybe not it in particular, but I knew I wanted to be close to some bear. It was then that I decided I wanted to climb into a bear den. It sounds crazy, I know, but this is what weird love does to us. I made some calls, made some promises and made my way up a mountain on a long, long snowshoe trek — the hardest physical day of my life.
I had found a group of scientists who needed to cut off the global positioning system collar on a hibernating bear. They’d concluded a study, the goal of which was to help the bears — or, to be more specific, to help humans know how to live with bears, which ultimately helps us both. In any case, the collar needed to come off I was told, and yes, I could come along.
There were 11 of us who willingly snowshoed 1,200 feet up a mountainside near the town of Aspen, a trip that involved several hours of grunting, whispering, crashing through undergrowth, cussing the rotten snow. The trip included several researchers from Colorado State University, two veterinarians and a couple of Colorado Parks and Wildlife folks. They were all carrying heavy backpacks laden with heavy equipment: tranquilizer guns, medical equipment, avalanche shovels, antenna for receiving signals. There were also a couple of onlookers, such as myself, full of the buoyant respect that accompanies traveling with people who know their stuff.
The experts among us had located this den with two hibernating black bears, a sow and her yearling, with the aid of the GPS collar. When we got there, several of the gang removed the underbrush from the den and tranquilized the two bears with long poles (with the utmost care and grace and gentleness, I observed from far away). While we waited for the drug to take effect, stomping our feet and eating almonds to stay warm, I stood with CPW District Wildlife Manager Kevin Wright, who taught me about Colorado’s bears. Black bears are native; there are approximately 10,000 to 12,000 in the state; they are many colors ranging from black to blonde; they’ve got a sense of smell that is 100 times better than what people have; and they’ve lost much of their habitat as human population increases. Bear-human conflicts are sharply on the rise, accounting for about one-third of all bear deaths in the state.
I jogged in place and swung my arms around, nearly crying from the cold. “What would help?”
Three basic things, he said, would solve about 95 percent of bear-human conflicts: bear-proofing garbage, locking doors at night and closing accessible windows. “It’s so simple,” Wright added. “People need to take responsibility for where they choose to live.”
“It seems pretty common sense,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Not rocket science.”
But this study was pretty complex. The science of what to do with “nuisance bears” was exactly what they’d been studying. The researchers, in fact, have been able to partially dispel the notion that “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Most bears in this mountain town do not become habituated to human food sources as much as we think they do. They will go back to natural food as soon as those food sources are available. In other words, bears are opportunists, but take away the “opportune” part and they won’t be “ists.”
I learned that bears exhibit “behavior plasticity,” a fancy way of saying that bears have the ability to change their habits. Bears will return to their preferred Colorado diet of chokecherries, gamble oak and serviceberry, the three main readily available berries for bears in Colorado, once those foods are available.
When the tranquilizer had taken hold, I marveled at the team’s quick and sure work with the bears. They worked with speed and grace as they drew blood, administered eye drops and ointments, cut off the collar. They had covered the sow’s face with a soft ski hat, in order to protect her face from getting scratched, and had pulled her out to the rocky outcropping. Since there wasn’t room for both bears on the ledge, the yearling was left inside the den. From outside the den, I was able to study the sow — her feet pads (so soft) and teeth (so yellow) and fur (so surprisingly thick). I also watched as her radio collar was cut off. She seemed a little freer, a little wilder.
That’s when I got to climb in. I got on my hands and knees and inched forward. Then inched forward some more. Then I was on my stomach, squirming forward. On one side of me, the mother bear’s hind legs, on the other side, the yearling’s face. I couldn’t see, it was dark, but I closed my eyes and dug my fingers into their fur.
I breathed in. It did not smell sour and dank, as I had expected. Since they don’t defecate or urinate in a den, they smelled of duff, of earth, of fur. I listened. There was the sound of their huffing noise, of breath, of the swoosh of life. I stayed for as long as they let me, sandwiched between two good-smelling Ursus americanus. Then someone whacked my foot and told me it was time to get out.
Tranquilizers don’t last forever, after all, and we needed to get back down the mountain before dark. With a lot of care, the bear was put back into her den, next to her yearling, the opening was covered and the bears left in solitude once more.
As we quietly picked up our gear and prepared to leave, I regarded the bear claw marks on the aspen trees. I’d seen bearscars before, arcs of five claws in beautiful patterns, healed over by the aspen. But these trees were tremendous, scarred nearly from top to bottom, as if the whole tree was a bear’s canvas. These aspens will be among the first things the bears feed on. The first blooms, called aspen catkins, are what will help coax the bears awake come spring.
I remember this now as one of the best moments of my life. It was up there with the birth of my children, the publication of my first book, so hard-won, and those rare moments of pure joy. And I’ve worked on protecting bears since, because once you start to know a creature, once you fall in love, you want to protect. This great state has the great gift of bears, and thus the deep responsibility of keeping them safe and their habitat wild.
I still see bear claw marks from time to time, and I always have this thought: I’m so glad to have fallen in love that one fall evening, and I hope we humans can mark our homes with such grace and beauty.
Laura Pritchett is an American author from Colorado; one of her books is entitled Great Colorado Bear Stories. Read more at www.laurapritchett.com.