Voices for Biodiversity

Bear and Woman on Bicycle

Photo by Elke Duerr

Riding my bike on a dirt road in Montana, I was being mindful of the original inhabitants of this relatively intact stretch of forest. I pedaled slowly, taking in the energy and beauty of the land. A gentle breeze was blowing in the treetops and they swayed to the rhythm of the wind. 

I was happy beyond belief. Silently, I announced myself to the forest inhabitants. They had been there long before the onslaught of recent migrants and predated the settlers from Europe by many thousands of years. 

This was one of the last strongholds of North American grizzly bears, animals who once roamed a large part of western North America. There aren’t many grizzly bears left in the lower 48 states, and most of them live in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Yet there is talk about delisting grizzly bears from the endangered species list. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to disturb and hunt listed animals, and extractive industry is forbidden in their home territories.

So it’s no wonder big companies want to see them delisted. More than 20 such companies are already lined up outside Yellowstone National Park, seeking to mine the earth for her treasures. If they were delisted, grizzly bears would no longer be an obstacle to extraction. And there are already hunters signed up to “get their grizz” in a legal hunt. 

I was acutely aware of these facts and silently communicated my benevolence to the Grizzly Bear Nation, to the last of these wild bears. “I love you,” I told them. “And I ask for permission to enter your home range and go for a little bike ride. But I do not have to ride my bike here,” I added, “I can go on a paved road and anywhere else— I know you only have a sliver of your former habitat left.” I have had many happy encounters with wild bears and often recall them in my heart. 

Bears are generally considered omnivores, though the percentage of plant food they consume varies among regions. They generally eat more meat in the North, just like we people do. In more temperate regions, plants make up about 75 percent of their ingested biomass; in boreal forests, it’s 50 percent; in the tundra, only 40 percent.

When bears come out of hibernation, they often find that the plant life has not yet emerged from the long winter season, especially in the North. That is when they love to take a share in the deer and elk kills the wolves have made and resort to being carnivores. Some people might say it’s stealing a wolf kill, but I have witnessed these situations and call it sharing their food. The wolf-bear relationship is an ancient one, and the bears depend on the wolves for their early season food sources. Where wolves have been exterminated, bears suffer and vice versa. Bears occasionally kill ungulates themselves, mostly in the spring, and typically concentrate on deer, caribou and moose calves in their first weeks of life, before they grow strong and fast. 

Human hunting activity also has an impact on the bears. In some regions, bears are conditioned to hunters. When they hear the sound of gunshots, they know that there will be gut piles in the area and therefore don’t have to go into hibernation yet as there is still food available for them. 

Bears also prowl avalanche areas when they first come out of hibernation, to find animals that were killed as the snow mass sped down the mountain. And they love to explore unsecured trash cans. When people move to rural and wilderness areas, they often live as they did in the city, leaving their trash unsecured and putting out food like birdseed or dog food, which also attracts bears. Bears will often come close to human settlements in search of food when there is a drought or because of fires on the mountains. I remember a particularly dry year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when the black bears came down from the mountains in search of food and were breaking into people’s watermelon stashes to get some reprieve from the heat. One was climbing up a pole when humans with dogs came and shot it with a tranquilizer gun. Luckily, she hadn’t climbed very high and survived the fall to the ground.  

I’ve also seen the huge impact of human encroachment on their habitat. On the back side of the Sandia Mountains, there is a switchback road that leads to the summit. So when bears want to go up or down the mountain, they have to cross that road multiple times since it does not lead straight up and down. I saw the same bear trying to make it down the mountain with the same cars crossing his path over and over and over. He finally went up on his haunches to see what these stinking things were that appeared to be after him. He sat down in the middle of the road, looking confused and unsure what to make of it all, including the cameras that people whipped out and stuck in his face. It is not easy being a bear — they did not evolve to deal with any of this. 

On a dirt road leading up the same mountain, I once came across a stalled jeep. I had just seen a bear along the road as I was hiking — what I call a “huge blessing” and “bear medicine” — and was feeling ecstatic about it. I stopped to ask if the person needed help. He was obviously uncomfortable and anxious. He seemed comforted by my offer to wait with him for the tow truck to arrive and I slowly started asking him questions about why he seemed so fearful. The truth finally came out when he admitted, “I’m deathly afraid of bears. I wish I had taken the truck, because I have my gun in the truck. This jeep doesn’t protect me if a bear attacks. I’m dead meat if a bear comes along.” I offered to go between the bear and him should that happen, and pondered how two people in the same spot could have such different attitudes about a bear encounter.   

