Black Bear Requiem and Hope for the Future

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Photo credit Lynn Rogers

 

Before I begin this article I want to acknowledge that I am perhaps too biased against bear hunting. I also know as a black bear researcher and bear lover that I am too emotionally attached to these animals to feel any other way.

 

This year’s three plus month bear hunt begins earlier than ever with “youth day” kicking off the season which began August 24 when children in Maine were encouraged to shoot their first bear. The promise of a first kill inculcates in the next generation the rightness of continuing the “tradition” of hunting in a world where many non – human animals are threatened or facing extinction. Sport and trophy hunting, a million dollar enterprise brings in huge amounts of money to the state wildlife agency – the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife (MDF&W) and other special interest groups like the NRA. Privately owned “bear farms” flourish where one can’t help but kill a bear because all animals are held captive for the slaughter. For some there is the addictive “high” and the sense of “power” that comes with the kill and a snarling bearskin or head to hang on the wall. For others there is meat for the table.

 

Many bears, especially yearlings will be shot (most bears killed are between 1 -3 years old). Mothers have spent the summer teaching their cubs how to forage sometimes traveling 50 miles or more to areas rich in wild foods during this phase of hyperphagia, that is, the brief time during which all bears must eat enough to almost double their weight in order to survive the coming winter hibernation. Cubs are often treed by the mother before she comes to a bait site. Many cubs will die of slow starvation if the mother is shot.

 

Bear feeding frenzy peaks in August and September when the bears need as much as 20,000 calories a day to put on necessary fat. This is the time of year all bears are most vulnerable. Hunters take advantage of the bear’s desperate need for food by placing large unhealthy amounts of sugary food at bait sites as they ready their dogs for the hunt, and prepare their steel snare traps… They have plenty of time because in Maine the hunt will not end until November 30th.

 

This year having spent time in a community that lives peaceably with so many wild bears in Ely Minnesota I am, if possible, having a more difficult time than before attempting to accept a hunting tradition that refuses to acknowledge that it is possible to live with these gentle intelligent animals instead of slaughtering them. I am haunted by the question: how many cubs in Maine will be left to die after their mothers are shot this fall? How many adolescents? The yearly statistics from the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife Agency indicate that almost as many female bears are shot as males. How many of those females are mothers?

 

I reject the two usual arguments for killing bears: One that hunting is a “tradition” that must be honored, regardless. The second is that bears have to be “managed” or they will take over the state.

 

Hunting was once necessary for survival. This is not the case today. Most hunting occurs because folks like to kill animals for sport – any animal – and bears in particular because they are almost universally feared.

 

When we examine why these intelligent shy animals appear so threatening we discover that there is no scientific basis behind human fear. Only one Black bear in a million kills someone; one is 32,000 times more likely to be murdered by a human.

 

However, individuals do fear bears and our state wildlife agency encourages people to foster that attitude so that folks will buy hunting licenses, shoot bears and bring in revenue. Hunting is economically based. The state agencies also warn the public not to befriend bears because they will become “nuisance animals,” and it is true that bears will visit backyards when hungry. Removing attractants like birdseed and garbage during the spring and summer reduces the number of visiting bears to almost zero. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a hunter who baits bears to kill them.

 

The second argument is based on the belief that only humans know how to regulate bear populations. Again and again biologists have learned that animals have an ability to regulate their own numbers according to the availability of food resources. Left to their own devices, Black bears would eventually do the same. However, this would take time.

 

Unfortunately it is also true that in Northern Maine the natural foods that bears love – especially the fall beechnut crop which is cyclic to begin with – is disappearing because trees are being harvested too young to produce an abundance of beechnuts. In addition bear territories are disappearing because more and more people are moving to Maine. Black bears are appearing in people’s yards because there is not enough natural food to sustain them.

