Once a bear knows you are there, it is his choice whether or not you see him.
—Terri Hepburn, from an article: The Black Bear
When it comes to bears, Chris doesn’t share my enthusiasm. He would prefer to see them in zoos or on television, or read about an occasional sighting in the newspaper. Ever since we became mountain dwellers, the black bear (Ursus americanus) was at the top of my list of animals I most wanted to see; and living in bear country, I knew it would be only a matter of time before Ursus made its presence known.
We didn’t have to wait long before the first signs alerted us that a bear was roaming our woods. That first autumn we found tracks in the yard. Beautiful imprints in the sandy soil just feet from the house, and my writing room window. Because the black bear becomes more active in its quest for food, in preparation for the colder months ahead, autumn is peak bear season. The tracks were of the front paw and hind foot with heel and claw marks intact. This made them an exceptional find, as the latter are not always visible. They told a story of how the bear moved. The stride was an “overstep” (meaning the tracks overlapped, which is most typical), and not a “direct walk,” where the hind foot is placed in the track of the front foot. A black bear will typically use a “direct walk” when traveling through snow to conserve energy.
Finding fresh bear tracks in the yard, is always a little unnerving, and puts us on high alert. Day or night, we took care putting out the trash, as well as coming and going from the vehicles to the house; even a casual walk in the woods, means staying alert. The last thing we wanted was to stumble upon a hungry bear, or heaven forbid, a sow with cubs! Although a face-to-face encounter is rare, should it happen, the most important thing to remember is—never run! You simply won’t make it. Despite its cuddly, cumbersome appearance, and weighing 125 to 600 pounds, the black bear is a swift, powerful animal that can run at top speeds of 25 to 35 miles per hour. Another miss conception about black bears is to think you can climb a tree to escape—wrong. Unlike grizzlies, whose claws are not adapted for climbing, black bears are expert climbers. In 1992, in Glennallen, Alaska a small black bear broke into an occupied cabin. While the husband managed to escape and go for help, the wife fled to the rooftop, but so did the bear that attacked and killed her. In North America, in the past 100 years, 56 people have died from black bear attacks; a small number really, if one considers habitat loss, and the increasing number of people living and/or playing in bear country. There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 black bear in Oregon.
Although Chris never complained, I’m sure he was growing tired of my talk of bear warnings. Because he worked evenings, we left a porch light on at night; and although its beam wasn’t much brighter than a candle flame, it was better than having nothing. One night in early autumn, Chris worked late. I was fast asleep when an incessant pounding at the door at 2:00 A.M. woke me. I jumped to my feet, and hurried to the door half asleep. No sooner had I turned the doorknob, than Chris hurried inside. With annoyance in his voice, he demanded to know what took so long. “Why, what’s wrong?” I asked. “Couldn’t you hear me yelling for you to open the door? There’s a damn bear outside!”
Shaken and looking slightly pale, I told him to relax, and to tell me what happened. “I was almost to the porch when the bushes exploded! Branches started popping and snapping. It was chaos. That’s when I ran up the stairs and tried to get the key in the door lock, but dropped it. I knew it was a bear, and it was close because I could hear it, and smell it. That’s when I thought it was coming for me, and that‘s when I started pounding on the door,” he said.
In the months and years that followed, there were fewer incidences. Only during the past few years, has the bear activity increased. The evidence was clear. There was the large soft scat underneath a western redcedar (Thuja plicata). There was also “Black Bear Snag”—a 15-foot redcedar that the bear used to mark its territory with bite marks and scratches. This behavior, called a “Bear Rub,” indicates a bear’s travel route and feeding area. It was clear that the bear was using our woods for its base camp. Although Black Bear Snag eventually toppled over, another quickly took its place. This time the bear chose a live tree, another redcedar for which it peeled the bark in long strips to get at the soft, edible, cambium layer. This foraging behavior called “Girdling,” permanently scars and potentially weakens the tree leaving it vulnerable to insects and disease. Other bear sign included large digs at the base of living trees as well as at the foot of snags and nurse logs where the bear foraged for protein-rich termite and carpenter ant larvae—a bear food delicacy!
Although spring, but especially autumn, mark the height of bear activity, summer occurrences are not out of the question. One day in June, I was showing Chris some lichens I’d found growing on a nurse log when suddenly, the woods turned to chaos. A flashback to what Chris described more than a decade ago was happening again, only this time in broad daylight, and 150 yards away instead of 20-feet. It happened in a place that we call Mills Woods—a heavily wooded extension that joins our property line. From a thick tangle of trees, shrubs, and vines came a force of energy that was like a windstorm at ground level that shook, swayed, and snapped branches. My first thought was maybe a deer, or perhaps elk, but those we would have seen. No, this was something more powerful. I climbed onto a cedar stump for a better look, but all I saw was the swaying of the understory that parted like the Red Sea as the animal made its escape in the opposite direction. Chris and I looked at each other with amazement, and although we never saw the animal, we knew it had to be a bear.