Birdseed is a major bear attractant. Some people decide they want a photo op with a bear at a feeder and will deliberately put some out, snapping away with their cameras from their “picture” windows. While this might offer a source of happiness for the photographer, it is very dangerous for the bear. Now that the backyard is a source of food, the bear will defend it from humans and their dogs, and go after the dog next time. Then the humans call Fish and Wildlife Services, who move the bear to a different area. This presents another issue for the bear because, more often than not, the area is already occupied by another bear. Now the dumped bear has no other choice but to return to the yard with the birdfeeder and delicious seed, which was his territory to begin with. Eventually, the “three strikes and you’re out” rule applies and the bear gets “euthanized”— a benevolent word for murdered while the whole scenario could have easily been avoided had the humans acted from a care for all life and not out of human-centricity.

The same goes for practitioners of extreme sport. Ultramarathons and other events often barge through pristine wilderness where wild animals still live. The participants claim to enjoy it, but there is little thought for the original inhabitants. During one marathon in New Mexico, a black bear mother defending her cubs hurt a runner. Her babies were on one side of the “running path” that was used by the local animals and the mother bear was on the other side. As the runners kept coming and coming, the mama bear did not have a chance to reunite with her offspring. So she whacked the next runner down and crossed the path. When the woman came out to the hospital, she pled for the bear’s life — she was a mother herself and knew that she had contributed to her injury by running through the bear’s home range. But it was too late, they had already killed the mama. Without her, the two cubs also died— they were too little to survive on their own.  

Dogs are also a threat to bears. The dog, outside their own territory, will run after a bear and her cubs and the dog often leads the bear back to their humans. Any resulting conflict generally causes the bear to be deemed a “problem”, bringing authorities to exterminate the bear. 

A friend told me that he once left a deer hide in a bucket outside his house to work on in the morning. A bear who had just come out of hibernation was looking for an easy meal and came around to check out the smelly hide. My friend made a lot of noise to chase him off, but the better option is to not leave such things outside, especially at night and when nobody is around. The bear just went on his way in this case, looking for other types of food.  

In Europe, bears often get fed outside a village. The people believe that this will keep them away from their settlement. The truth of the matter, however, is that bears are attracted to food sources and the villagers often dispose of their dead domesticated animals very close to, or on the outskirts of town. If a bear or other wild animal gets attracted to a dead animal and feeds on it, they will return in search of another opportunity for feeding. This situation could easily be resolved by burying, not dumping, deceased cattle, sheep and pets away from any human settlement.

A bear biologist friend of mine told me that up to 200 different kinds of plants and seeds have been found in bear scat. Yet we humans are deathly afraid of these animals, even though we are not part of their prey base. And when people are killed by animals, it is not the wild ones who are at fault. Traffic incidents like running into a deer are by far the number one cause of animal-related deaths for humans. Wasps/bees/hornets, dogs, cows and horses follow. Bears do not tend to confront humans— with the exception of protective mother bears— and only one person is killed by a bear per year on average, which is completely out of proportion with the hysteria and fear that surround them. 

But I was not thinking of any of this as I slowly pedaled through grizzly country. My attention fully belonged to my surroundings, I was awake and conscious of everything going on around me. Perhaps the reason people sometimes get hurt by one of the last bears in the country is that they like to jog through bear territory with earphones jammed in their ear canals, paying no attention to the original inhabitants of the land. They don’t realize that they are behaving like prey, and will look like a fleeing deer to any bear nearby. They just barge in and take over the forest with no regard to who else is there, to who actually lives there. One person in Montana ran his bike into a bear on a wilderness trail at 25 mph. Nobody gave a second thought to the bear, who was badly wounded in the incident. And then there are our dogs. We humans will take our domesticated animals anywhere and dogs, contrary to popular belief, do not protect us from harm. They actually aggravate bears, who painstakingly mark their territory over months of time and regularly go over their markings to refresh them. 

We also put up electric fences around our camps to protect ourselves from bears, even when we are armed to the max. The bears are electrocuted when they touch these unfamiliar fences set up in their home range.

Photo by M. Krofel

We spray them with bear spray, often as a preventative instead of as a last resort. So-called “bear attacks” are extremely rare and mostly avoidable if we are mindful, awake and aware. Why are we so disrespectful toward large wild animals when we are so accommodating to ourselves and our domesticated animals? 

