Lately, bears have been in my thoughts and walking through my days – and nights. With temperatures dipping down to 5 degrees, the bruins might have crawled into their dens until next spring, but their tracks are still in the surrounding snow. And so I’ll write of them now, while their presence is still felt.
Last week, I returned to the wolf kill, along with a friend – still too soon to go solo. “You could see the eagle wings from here,” I said as we entered the meadow. Then a stunned silence as we approached the point where the carcass had lain. The ground was plowed up, looking exploded, clumps and clods where before had been grass and a dead elk. “Bear stash,” I whispered.
If a carcass has enough good edibles left, grizzlies will often bury the remains, using their plow-like paws to spread dirt over the food. It’s thought that this reduces scent that might attract other meat-eaters and slows decomposition. It could also be the bear’s way of saying: This is mine. I’ve staked my claim.
“Eerie…” Jennie whispered. Bits of bone dotted the tumbled earth, a swath about fifteen feet long, ten feet wide. A twisted hunk of hide and leg-bones lay off to the side. Presumably, the griz had secreted away only the best morsels under the burial mound, tasty bits the bear was planning to consume later… any time. We didn’t stay long.
A few days later, a noise woke me in the night, a scratching like that pesky packrat was back inside the cabin. But the noise came from outside. I flipped on the porch light and “Oh!” A few feet in front of the window, a grizzly wrestled with the empty cooler I’d left outside the door, turning it this way and that as if s/he could knock food out of it, lying down and holding it between his paws to lick at it like a dog cleans out at an old can. (Yes, I should know better than to leave a cooler out – even an empty one – in griz country!)
The bear came and went three times that night. In the morning, the only evidence that a bruin had visited was the tooth-pocked cooler lying out front and tracks in the deep snow in the pasture. The tracks meandered up the hill across the way; later, I found where they crossed the valley out back. I suspect the grizzly who visited in the night is the same bear that stashed the elk. And I suspect that bear set off to find his den for the winter.
Even as all this was happening locally, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee (YES) of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee was holding its Fall meeting in Jackson Hole, WY. On the agenda was a discussion of delisting the grizzly bear, removing it from The Endangered Species List. The Yellowstone grizzly population was previously delisted in 2007, but that was overturned in the courts and the grizzly was subsequently returned to the list. On the IGBC website is the statement: “YES maintains that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population continues to be a recovered and expanding population that should be delisted.”
Before that meeting, the Jackson Hole Guide reported a mortality rate of one grizzly dying every two days. 80% of those deaths were related to humans.
Before Europeans arrived, the American West supported a population of about 50,000 grizzly bears. Today, there are only 1,400-1,700 grizzlies left. It’s interesting – even tragic – that in this day and age, given all the circumstances, any subpopulation (eg the Yellowstone grizzlies) of this tiny remnant can be considered “recovered”. Once again, I am reminded how lucky I am to live where I can see grizzlies still roaming free.