 

There is one biologist whose studies indicate that there may be a partial solution to this problem. Dr. Lynn Rogers is a bear biologist who has researched Black bears for more than 50 years. During his long and outstanding career he worked as a state biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota using both classic wildlife methodology (which involves sedating and collaring bears and mapping their movements by plane and by placing pins on a map) and later, developing his own “trust based” research methods. The latter allowed him to learn about Black bear behavior – what bears eat, their social structure, vocalizations, the problems they face in the forest, knowledge that cannot be acquired without actually observing individual bears in their natural habitat over an extensive period of time. No state agencies including the MDNR authorize actual bear behavior studies as far as I know.

 

At one point Dr. Rogers became deeply concerned because so many “nuisance” bears were being shot in a nearby campground near his research center. He began an eight year study for the Forest Service to answer the question of whether diversionary feeding, that is placing wild foods in the forest on a regular basis, would keep bears out of trouble. The results were astonishing. With supplementary feeding bear complaints in the area campground were reduced 88 percent.

 

During that same period Lynn began walking with bears into the forest. Not all bears would tolerate his presence but some did; these bears learned to ignore him after he had given them some treats (nuts). Within one year of following them Lynn said he learned more about Black bear behavior than he had during his entire career.

 

In 1996 after Lynn retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources he became one of the residents of Eagle’s Nest Township where people had been hand – feeding bears since 1961. Lynn began a study that focuses on diversionary feeding ‘habituated’ Black bears in this area. He learned that the bears visited the residents who fed the bears and they left those folks that didn’t want a bear to visit their homes alone.

 

In almost 60 years of hand feeding bears there has never been a black bear attack. With supplementary food stations set up in the forest Lynn also discovered that as long as the natural foods were abundant these habituated bears rarely visited these stations because they also preferred the diversity of foods found in the forest. However, during years of natural food shortage these feeding stations helped keep the bears healthy and reduced bear complaints 80 percent.

 

The conclusions are inescapable: It is possible to co -exist peacefully with bears if people choose to so. Equally important is the fact that diversionary or supplementary feeding works to keep bears out of people’s yards especially in times of food scarcity. A fed bear is a healthy bear.

 

In Maine, supplementary feeding might help reduce bear complaints especially in Northern Maine if we chose to implement it, but if this method was adopted by the MDF&W less revenue would come into the state and hunters would have less reason to kill bears, and that is not what hunters, special interest groups like the NRA, and the Maine State Fish and Wildlife agency want.

 

Although I am biased, I am not suggesting that hunting bears in Maine be totally eliminated. It may well be that some hunting has occur to deal with the current bear starvation scenario in Northern Maine. But is it really necessary to hunt bears throughout the rest of the state? For those of us who know and love these iconic wild animals this is an important question.

 

My hope is that Dr. Lynn Roger’s groundbreaking trust based research along with his tireless efforts to educate people about the true nature of bears may one day infiltrate the minds of the general public changing current attitudes towards these animals once and for all.

 

Let’s hope this shift will occur before the Black bear becomes endangered in Maine, one of the few states in which a healthy population still exists.

A Blaze of Fall Color, an Unsung Tree

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I am already missing the stand of staghorn sumac that was growing on the road near my house here in Maine. This time of year I look to the ornamental sumac groves for the first signs of fall. These small trees turn the most exquisite sun yellow, deep orange and flaming red as the season progresses as well as providing the birds with clusters of dark red berries that evening grosbeaks, northern cardinals, ruffed grouse, turkeys, robins, chickadees, woodpeckers, and others feast on throughout the coming winter and spring. Deer, elk, and moose browse on the leaves and twigs. Some butterflies use this food to feed their young and sumacs provide nectar for bees and other beneficial insects while providing great shelter for many more wild creatures.

 

In Maine many consider these small trees a nuisance but elsewhere, as in New Mexico, the plant is sold and grown for its vibrant color. I don’t know how many folks know that this plant is so beneficial to wildlife.

