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A Bear on the Porch

Inside Outside Magazine

A Bear on the Porch

July/August 2002 - By David Petersen

Dear Dave-

Spoke with my buddy Joe this morn via radio. He is the one I told you about that got treed by a big grizzly a few years back, in a straggly black spruce with Mr. Griz able to reach up and swipe at his boots (which were literally clawed off). Anyway, last night he's in his small cabin way out in the bush and heading out to take a leak, but there is a small window in the door and before he opens it he spies a big black bear right there on the porch only a few feet from the door. Normally, he leaves his rifle outside on the porch, as do I, but for some reason he'd brought the aught-six inside the cabin earlier. He screams and hollers at the bear through the door-window, but the bear only looks at the door and barrels right for it and slams against it trying to get in. Jesus Christ! He's holding the door closed, the boar is trying to bully his way in, he grabs the rifle, slams a round in the chamber and holds the barrel against the door and BLAM! One shot, through the wood planks of the door and into the bear?s skull. Poor guy, has had more bear incidents out there and doesn't even eat bear meat. Told him he might as well eat the flesh as they seem to be after him anyway but he says he'd rather not "tempt" any more bears in his direction by eating them, haha.

(letter from an Alaska bush-rat friend)

"David, there?s a bear at the door. Should we invite him in?"

It?s the third week of July and hot. I?m kicked-back in my chair reading a book when Caroline, who is sitting next to me, sounds her tongue-in-cheek alarm. I am facing the door in question, and just a few feet away. Otis the Lab is snoozing on the floor between the door and me and in the instant it takes me to digest what Caroline has said and look up from my book and register, "By golly, there is a bear at the door!" Otis is up and tail wagging, looking at me for instruction: "What do you want me to do about this, Dad?"

The bear, separated from my family only by a flimsy screen door, has long, brown, disheveled fur and is not large, under a hundred pounds I?d guess; a two-year old, probably, just recently booted out on his own. But before I can say or do anything, Otis is at the door. Ursid and canid touch noses through the screen. Both animals sneeze in shock and leap back. The little bear bounds off the porch and scampers away, disappearing into a jungle of oak brush on the hillside above.

Exciting, you bet. But hardly extraordinary hereabouts in recent dry years, summer through fall, when hungry bruins come down from the mountains into the valleys, venturing right in amongst us flat-faced bears in a desperate search for food. And in their searching, several times each summer, somewhere hereabouts, bears walk right into houses, entering through doors or windows left open (a screen means little to a bear), following their noses upstream to the promise of a meal. If no one is home to complicate matters, the intruder typically eats everything edible within reach, often opening refrigerator doors and devouring the contents-bears particularly love beer. Soon as the chow is gone, so is the bear, the damage generally confined to the pantry area. But should a bear be surprised inside a house by a human or dog, the destruction that ensues as the panicked beast tries to find or fashion a way out makes the image of a bull in a china shop seem benign.

Black bears are by nature shy animals. Like C and me, they much prefer the peace and solitude of the woods over the headachy cacophony of humanized areas. Likewise, bears are generally content with the wide variety of wild foods they?ve evolved to eat; both blacks and grizzlies are omnivorous and overwhelmingly vegetarian, though they do love meat when they can get it. (I kid you not, as I scribble these words on a Sunday morning, Caroline has just returned from a walk and reports finding the remains-head, ribs and lower legs-of an infant elk calf that was killed and eaten by a bear only last night, a quarter of a mile up the mountain from here. It?s the second such kill she?s found in the last two weeks.)

Trouble is, millions of cattle and sheep are out there in the western "wilds" each summer as well, devouring grasses, sedges, forbs and other bear (and elk and deer, etc.) chow as fast as they can, leaving tons of gooey crap, millions of flies and piss-fouled water in their wake. Some years in some areas, there simply isn?t enough to go around for all those hungry mouths. Moreover, in recent years this unnatural diminution of wild foods has been compounded by such natural catastrophes as drought and late spring frosts that nip the production of chokecherries, June (aka service) berries and acorns-the three most critically important pre-denning bear foods-literally in the bud.

