Hard to Bear

some bear tracks found on a walk this weekend

Anna the dog and I have seen quite a few bear tracks on our walks lately.  I always enjoy trying to reconstruct the bears’ movements from the markings they left behind.  Could they have been responsible for digging up that ant hill?  Do these tracks explain the absence of berries on these wild strawberry plants? Anna the dog could frankly care less about the tracks, but she lives to chase live bears.  The sight of a bear, however large, transforms my ten-year-old gentle lab into a barking bullet with one objective: drive the bear back. She is not normally an aggressive animal.  If she sees chipmunks, rabbits, deer, or cats, her attitude is “live and let live.” She reserves her fierce sentiment for only two species: bumble bees and bears.

Happily, we saw no live bears this morning, but we hadn’t gone far when I heard a diesel motor.  I put Anna on the leash as we crested a hill.  Two ATVs emerged from the woods. The middle-aged woman on one of the machines waved me over. With a concerned expression, she explained that she and her husband (on the other ATV) were baiting bears back there, and that I should keep the dog on a leash on these walks. The bears hear their motor and about fifteen minutes after the humans leave, the bears descend on the food.  (Bear baiters train cameras on the bait so that they can monitor when bears are feeding, how many there are, how big they are, etc.)

Impressive bear scat near the tracks this weekend

I really wasn’t that worried about it, because Anna rarely heads in that direction and I rarely am walking her as late as today, so I would be ahead of the food delivery. Someone or another has been bear baiting portions of the walk all three years that I’ve lived here. Still, I appreciated them letting me know so that I can be on the alert. By way of making conversation, I noted that I certainly had seen quite a few bears this year.  “Oh, I know,” she said. “The DNR should really issue more [hunting] permits for them, there are so many. I used to take walks too, but now I don’t because there are so many bears.” The husband noted that the bears tear down their bird feeders every night. I am not an ecologist, and I don’t really know if I think there are too many bears relative to the rest of the ecosystem, but it sure seems like a bad idea to feed them if you think there ought to be fewer bears.

I have never liked bear-baiting. In fact, I’ve never liked the idea of baiting any animal.  If you want to hunt, that’s great, learn to hunt.  That means understand the subtleties of your prey, spend time in the habitat, and take only what you will use.  If you are actually on the verge of starvation, I can understand wanting the certainty of being able to show up at the same place where bear is used to getting donuts, and blowing it away.  But for recreation? I don’t get it.  (Actually, in possible proof that bears are smarter than humans, after a few months, they are less likely to show up at the source of free donuts.)

The thing that really struck me about this couple, though, was their fear of the bears. The woman seemed quite upset that Anna and I were walking every day. She especially repeated that the dog must be kept on the leash at all times because otherwise a bear would strike her dead.  I cheerfully explained that actually Anna chases bears away.  But she simply reiterated that bears don’t run from dogs, they kill them.  She really was becoming rather upset, although I was trying to be cheerful and kept thanking her for all her concern. She urged me to carry a pistol if I must take walks.

I am not glib about Anna’s safety.  But I’ve noticed that Anna is pretty smart about chasing bears. She only pursues them as far as the boundary of the woods.  And if they do stand their ground, she turns around rather than engage them. I’m sure she would not go into the woods and attack bears that are feeding on donuts; that would be contrary to every behavior I’ve ever observed in her. I probably will keep her on the leash as we go near this bear-baiting station, but I’m not going to throw out my on-the-ground insights about the relationship between Anna and bears.

Nor am I glib about my own safety.  Some of you may recall various stories of my encounters with bears and know that I truly do not want to be eaten by a bear. But I am living in bear country. I live here because it is beautiful and wild.  I know for a fact that bears almost never attack humans, though I recognize that the risk is not at absolute zero. I could choose to stay inside all the time, just as I could wear a surgical mask around other humans to try to avoid getting germs. I suppose I could choose to carry a revolver, but frankly I can’t hit the broadside of a barn with a shotgun, so if a bear attacks me I probably shouldn’t waste time trying to hit it with a low-caliber weapon. Instead, I choose to rely on an understanding that bears don’t really care that much one way or the other about me. Sure, if I set out bird feeders laden with sunflower seeds or suet, they will help themselves. If I give them donuts, they will eat up.  If I threaten their food supply or their young, they will become aggressive. But mostly, the biggest problem they pose is that they eat all the wild berries before I can get to them.

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One Response to “Hard to Bear”

  1. Lindseysafensecure Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post! Have you considered carrying bear spray just in case? You don’t have to be a good shot to use it. 🙂

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