 

The staghorn sumac is just one of many sumacs that are found all over the world, and most look similar. This large shrub has compound leaves, meaning each leaf is composed of several leaflets. Eleven to thirty plus leaflets are arranged in opposite pairs along a stem which droops gracefully towards the ground. The leaves are toothed along the edges, the branches fuzzy. Clumps of small greenish flowers are inconspicuous but form an upright cone or steeple that yields red berries by late summer.

 

Sumacs are not fussy about growing requirements and thrive in open places, hillsides, along the edges of pine forests and country roads all throughout the northeast. There are some species that are well adapted to desert areas because they are particularly drought tolerant. Sumacs control erosion because they have shallow roots. They like to grow in groves to develop complex root systems that support the whole group.

 

One cousin is poisonous. This sumac can easily be identified even if it looks similar to other sumacs because of its penchant for swamps and other wet places. It likes to have its feet in water. This species has a thick trunk and sturdy branches; it produces sprays of drooping smooth white berries in the fall. The plant can cause an unpleasant rash.

 

Humans have enjoyed sumac berries, which have a zingy lemon taste when picked at their peak, typically in late summer or early fall. They are packed with vitamin C. Soak berries in hot or cold water and then strain to make a refreshing drink or a gargle for sore throats. If the drink is too sharp for your taste buds, add a little maple syrup.

 

Other sumac parts have been used in a variety of ways: fresh sumac stems have been used in basket weaving, the tannin-packed leaves and bark have been used for tanning leather and the roots have been made into teas that help stop bleeding. The leaves and berries are used to make dyes.

 

The trees have multiple trunks and pithy, hollow stems. The wood is good for many things, including whittling, making pipe stems and making a natural “tap” for collecting maple syrup from a tree. Unlike poison sumac, ornamental sumac brush can be safely burned, and the smoke can be used by beekeepers to calm the bees during hive maintenance.

 

Ornamental sumacs are highly adaptive, and there are different types for every region of the United States and Canada. Sumacs are also imported from other parts of the world and naturalized in North America. Another advantage is that they appear to be impervious to many plant diseases. Once established they spread easily.

 

It wasn’t until I lived in New Mexico that I thought of them as a garden addition because there are so many varieties growing wild around here. Now I am thinking about planting one around the casita.

She’s a Lover of Bears

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She’s a Lover of Bears.

A poet, a dreamer,

enamored by beaded eyes

black and brown fur,

rotund bellies.

Heartrending cries.

Grunts, moans and huffs –

She’s a Lover of Bears.

 

She knows that

a Universal Language

is spoken by bears.

Each nuance

and gesture deepens

a story that she

longs to share…

She’s a Lover of Bears.

 

She slides

into a secret dimension –

slips through the veil into

thick green forest

where Bears

make their living,

make love,

dig dens,

have cubs,

sleep deeply and well,

live out their

days

in relational

Peace.

She’s a Lover of Bears.

 

(If bears ruled the world

there would be no wars.

No wonder

She’s a Lover

of Bears!)

 

She dreams of them

in between the cracks

of the anguish

she feels

over the haunting

that overcomes

her each fall –

Too many will die

to become a rug

on the wall –

A snarling trophy

for

those

who must kill

for the high,

to feel

their own

life blood pulsing.

 

She yearns for

the sight of raggedy coats,

sleek new coats,

fur dipped in cool waters,

acorned – hazelnut fat bears,

each facial expression

so ancient with knowing…

 

She’s a Lover of Bears

who enter her heart – body –

soul

to be received

like a prayer.

She wants to climb

into those arms

to be held like a child,

Loved like a woman.

 

She’s a Lover of Bears.

 

8/10 /19

 

Working notes:

 

I recently attended a Black Bear Course at the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely Minnesota. Although I have been enamored by, and have studied Black bears for 20 years nothing prepared me for this total immersion into the bear experience.

To visit with so many wild bears in a place where humans choose to co-exist with bears was a revelation. I have never felt such peace being in the company of bears. For the most part these shy intelligent animals are allowed to live out their lives on their own terms (except for the fall hunting season that lasts six weeks, during which time any of these animals can be shot).