And so it is that starving bears have little choice but to search far and wide, uphill and down, in wild areas and tame, in order to survive. And that search, as summer progresses toward fall, inevitably leads some bruins into rural subdivisions, into the yards, gardens and orchards of rural homes and, increasingly it seems, into residential neighbors in small mountain towns such as my Durango, where garbage cans, bird feeders, pet food, small edible pets and fruit trees abound.

The important point to note here is that so-called "garbage" and "problem" bears are by nature and choice neither. It?s never a bear?s preference to be right in among us, getting harried and harassed at every turn. Rather, it?s an unfortunate fate forced upon them both by natural and manmade diminishment of their habitat and native foods and the irresistible baits we make so readily available, even when we should know better and care a little more.

For our part, Caroline and I are more than happy to keep Otis?s chow and the small amount of garbage we generate inside; to use pulleys and wire to hang the birdseed and hummingbird feeders beyond the biggest bear?s reach; to let the propane grill burn hot for a few minutes after cooking, in order to reduce yummy grease and meat scraps to scentless ash, and then store it in a sturdy shed when we know bears are around

Thus, when we do see a bear in the yard, or on the porch, we know it?s only a passerby, en route to richer pickings. Finding nothing here to eat, it has neither reason nor time to return. So we rarely see the same bear twice.

Additional bear attractants include goats and other "pet" livestock kept penned or tied out in rural yards so that escape is impossible, compost piles containing food scraps and, incredibly, intentional feeding of bears. And more, all of it rude, stupid, potentially dangerous for people (especially children) and ultimately lethal to starving bears that become so easily habituated to human foods. And it takes just one care-less slob per neighborhood to cause bear problems for everyone. Thus, to keep peace in the valley, it?s not enough to exercise commonsense bear-season precautions yourself; you must convince your neighbors to do the same.

Here in my subdivision, a few miles north of Durango, I?ve posted "Living with wildlife in bear country" signs (provided free by the Colorado Division of Wildlife) in several key locations. Each of these signs lists the basics of bear avoidance at home, in camp and on the trail. And most regional locals have by now seen the "Garbage kills bears" bumper stickers (also free from CDOW) that decorate thousands of vehicles in Colorado and bordering states. Yet, problem people continue to help create, perpetuate and ultimately kill problem bears.

And so it is that every time we see a bear in or near a subdivision or town, we know it?s only a matter of time, and rarely long, before someone shoots the "marauding animal," claiming it "had" to be done in defense of self or property. The scruffy little fellow who touched noses with my dog through the screen door survived less than a week after our brief encounter, shot by a trashy, trigger-happy neighbor.

Considering the very nasty way this record-breaking drought year is shaping up so far, we could be looking at the worst "problem bear" summer ever. In hopes of making it all a little easier on everyone, bears included, I recently pestered the West?s leading black bear expert, my hunting buddy Tom Beck, for information and advice. Take or leave it; you, your neighbors and the bears will have to live with the results.

David Petersen: Tom, in addition to suffering near-record heat in late May and early June, this is the worst regional drought in more than a century. Will these conditions have a negative effect on the availability of natural bear foods?

Tom Beck: The drought and early heat have combined to keep a lot of plants from even breaking dormancy this year. Others came up but didn?t bother to bloom. And much of what did green up and flower did so early. Early bloom means early seeding. And once a plant has seeded, it loses most of its nutritional value, thus its attraction, to bears and other foraging wildlife. Bears will try to compensate by going higher, where the green-up comes later. But if the drought continues, by July the young succulent greens that bears depend on for spring and summer food will be gone from everywhere but a few isolated north-facing slopes. That?s when they?ll start back down and our problems will begin. Normally, this happens in mid-August, coinciding with the onset of berry and acorn production at lower altitudes. But this year, unless we get some good rains by early July, I predict we?ll have bears among us early.

Dave: And when they come back down, they will --?

Tom: They?ll head straight for the places where they?ve found food in the past. A bear?s foraging strategy is based on eating a little here, a little there, moving constantly over a wide area in order to learn the locations of several different "honey holes." That way, if one area or plant type fails, they know where to find others. This same strategy, based on a bear?s phenomenal memory, is applied to garbage and other sources of human-provided food. Once a bear finds garbage or other human-related food in a certain place, he?ll check that place time and again for as long as he lives. And if it?s a female, she?ll pass that knowledge along to her cubs. Bears need highly digestible, high-nutrient foods, and that?s what we put in garbage cans and dumpsters and compost piles.

