Sunday, August 22, 2010

Temporary New Tenants Now Permanent?

Our arrival at the Fortress last Tuesday morning was met with an unexpected surprise: we had once again been visited by bears during the night. Although we suspected the same mother with cubs who had been hanging around previously, we couldn't be sure. A perimiter sweep of the fence line revealed a very large and very fresh bear track in the mud, one perhaps made by the mother. Again, we contacted Phil Mooney, the local Fish and Game biologist, and informed him of the situation. He gave us the go-ahead to try trapping again and if the culprit turned out to be a different bear, then we could radio-collar him as well. We rigged the trap that night and returned the next morning to find the exact same three cubs (numbered 12, 13, and 14), but no sign of the mother.

Following the signal from her collar, Phil and a trooper found her dead body a few miles away but were unable to distinguish a cause of death visually. An investigation is currently underway. Meanwhile, the three cubs are being housed at the Fortress. Phil is lobbying for us to keep them, but we won't get a final word on that until sometime next week. While waiting, we've started trying to socialize them by letting them see us throwing food out to them. Occasionally we have entered the enclosure and allowed them to watch us pouring out dog food. The goal is to help them develop a positive association with us, and it's worked remarkably well thus far. For the first two days, they hid in the bushes when people appeared, but spent the rest of the week playing and sometimes sleeping in plain sight, so we couldn't be more pleased with their progress thus far. The death of the mother has been a pall of sadness hanging over our heads, though. We wish things could have been different for her.

That said, it does raise a mystery. If the mother is dead, what is the explanation for the large bear tracks outside the fence line? Could it be the big male that was after the cubs? If so, did he kill the mother and follow the cubs when they came back to us for safety? We may never know the answers to these questions.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Yellowstone Bear Attack Stresses The Need For Co-Existence

In late July, a sow grizzly with three yearling cubs attacked campers in the Soda Butte area of Yellowstone National Park, rampaging through three tents in the middle of the night, badly injuring two people and killing one man. Almost immediately, the bears were captured and DNA testing identified them as the culprits within 24 hours (funny, it takes longer than that for DNA testing to link a human being with a crime). The mother was euthanized shortly thereafter and the cubs moved to a temporary holding cell until a home can be found for them at a zoo.

Now it's coming out that while the mother appeared healthy, the cubs definitely are not. Weighing only 60 to 70 pounds when they should weigh 100 to 130 pounds, and all three still sporting ragged winter coats, the cubs are badly malnourished and not very well fed. As tragic as the attack was, could this be the reason for it? A mother facing a lack of natural resources and desperate to feed her starving cubs? I don't feel that euthanizing the sow served any purpose to begin with and, in light of this new information, it now seems even more senseless. Is it supposed to teach her a lesson or act as some kind of punishment? We are warned constantly about "anthropomorphising" animals, yet we are so quick to force our notions of "justice" upon them as if they can understand the concept. I feel that a better solution would have been to place her in a sanctuary to live out her life naturally with her cubs.

Recently a black bear was euthanized in Yellowstone for developing a taste for human garbage and again it begs the question WHY? There are plenty of bear sanctuaries around that would have taken him and many of these places were started for that very reason: to take in problem bears as an alternative to killing them. Nonetheless, that incident started a mass public criticism of those who preach co-existence with bears, citing instead that we need to forcefully dominate the animal in every way possible. Someone should really inform these people that our attempts to dominate bears are a very large part of the problem. The more we attempt to exert our will on these animals, the more of their territory we invade, the more we show them that we are a dangerous predator, the more of their natural resources we eliminate, the more desperate choices they are forced to make....which can include preying upon us. Greater public education is desperately needed. Camping with electric fences and bear spray should be mandatory and people should expect certain potential consequences if they choose to go without those precautions, like driving without a seat belt. We have to be more aware of the impact our actions have on the world around us and take careful steps to ensure that animals like bears have what they need to survive without turning to us as a possible alternative. Search for "Yellowstone bear attack" and check out some of the comments on news reports of this incident and you'll get a pretty good idea of how far from a positive change we really are.

I'll cap this off with a quote from R. Yorke Edwards, a Canadian environmentalist who hit the issue square on the nose: "When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all of the insects that bite have been poisoned, and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Temporary New Tenants

With the salmon run unusually late this summer, wild bears have been coming down to eat the plentiful numbers of berries growing along the fenceline at Fortress of the Bear. The most prominent among these are a mother with three second-year cubs (pictured at left in a photo from the Sitka newspaper).

After cleaning out the berries, these four came over the fence at Fortress every night for a week. They never did any serious damage and ultimately fashioned a very impressive bed out of hay, straw, and shredded paper. They seemed to be making themselves right at home.

Consulting with the local biologist, he asked us if we could trap him in our second enclosure, which is currently empty, so that he could radio-collar the mother and tag the cubs in order to track their movements. We agreed and successfully managed to catch them late one night. The next day the biologist came in and tranquilized them with a full crowd of tourists as spectators. The mother was radio-collared, and the cubs tranquilized and numbered. The plan was to release them that night but the mother had not fully recovered from the tranquilizer, so we decided it best to keep them another day to monitor her progress.

Although she was strangely slow to recover, she finally did pull out of it and we attempted to drive them away the next evening. Two hundred firecrackers were thrown into the enclosure and we banged pots and pans while screaming and shouting. Despite everything we think we know about bears, the noise did NOT frighten them away. Instead it angered the mother and she attacked the firecrackers. Again, I have to emphasize: if you're enjoying outdoor activities in bear country, you should make noise....but within reason. Do not be an intrusive presence!

With our failure in driving the bears away, we left the gate to their enclosure open and went home for the evening. When we returned the next morning, the family had found their way out....but not before frollicking around inside the facility first. A reading from the mother's radio-collar indicated that they had only moved a half a mile away and the next morning we found that they had broken in again. After hanging around for another day or two, they moved off but haven't gone more than four or five miles. It's only now that we've discovered the full story behind what was happening. Apparently a large male bear in the area has been threatening cubs and this mother was bringing hers over the fence into our facility to protect them, knowing that their pursuer would not follow them into an area that smelled strongly of two large males. Considering the bed they made, their reluctance to leave when we tried to drive them away, and their refusal to leave the area despite the lack of a food source, it's the only explanation that satisfactorily answers all the questions. Now that fish have finally started moving into the streams, the male has moved on, giving this family a chance to get out.

Even so, they haven't gone far and are not on one of the fish streams. They haven't yet gotten into trouble with the residents, but if they do the tagging and collaring will identify them as research bears and prevent them from being shot. Instead they will be brought back to us where they will be given plenty of love and care. I've been off work a couple of days and haven't heard any news about them, but with all the recent sightings of the cubs, I expect to hear something new first thing in the morning.