 

I was literally catapulted into another dimension, a timeless world in which only the bears, the Founder of the Wildlife Research Center, bear biologist Lynn Rogers, and I existed. Oddly, I experienced the other nine participants through a peculiar kind of haze.

 

Lynn’s groundbreaking trust based research challenges every fear based person and state wildlife agency’s “killer bear” concept in concrete ways, proving that bears and humans can co –exist peaceably.

 

Lynn thoughtfully answered so many of my questions and, of course, generated hundreds more. Although we have corresponded for about 15 years I had never met my mentor and friend until last week.

 

Returning to Maine I am confronted by the reality that our Maine bears are being lured to bait sites as I write these words. A three – month long hunting season will begin before the end of this month.

 

As a ‘Lover of Bears’ I feel this grief on a visceral level, but this year it has been tempered by this extraordinary experience that is open to anyone who wants to learn about these amazing animals.

 

Please visit WWW. Bear.org for information on courses, Lynn’s extensive research papers, daily updates, and to learn about the North American Bear Center.

Mid -Summer Musings: Lady in Waiting

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(a fragment of author’s woodland path network… note the thin ribbon path in the center – the bears make these impossibly narrow path by walking in their own footsteps)

 

Yesterday at the Mid-Summer Turning I took a woodland walk in warm summer rain and then spent a quiet day at home. I visited with a few tadpoles and green frogs that inhabit my vernal pool, sat on the bridge and listened to the flow of water over stone at the waterfall, a place so dear to my heart. I also spent quiet time reflecting…

 

For too long I have been a woman in waiting… waiting for diagnoses for myself and my dog, waiting for direction – I need to make a decision about where I am supposed to live – waiting for intuitive nudges, waiting for calls from loved ones that don’t come, waiting for this dark cloud to lift, praying for the power of the spirit and body of the earth to fill this empty vessel that has become who I am.

 

Negative feelings overwhelm me. The political has become too personal. That I am in spiritual crisis is a given.

 

Too much waiting. Too much time spent in a collective future that appears too dark, too hopeless, too frightening, a future that seems to mirror my own life struggle. I do not sleep at night. I fight to inhabit my body because fear keeps me walking on air, obliterating my ability to experience somatized peace in any form.

 

Yesterday’s meander through my woodland paths (following in the footsteps of the bears), sitting by the water, clearing brush, smelling the sweet scent of pine, taking deep pleasure in the fact that enough rain has fallen to keep grasses, ferns and mosses deep green soothed me. I noted that acorns and beechnuts abound for the bears, graceful chokecherry sprays, grapevines, apples and crabapple branches are heavy with fruit. I really listened to the poignant songs of chickadees and mourning doves feeling deep pleasure. All these simple acts and occurrences earthed me…. I experienced deep summer as a gift.

 

I was grateful to be grateful.

 

I also re-membered… Embodying Nature as a “Lady in Waiting” I could give thanks for the first seed-pods, the abundance of fruits, herbs and flowers, the gifts of the harvest to come. I spent the day in the present and experienced deep abiding peace.

 

Grace.

 

A troubling conversation ended the day catapulting me back into the dismal future, resurrecting despair, negative thinking, hopelessness – once again I found myself living in a place I can no longer afford to inhabit for my own sanity…

 

Disturbed sleep did not obliterate the dream I had.

 

I am with Hope my little Chihuahua who is also my long dead dog Rinkie (who has since her death always acted as a Voice from the Beyond.) I watch Hope as she runs down towards an underground chamber or tunnel dug into the earth below ground level. I call out to her but she is disappearing into the tunnel and I am awash in fear…

 

Death is stalking me.

 

I don’t want to remember the dream but when I re –read my mid summer ritual this morning I see the words I have written: I am praying for the power of the spirit and body of the earth to fill this empty vessel I have become.

 

Perhaps my dogs are the guides I need.