Dave: Since we haven?t had any late freezes so far, and assuming we don?t, can we also assume that berry and acorn production will be on schedule and abundant, or will the drought and heat have a negative affect on these as well?

Tom: With our local Gambel?s oak, drought promotes the production of more male than female flowers during bloom. And male flowers don?t make acorns. It?s still a bit early to know how acorn development will go, but if it?s bad, then we just have to hope for a good berry crop. And assuming we don?t get a killing freeze, the key to berry production will be midsummer rain.

Dave: What Caroline and I are seeing on our daily hikes is a fairly sickly flowering of both chokecherries and June berries. Especially the Junes, which have fewer and smaller flowers that seem to be wilting and dying faster than usual.

Tom: If you don?t have good flowering, you won?t have good berries. And without rain by early July, the few serviceberries we do get will shrivel on the bush without producing fruit. Chokecherry tends to grow in moister areas and bloom later, so we have a better chance with those.

Dave: Looking at the best possible outcome, if we don?t get a freak late freeze and the July rains do come on schedule and in sufficient quantity, we could have decent berry and acorn production, meaning this won?t be any worse a bear summer than usual?

Tom: Right.

Dave: But failing such good fortune, you think we can expect bears to start prowling human-inhabited areas this year in July.

Tom: Right. At least here on the West Slope of the San Juans. In other areas, such as east of the Continental Divide around Trinidad, La Veta and Walsenburg, where the spring and summer bear habitat isn?t as good as here, trouble could start even earlier. No matter where you live in bear country, you need to start cleaning up your act right now, because what you want most is to deny bears that first human food reward of the summer. If people in towns and subdivisions would make just one compromise-keep their garbage secured indoors, or in a bear-proof metal container, and wait to put it out on the curbside or in the dumpster until after daylight each collection morning during bear season-that alone would eliminate a majority of our bear problems. But as you?ve said, it takes only one bad apple per neighborhood to keep bears coming around.

Dave: Say you come home and find a bear in your house or garage, what to do?

Tom: Never approach or corner a bear, and give it a way to escape. I keep a big rock or cinderblock sitting outside next to all of my doors, so that if I find a bear inside I can block the door open as I back away. That done, go to the other end of the building and start making noise so that the bear realizes he?s been caught and will, can, should clear out.

Dave: And a bear in your yard?

Tom: As you recently experienced with the bear on your cabin porch that ran away after touching noses with Otis, all it usually takes to get rid of a yard bear is to let it know it?s not alone. Again, make noise. Yell and bang pans, and if the bear doesn?t leave call for professional help. If you can safely reach a vehicle, you can drive toward the bear and honk the horn. But again, prevention is easier, safer and far more effective than trying to get rid of a bear that has already found food on your property or in your neighborhood.

Dave: What about hot pepper "bear spray," which most regional sporting good store now sell? It?s expensive. Is it worth the price?

Tom: It?s worth every penny if you have it when you need it! It?s a good deterrent at close range. But it doesn?t work like mosquito repellent; you can?t keep bears away by dousing your garbage cans with the stuff. But sprayed directly into a bear?s face-eyes, nose and mouth-at close range, it should stop and disorient the animal long enough for you to get the hell out of there. It seems to be virtually bulletproof on grizzlies. And it works great the first time on black bears. But my research suggests it doesn?t always always work quite so well on black bears with subsequent applications-so get out while you can, and don?t let it give you the false security to do something stupid, like approach a cornered bear. And finally, keep in mind the old wisdom about never pissing into the wind!

Dave: What should and shouldn?t people do if they?re walking in the woods and encounter a bear uncomfortably close?

Tom: If you can back away without the bear knowing you were ever there, do it. Otherwise, make sure the animal knows precisely what and where you are. Don?t scream or surprise it, just talk to it in a normal tone of voice while slowly backing away. Don?t run or climb a tree, since a black bear can do both of those things a lot better than you can and you risk provoking its instinctive chase response. Look around to determine the easiest way for the bear to escape, and don?t block that route. Almost always, the bear will run away.

