A Natural Born Climber
Eye-to-Eye With a Bear Cub
Eye-to-Eye With a Bear Cub
The cub was very high off the ground. A fall would be fatal. I was in awe at how calm the cub was on the wet tree branches. Anyone who has stepped on a wet tree root knows how wet wood can be slicker than water ice.
Mother bear fished far below the cub in the raging creek. The pair seemed accustomed to this situation as they were not always checking up on each other as I observe with brown bears.
From my vantage point, I could see the eyes of the cub perfectly. Those eyes really told me a lot about its mood. Bored in the pouring rain, curious about pieces of fern growing out the tree bark, interested in a belted kingfisher squawking nearby, and playfully looking over at me.
I was not reading the cub’s mind. Instead, I was paying attention to the context (situation) and watching the cub’s reactions in response to it.
Rainy day doldrums.
Keeping itself occupied while mom fished the creek far below was no problem for the little cub. The bear cub became very interested in a sprig of fern growing out of the tree bark. I watched the cub focus on the little fern and then bite off a piece of it, drop it, and try to catch it as it fell.
To the cub, I must have also been interesting. The cub would peak around the sides of the tree of at me, switching from side to side of the tree as if it were playing “peek-a-boo” with me!
This was an incredible thing to witness. I kept quiet and just smiled at it as this went on for a couple of minutes. It is hard to say exactly what the cub was thinking, however, it sure seemed like intentional play on the cub’s part.
As mom fished in the creek far below the cub in the tree she cached salmon in a crevice in the rocks. There were other black bears present, but not in close enough proximity to steal the cached fish. Eventually, the mother signaled to the cub with “woof” sound, barely audible over the noise of the waterfall.
The cub down-climbed the tree, carefully looking directly at its feet like an experienced rock climber does. Together, the mother and cub hurriedly ate the salmon while fish crows and gulls encircled their dining area, cleaning up the scraps.
Experiencing this bear cub in the way I did was something I will remember forever. Mom was already very healthy and well fed, and it was only August. It was the tail end of the pink salmon run on this creek. Their sources of food would now change to the blueberries just starting to ripen, vegetation, insects in the decaying logs, and seafood obtained at low-tide in the estuary.
During the coldest parts of winter, they would likely hibernate together in a den or inside one the trunk of one of the many downed trees. When I left the rainforest it was an unusually warm and sunny day. The happy little bear cub and mother sat together in the warming sun. It was a great way to say goodbye to the Tongass National Forest. I look forward to seeing this mother and cub here next summer.
Peeking around the tree trunk at me. The cub did this on both sides of the trunk for a couple of minutes.
The playful tree climber cub and mother enjoying the warmth of the sun.
Today the black bear occupies only about one-half of the area it used to in North America. Black bears favor forested areas since their tree climbing ability provides them safety.Read More
(Historical and current distribution maps from of the black bear in North America from Ursus, 25(1):24-33. 2014, Brian K. Scheick and Walter McCown)
The black bear (Ursus americanus) can be black, brown, blue, blonde, or white. Its color depends somewhat on the habitat it lives in. It tends to be jet black in dense forest habitats and lighter brown in more arid regions.
The rare white phase of the black bear, the Kermode, or “Spirit Bear“ results when both parents carry a recessive gene. Only about 200 Kermode bears are thought to exist, mainly in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia.
Black bears do best where there are natural openings in the forest canopy, allowing light to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of grass, shrubs, and berries. Bears eat a lot of vegetation! Avalanche scars, forest fire scars, floodplains of rivers, and areas where old trees blow down help provide natural forest habitat for the black bear.
Bear biologists attribute part of the decline in black bear population to the long-term policies of fire suppression — ironically opposite the message from Smokey the Bear. (Smokey the Bear was a black bear cub injured in a forest fire in New Mexico). Ideally, intermittent forest fires that open up parts of dense forests, while not completely devasting the forest, improve black bear habitat.
Forest land cleared for agriculture negatively impacts black bears. The bears learn to eat agricultural crops, honey, and dead livestock that some ranchers do not dispose of. The important mantra, “A fed bear, is a dead bear”, applies here as the bears learn about the new sources of food and return, eventually killed by farmers, beekeepers, and ranchers. Electric fencing and simple changes in pasture management can eliminate or greatly reduce the negative impacts of black bears on agriculture.
