As I hopped out of my car to take a short hike up Cache Valley’s Dry Canyon Trail I was surprised to see the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources had posted a picture of a black bear. “Bear Country,” it said. “Store food safely and keep campsites clean.” I’ve never seen a black bear in Utah but a quick check of the DNR website confirmed that as of last count, July of last year, there were 4,000 black bears in Utah. In winter the bears stay out of site. But by May they are coming out of hibernation looking for food and very hungry.
Now I’ve always envied the bears ability to go to sleep fat in the fall and wake up thin in the spring. For me this would be the ultimate diet plan. But on further investigation I found that hibernating bears are not simply sleeping. They do slow down. The heart drops from 50 beats a minute to less than ten. Its breathing slows to once every 45 seconds. The body temperature drops almost ten degrees. The bears do not get up at night to pee. Amazingly, the bear does not eat, drink, urinate or defecate for months.
People who study bears tell us that keeping this hibernating metabolism going takes 4,000 calories a day. So having burned through their fat reserve the bear comes out of hibernation in the spring very Interested in food. The problem occurs when bears discover human food because once having tasted it they want more.
My daughter once told me about a camping trip she had taken in the Wind Rivers where a bear came into their campsite at midnight. She and her friends jumped out of their tents and saw the bear climb the tree where they had hung their food. For four hours the bear worked at getting that food. Finally, the tree branch broke and the food bag crashed to the ground. The bear ate their bagels, every single chocolate covered espresso bean, everything except the jalapeno crème cheese.
I took one last look at the poster at the trailhead. The small print said, “Learn to live with bears.” I thought some people learned more slowly than others. I remembered a trip I had taken to Yellowstone National Park and reassured my out of town guest that the National Park Service had solved the problem with bears. To my chagrin when we were checking in the camp host told us that they were having trouble with the bears. “It’s toothpaste,” the lady said, “They like the sweet taste of toothpaste.” I wasn’t worried until the next morning when my guest confessed she had remembered her toothpaste was still in her jacket inside the tent. “Ah, let the bear make its choice,” she sighed as she drifted off to sleep. No bear came into the campsite that night.
Sometimes you just get lucky.
This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.
Photos: Bear Country Sign: Courtesy Mary Heers, Photographer
Sitting Bear: Courtesy US FWS, Mike Bender, Photographer
Climbing Bear: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Maslowski, Photographer
Audio: Friend Weller and technical engineers J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin
Text: Mary Heers
Larese-Casanova, Mark, Blackbears, Wild About Utah, 23 June 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/blackbears/
Leavitt, Shauna, Orphaned Bear Cub Rehabilitation, Wild About Utah, 14 August 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/orphaned-bear-cub-rehabilitation/
Greene, Jack, Bears, Wild About Utah, 22 October 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/bears/
Burt, W. H. and R. P. Grossenheider. 1980. A field guide to the mammals. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 289 pp. https://www.amazon.com/Mammals-Peterson-Guides-William-1990-04-30/dp/B01K0R5D3G
Safety in Bear Country http://wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/learn-more/bear-safety.html
Black Bear, Ursus americanus, Utah Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Utah, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=ursus%20americanus
Venefica, Avia Native American Bear Meaning, Whats Your Sign, https://www.whats-your-sign.com/native-american-bear-meaning.html
Welker, Glenn, Native American Bear Stories, Indigenous People, last updated 06/11/2016, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/bear.htm
Gates, Chuck, The bear truth: Utah’s black bears pose little danger to humans, Deseret News, Oct 15, 2009, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/705336743/The-bear-truth-Utahs-black-bears-pose-little-danger-to-humans.html
Black Bear – Ursus americanus, Utah Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?Species=Ursus%20americanus
Black Bear, Ursus americanus, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=ursuamer