If a bear approaches and you have a pack on, take it off and throw it on the ground in front of you to distract the animal while you make your getaway. Black bears, like grizzlies, make bluff charges, often coming to within a few feet before stopping. Keep your wits. Stay on your feet. Try to look big. If you have small children with you, pick them up in your arms. Keep talking and backing away.

If a bluff charge becomes an attack, you?ll wish you?d thought ahead and picked up a big limb, a big rock or something else to use as a weapon. If you have bear spray, get it out and remove the safety. Even if you have nothing but your fists and fingers, fight back. Hit the animal hard on the nose. Try to jam a finger or stick or knife in its eye. Most often, people who fight back survive. Do not play dead with a black bear. Predatory black bears are exceedingly rare and almost always big, wilderness males who?ve never seen a human. The one your friend wrote about, that tried to break into the bush cabin and got shot, fits that description.

Finally it helps to understand "bear talk." A predatory bear, one that views you as prey, will make no sound at all. A standing bear is not an aggressive bear, but is merely trying to gain a bit of elevation in order to see and scent you better. Teeth-popping, whoofing and other scary-sounding bear vocalizations merely suggest that the animal feels threatened. Backing away and talking calmly should help relieve its fears and quiet it down.

Dave: What about camping safety in bear country?

Tom: Foremost is odor control. Bears have the best noses in the West. Keep all food and other smelly stuff secured when not in use: in the trunk of your car, in a bear-proof container or suspended from a tree limb above and beyond a bear?s reach and a ways downwind of camp. Never eat or bring food inside a tent, and don?t go to bed wearing fishy smelling cloths, coconut oil lotion or anything else that makes you smell edible. And always sleep in a tent if you?re backpacking. Incredible as it sounds, that thin nylon shield is often enough to stop a bear, grizzly or black, from attacking. When you?re away from camp, keep your tent zipped shut so that a bear won?t stroll in. An open tent door is an invitation to investigate.

Dave: To keep from scaring people to death with all of this, I?d conclude by reiterating that wild, as opposed to human-habituated, black bears are among the shiest animals in the woods and aren?t lurking behind every bush waiting for a hiker to stumble by for lunch. You?ve handled hundreds of bears and never had one come after you. I enjoy several close bear encounters every September while bowhunting for elk, and if they know I?m there, even sows with cubs always run away. Seems to me that if we gave bears half the respect they give us, "problem" bears would become largely a thing of the past.

Tom: Yup.

Dave: Any final words of wisdom?

Tom: Pray for rain!

As anyone who hasn?t been living in a cave on Guam for the past month and more surely knows, the Southwest?s ongoing drought, by mid-June, had transmogrified into a raging holocaust. My precious backdoor mountain forest is utterly gone, and gone with it, for now, the wildlife, including bears. My family were among hundreds temporarily evacuated and, upon returning home, advised by "the authorities" to dump the spoiled contents of our freezers and refrigerators outside, "for the animals." This advice, of course, goes glaringly against all that Tom Beck and I have just detailed in the interview above, the logic of "the authorities" being that most large mammals have fled the burned areas and the freezer spoils will go mostly to birds. I disagree. All burns form a mosaic of scorched and skipped areas, large and small. With the fires still roaring as I write, deer and elk and bears already are moving through blackened areas, from one green refuge to another. And the rules haven?t changed one bit: If a bear finds food in your yard this year, it will return next year and the next. Although it?s probably all a done deal by now, I go on record as saying "dump your freezers outside for the animals" is uninformed and unfortunate advice. In all else throughout this massive tragedy, so far as I know, the advice of "the authorities" has been solid and sound. -D.P.

Durango area writer, woodsman and notorious crank David Petersen is the author of thirteen books, most of which include some scary bear-encounter stories. The scariest and beariest of all is Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado? (Johnson Books).

Tom Beck, recently retired after twenty-six years as a research biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, will be in Durango on the evening of August 8 (Noble Hall, room 120, Fort Lewis College, 7 p.m.) to give a public slide show and talk on living peaceably with bears.

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