When summer begins to fade and makes way for fall its an excellent time of year to get out and enjoy the wonders of nature. It also appears to be a busier time for me because some people seem to think that the bears have gone to bed for the season or soon will be and hiking is “safer.”
This led me to feel a little alarmed for several reasons: Some people don’t really have an understanding of these magnificent creatures. Many people are overly afraid of these misunderstood animals and many people don’t have any idea how important these animals are to our culture and our ecosystems.
Importance of Bears
I also get many questions about bears, and there seems to be a lot of ignorance on how to deal with “large carnivores” when you meet up with one. So let’s talk bears.
First let me say that bears are one of the most important “indicator” species we have in an ecosystem. When we have bears present, we know our ecosystem is a healthy one, they go where the food is, and if there is plenty of it (plants mainly but also some other animals) then the area they frequent is supporting a vast amount of life. Things grow and thrive where there is opportunity.
Bears also have a very interesting relationship with humans and this relationship goes back a long way into our ancestry. Did you know that the Natives learned a lot from the great bear?
Some Natives who moved into the mountainous areas learned from the bear by following it around. They would note the plants the bear ate, and at what season the plants would be consumed, and they would follow suit. Interestingly, when the bear would eat a certain plant in the spring, leave it in the summer and eat it again in the fall, there was a reason for it.
Perhaps it might be a little noxious in certain seasons, or perhaps the nutritive value was not there at that time; however, the Natives would take note of this and act accordingly. They also learned that bedding down for the winter made a lot more sense. If one gathered through the summer, and cached it for the winter, then you would have enough to survive until spring time.
Modern Views on Bears
Our modern views of bears have been educational as well, we are still learning from these animals. Did you know that during their hibernation (yup there is still controversy as to whether they hibernate or not, but I will use the term here anyway), that bears do not defecate or urinate? Not at all during this state!
This led Canadian researchers of Kidney disease to wonder how the bear can do this without harming its body. Bears also go into a state called hyperphagia, in which they must consume enough food to nearly triple their body weight in a short period of time. This led researchers to ask how this extra packing on of fat could help understand obesity and heart disease.
Of course the list goes on and on, of our relationship with bears, but the one main item of discussion seems to be on the gristly (pardon the pun) side of it. Although most of us are fascinated by these animals, many are afraid of them as well. These animals need and deserve respect, but we should also know that we can live together pretty well with them, provided we play by certain rules which I won’t discuss here.
There is a whole science about how to protect ourselves and prevent a bear attack, but I will not discuss that either (for references see below**), instead I will discuss the difference between black bears and grizzlies, and why they behave the way they do.
Most of us have heard the *term if it’s black fight back (black bear), if it has a hump be a lump and at night continue the fight.
Well why fight a black bear and not a grizzly? It is because of their evolutionary differences. The black bear evolved in the trees and bush, and had a place to run and hide from danger, which is why it is ok to fight back, it is likely they will leave you alone if they know there are consequences.
The grizzly evolved on the plains and had no where to run and hide, so when animals like the saber-toothed tiger came along, the grizzly had to learn to fight to defend itself. That is why fighting off a grizzly is like trying to raise the titanic with a rubber raft!
I hope this will inspire those who want to enjoy the outdoors, to educate themselves before heading out. We can live harmoniously with the animals we encounter without either of us coming to harm. The sad part is that when we make foolish mistakes (which education can prevent), it is the bear who ends up the loser.
*This guideline is not intended to teach the individual on bear management or prevention of attacks.
** Refer to any of Stephen Herrero’s books, or Roland Cheek’s book “Learning to Talk Bear.” There is also a great video out by Dr Herrero called: “Staying safe in Bear Country.” For those interested in web sites, the Interpretive Guide Association is a fantastic resource.