Black bears and humans exist in close proximity more and more each year. The result is more bears are killed through collisions with cars, poachers, and “pest control” by landowners who previously attracted the bears to their property. Improperly stored garbage, unpicked fruit on trees and fruit that has fallen from trees, bird feeders, and unsecured food will attract bears. Once the bears find the new food source, they will return.
Black bear sows are rarely as aggressive as grizzly bear sows when it comes to protecting their cubs. Biologists speculate that this difference mainly to the tree-climbing defense strategy of black bears.
I have observed grizzly bear cubs, and adult grizzly bears, climb trees for safety on the Alaska Peninsula. The difference between the species in tree climbing behavior I have observed is that the grizzly bears climbed trees when a threat was imminent, like another adult bear approaching, whereas the black bear cubs went up into trees even when there was no direct threat. The black bear cubs hung out up in the trees whenever their mother was fishing.
Black bears hibernate from early November to December, depending on winter snow conditions, and emerge from hibernation from late February to April. They hibernate in dens they dig, or in beds under downed trees, and inside hollowed-out trees. In areas with large trees black bears sometimes den in cavities in trees way above the ground.
In early spring black bears feed on overwintered berries and scavenge for winter-killed mammals. They are attracted to areas where fresh grasses and vegetation begins to grow at the onset of spring.
Summertime finds bears focussing on green vegetation for food, and insects found in dead wood. Berries are an important high-energy food source black bears in late summer.
Fattening up in the fall, before hibernation, is an important time for black bears. This is a risky period for the black bear as it becomes food obsessed and is more willing to venture closer to civilization in search of unpicked fruit, bird feeders, and unsecured garbage.
Where I live in Northern New Mexico black bears arrive every fall to feast in the apple orchards, or at the homes of those who do not pick their fruit.
Man is the biggest threat to the black bear.
Humans move into bear habitat and are irresponsible in the way they manage sources of food for bears. Whether it is garbage, crops, or fruit, irresponsible behavior on the humans part results in “pest bears” being killed. All it takes is one sloppy household to kill many bears. A fed bear is a dead bear.Read More
Biologists recommend the following measures to protect the black bear:
The demand for bear gallbladders and bear paw soup in Asian culture has a tremendous negative impact on bears. It is estimated that over 100,000 bears are killed illegally each year in North America. The cash price for a bear gallbladder ranges from $125-$225 in North America. By the time the poached gallbladder reaches Asia it sells for $1,250-$2,250, and once processed it sells for $50,000 in the Asian marketplace. One bear paw makes 6 bowls of bear paw soup, at a price of $250 per bowl. The high prices the illegal market demands are similar to the illegal drug market, however smaller penalties for those caught in the bear parts market motivates participation compared with the drug markets.
Bear gallbladders are ground up and used in Chinese Medicine as Fel Ursi (ursodeoxycholic acid). The worst offenders in the market of bear body parts are South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and China. In some Asian countries, bears are kept in cages with steel tubing inserted into the gallbladders, to milk them for gall. This cruel practice generates great wealth for a few, and bears suffer a terrible life.
Bear gallbladders are now a status symbol in Asia, which further increases the demand for them.
Organizations that are fighting the harvesting of bear gallbladders include:
Alternatives to bear gallbladders and bear gall exist. Hopefully, social pressures will someday destroy the market for bear gallbladders.
Real bear hunters hike the mountains looking for bears. Real bear hunting is difficult and only about 50% of bear hunters get a bear. Nowadays, cheaters, who are only focussed on bragging out the bear they killed, instead of learning the hunting skills to actually hunt one, have stooped to the weak practice of bear baiting. This is especially true with commercial outfitters who guarantee their clients a bear kill. Some of these outfitters also illegally sell gallbladders to add to their profits
The master-baiters, so-called “hunters”, put out food a week or two before hunting season opens. This usually corresponds to the fall when bears are eating as much as possible before hibernation. The baited bears return to these bait stations and are shot by these cowardly “hunters”. Baiting is not hunting.
Organizations fighting bear baiting include:
Bears suffer from the hands of man all too often. Whether it is the way we sloppily manage food sources, encroach on their habitat, or promote fear-based opinions, instead of facts, on the dangers of bears the population of bears in North America continues to decline from man.
Clean up your yard and food sources, do not feed bears, and enjoy them. They are not coming to get you! Save that fear for the boogie man!
(c) Ed MacKerrow / In Light of Nature, LLC. All Rights Reserved.