A friend saw a little black bear on his new property and was enchanted by her presence. The bear was young, minded her own business, and never came too close or threatened my friend’s safety. His dog, luckily, was well trained and never encroached on the bear, who had been there first. Nor did he bark at the bear. In fact, the dog’s name is Bear.

The three regularly enjoyed each other’s company for months until my friend came across a dead bear at the side of the road near his property, along with a parked vehicle and a woman with a gun. She assured him that she had a “bear license” and that she was a legitimate hunter. She probably killed the animal after spotting it while driving by, which is very different from being a hunter, measuring her strength and stealth with the animal’s and leaving a chance for the animal to get away. This dead animal was the same size as “his” bear.

My friend has not seen another black bear since that day. So what are we going to choose? Connection or disconnection? Life or death? Fear or love? Each one of us has to make that decision. 

A rustling in the bushes next to the road I was slowly cruising along caught my heightened attention. Spontaneously, right from my heart, I said out loud: “Whoever you are, dear one, please show yourself to me. There’s no reason to be afraid of me. This is your home and I respect it.” I had barely uttered the last syllable, when the head of a bear popped up right next to me. He stood up on his hind legs to get a better look at me. I stopped dead in my tracks. What a beautiful bear! What a beautiful soul. “I love you!” I exclaimed. “Thank you for being here with us on this earth. You are important and you matter.” My heart was beating with love for this creature who had to be so careful in his own home because most humans are afraid and carry weapons that we use at the least provocation. If a bear shows up when we intrude on their home territory, we often kill them or, at the very least, assault them with bear spray. 

I am a firm believer in and practitioner of intuition. Why practice blanket fears at any given moment when we have our wonderful intuition to tell us when something is wrong? Why not be awake, aware and conscious of our surroundings when we are the wilderness?

In this case, my intuition wasn’t telling me that anything was wrong, but that, in fact, this was how it was supposed to be, that we were supposed to coexist together in a fearless and loving way. There was no reason to panic or behave irrationally just because there was a bear right next to me. Instead, I kept exuding my love for this animal. And so the bear did not have to defend himself from me. In all my remaining years on this planet, I will never forget the look he gave me. Such an intelligent gaze, so full of brightness and with a twinkle that lit up the forest. It was almost like he was playing with me. He had finally found someone who was not running away from him or threatening him. He had met his equal in me, and I was equally thrilled to meet him. In a way, we both threw what our mothers had told us overboard: namely, to run, panic and be afraid of each other. We did the exact opposite, we made contact with each other to better understand one another. “Bear, this is what a bear truly is,” I thought gleefully. “Woman,” he seemed to think, “this is what a true woman is like.” I grinned from ear to ear and felt like he did the same. “You are sacred and this is a sacred moment in time,” I told him. Sometimes called the “doctors of the forest,” bears are powerful, essential and considered sacred in many Indigenous communities.

Photo by Elke Duerr

There’s no reason to fear bears unnecessarily. In fact, I practice being fearless, empty and loving whenever I enter a forest or other territory where wild ones reside. I do not throw fear at the animals there, and I do not force any encounters, meetings or photo ops. I do not bait them or see them as an object. I am mindful of the fact that they do not have much space left to roam anymore. It must be very stressful to have to hide from us humans in their own homes. It must be sad that they cannot meet us on equal terms, with curiosity, mutual understanding and respect for each other. It must be very difficult when the three food sources that nourish them the most in the fall — whitebark pines, salmon and huckleberries — are being gradually, and sometimes not so gradually, taken away from them, through drought, dams, the introduction of nonnative species, human encroachment, overfishing and overharvesting, to name a few.

Yet this particular wild bear harbored no grudges against anybody. He was just doing what bears do. He checked me out with his beady eyes, full of kindness and curiosity. Tears welled up in my eyes: “I will do whatever I can for you. I will tell your story. I love you!” Our encounter did not last long. I did not want him to get habituated to humans and be unable to discern who was benevolent toward the Bear Nation from who was armed and ready to “get his/her bear.” I did not take any pictures of him. The moment was too sacred to exploit. I pedaled on, all the while blessing his presence, talking to him, bidding him goodbye.

My heart continued to sing from the meeting with the bear. I lifted my gaze up to the trees that were still swaying in the wind. Today was a good day to be happy. Today was a day filled with joy. Today was a day to be love incarnate. Every day I choose love.

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