Afterwards, things went quiet for a while, and the bird and squirrel feeders hung from the trees without incident. One day, while at the local hardware store, I heard the clerk talking about a bear that was making nightly raids at a restaurant dumpster. He also talked of bears robbing bird feeders of black oil sunflower seeds. “But not just any black oil sunflower seeds,” he said, “but a particular brand. The bears love it, and lick it up like candy,” he chuckled. There must have been some truth to his story because for the longest time, the bear snubbed our seed feeders.
To quote and English proverb, “All good things must come to an end”; so it did. Either the bear’s tastes had changed, or a different bear, one that didn’t care what brand of seed we used, took its place. I started finding the feeders on the ground licked clean of seed. An old wood bird feeder had deep puncture marks where the bear had grasped it with its teeth to lift it off the hanger. There were also the wrought iron hangers that were either bent or broken. Replacing seed and hangers was getting expensive, and the situation needed dealt with. I hated the idea of having to remove the feeders, but the bear left me with little choice. I resorted to putting out small amounts of seed in a pie tin nailed to a tree stump. While the birds and squirrels never complained, the bear felt differently, and would pay us a visit soon.
It was Halloween 2009, and a quiet evening at home. I was at my computer, and Chris was relaxing in the bathtub. Around nine o’clock, there was an awful racket like someone was breaking into one of our vehicles. I jumped from my chair, and hurried to the hallway. I yelled for Chris, but he couldn’t hear me. The commotion wasn’t coming from the vehicles, but it was coming from the carport, an awful pounding against the side of the house on the outer wall of our bedroom. The force was so strong that it shook the room. I knew from the sound it wasn’t human, it was a bear! Along the outer wall of our bedroom is a wood bench with shelves that we use for a workstation. It was where we stored the large metal bin with 40-pounds of sunflower seeds wedged tightly between the tabletop and shelf.
I yelled for Chris again, and then took a moment to collect my senses. A minute later, Chris was dressed and standing in the hallway wanting to know what was happening? I said, “There’s a bear at the door, and this time it’s after the bin of sunflower seeds!” Chris went to get his bear gun—the .454 Casull that he always carries with him when we go camping, and I yelled for him to put it away. There was no way that I was going to allow him to shoot this bear. I grabbed a can of coins from the shelf, turned on the porch light, and slowly opened the door. Five feet away, and as big as you please, was the black bear I had longed to see. What a magnificent creature! The animal had a young face and sleek build, and I guessed its age to be about three years, and weighing about 250 pounds. The bear appeared completely unenthused, and looked as harmless as a puppy. I wanted desperately to take a picture, but didn’t dare. With bears, first impressions matter, and I had to let the bear know that what it was doing was unacceptable.
The workbench shelves were torn apart, and everything on them lay scattered. At the bear’s feet lay the bin on its side. The latch had sprung, spilling 40-pounds of sunflower seeds. The bear had hit the jackpot! Meanwhile, Chris was yelling at me to get back, and close the door. Instead, I reached out my arm, and shook the can with all the force I could muster. The sound was almost deafening, the bear thought so too; slowly, and deliberately, the animal walked away.
Knowing the bear had not gone far, I went to the bedroom to look out the window that overlooks the clearing of the side yard. Sure enough, just twenty feet away, stood the bear. Chris was saying something, and I told him to keep quiet. Then he did something I couldn’t believe. He turned on the bedroom light that lit me up like a beacon! Although a pane of glass separated the bear and me, I tried to avoid eye contact, as this can be a sign of aggression that can lead to an attack. Had the bear wanted, it could have easily broken in. For a moment, we were eye to eye, and the feeling was unnerving. It was as if the bear was looking in to my soul, and it sent a shiver down my spine. Three more times the bear returned, and each time I rattled the can of coins. On the last attempt, I stepped outside onto the back porch putting the six-foot cyclone fence between us. Shaking the coins, I shouted repeatedly, “Bad bear get out of here!” Slowly, and deliberately, the bear retreated to the woods.
At daybreak, I was surprised to find much of the seed untouched. A lesson learned we now store all seed indoors. With that problem solved, there came another. The bear had now turned its attention to the garbage can. With September, October, and November being the peak months, garbage raids were almost constant. Sometimes, the bear would carry the 30-pound can with both arms, and walk upright like a human across the side yard to the cedar tree (about 150-feet), where it would sit, pop open the lid, and have a picnic. I would have thought it comical had it not been for the mess. Other times, bags of trash would come up missing entirely, or their contents strewn from one end of the woods to the other. Last spring, when in the woods photographing a colony of fairyslipper (Calypso bulbosa), I found a second picnic site at the base of another cedar tree. It was obvious that the problem was not going to resolve itself; that the bear would stay as long as there was food available. Clearly, something had to be done.
A garbage bear is one of the worst forms of bad bear behavior that often leads to having to put the animal down simply because the bear has lost its fear of humans. That was the last thing I wanted. We began storing our bags of trash indoors until pick-up day, which was most unpleasant. With a little online research, I was able to find and buy a bear-proof garbage can. Somewhat skeptical as to whether it would work, it turned out to be one of the best investments we ever made. As for the bear, it never bothered us again.
All rights reserved. Copyright 2011
▸Black Bear photo by Ron W.
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