Bears know that the apples are ready…

It’s time to pick apples – at least according to the local wildlife. This weekend, we happened upon an adult black bear and her cubs munching on the apples down by the Trego railroad crossing in the wee morning hours.

Bears aren’t too picky about ripeness. Like many mammals, they’re attracted to the smell of fermentation – (the smell indicates a fruit has the highest calorie content it’s going to get). As apples get ripe (and then overripe) they become even better bear attractants.

Can bears become inebriated? Certainly! Glacier Park had a number of incidents back in the 80’s. Several railroad spills released thousands of tons of barley and corn. Buried by cleanup efforts, much of the grain fermented anaerobically, producing high volumes of alcohol. Upon emerging in the spring, bears promptly dug up the fermented mash, wish predictable consequences.

While unattended grain can ferment well, fruit left to its own devices rarely produces enough alcohol to have an effect on large mammals. Bears may be in your apple trees in the near future, but at least you won’t have to worry about them being drunk and disorderly. Not from that, anyway.


My first days in Trego

This past week held the anniversary of my moving up to Trego to join my wife, Sam… As such, it also held the anniversary of my meeting the best firearm evangelists I’ve yet encountered.

The bears.

The two delinquent bruins, about a month before I moved up to Trego.
Note the radio collar on the left bear – both have them.

A year ago, I wrapped up my Masters Degree project, describing several new species of Kentucky cave beetles, and began the long drive out to Trego, MT. I believe it was the evening of my second day here in Montana that they introduced themselves…

Just as Sam and I were settling in for the evening, we received a panicked phone call from her mother. She was sufficiently agitated for me to hear her some distance from the phone… As it turned out, Sam’s father, Mike, had stepped out onto the porch to shout at couple of gangly young grizzlies, encourage them to get a bit further from his house. But he had a little overweight Pomeranian who had other ideas – she sprinted out the door past him, intent on getting between him and the bears. Despite the size disparity, she startled those bears and made them run… And, as they were running, she pursued them, a good 300-some feet.

Mike couldn’t let her be alone out there with them, so he ducked back inside, grabbed some slippers & the nearest firearm, and headed out after his wee beastie. It’s at this point in time that Sam’s mother called. Sam hurriedly grabbed the keys and produced a couple of guns. She passed me one which I straightaway handed back to her.

At this point in my life, I’d never fired a gun before, and I’m somebody who believes in doing things well. I thought I’d have better combat utility with a walking stick, and took a promising one.

So, off the two of us flew, leaving our own irate wee beastie behind us. Sam at the wheel, bouncing the truck down the old road to her folks. As we arrived the two young delinquent grizzlies were reconsidering their flight from a certain overweight Pomeranian… but they backed off as we raced up in the truck.

Sam passed me her gun, and bailed out to catch the overweight Pomeranian (who refused to get behind Sam’s father), and we retreated back to her folks’ house. While Mike’s seven rounds of 22 weren’t great comfort with two bears at close range… it was a sight better than my walking stick.

The next day we could see the bears from our house, as they enjoyed a neighbor’s water feature. It took about a week for Fish & Game to trap them, and all the while I was waking up to nightmares of bear home invasion. As soon as they were captured and removed from the area, I began learning to shoot. One could scarce ask for better motivation, and I practiced devoutly.

Shortly after our first sighting of grizzlies this year, I had another dream about them staging a home invasion. This time, I was armed, and the dream ended much better for us. While I’d hate to have to shoot one, it’s nice to be capable of doing so, if need be.


Bear Hibernation Part III

Black bear dens in northwest Montana come in a variety of types. The most common den consists of where a large tree toppled over years ago, bringing up a large amount of soil with the roots. Black bears will hollow out an area under the fallen tree where the trunk meets the roots. Usually, these cavities are not that much larger than the bear itself. There may or may not be nesting material, which usually consists of rotted wood, chewed off bushes, or conifer branches. I found a couple of dens in the Yaak where bears had spent considerable time stripping adjacent cedar trees of their bark to make some very cozy nests.

While working in the Yaak on my M.S. Degree, it was not uncommon to find where black bears used large, old cedars for denning purposes. These dens could either be in the base of a hollowed-out tree, or some considerable distance up the tree. One den that I found was 70-80’ above the ground! Old cedars typically will have several tops and with a hollow interior. If one of the tops breaks away, it provides bears access to the hollow interior. One den tree I found was a “condominium”, with one den at the base of the tree and a second 20-30’ above ground. Another den was inside a large, old cedar that had snapped off completely about 15-20’ above ground and was similar to a chimney. We were able to climb up and look down upon the denning female below. She apparently was satisfied with dealing with falling snow from above, as long as she was protected from the wind and predators on all sides.

Other black bear dens I have seen were in small caves, rock crevices, hollow logs, slash piles and rock overhangs. Probably the most unique den I have ever seen, was where a bear denned in an abandoned wolf den! Unfortunately for the bear, the wolves also returned to den nearby. As soon as the wolves left in early July, we hurried to the site to determine the bear’s fate. Bear hair and bones were found about 100 yards away, clearly indicating the outcome.

While black bear dens are almost always found at low to mid elevations, grizzly dens are almost always found on a steep, remote slope above 6,000’. Grizzlies have long claws that they use for digging, and they are quite adept at digging dens straight into a mountainside that might be 8’ or more from the den entrance to the back of the chamber. They may or may not dig under a tree or large rock that helps to stabilize the material above them. Dens might be in forested areas, or right out in the open. Their dens are almost always lined with beargrass, which is probably how this plant got its name. They also like to add the chewed off branches of Subalpine Fir and Menzesia, a high elevation shrub that gives their beds some additional “springiness”.

Twice I have seen where grizzlies denned in limestone caves. In both instances, a large amount of “soil” derived from decomposed organic material from earlier winter beds indicated the caves had likely been used by grizzlies for centuries.

One of the more unique examples of a grizzly bear denning, didn’t involve a den at all. About 5 years ago we had an instrumented female grizzly that decided to den in the upper Pinkham Creek area. Twice during the winter, the location was pinpointed from the air. When we went to the site to get an idea of what she had used, all we found was a large nest of beargrass against a fallen log. We are unsure if she dug into an existing snowdrift like a polar bear, or simply let the snow fall on her like an Eskimo’s sled dog, with her body heat eventually forming a cavity. Under what seems like unbelievable conditions, she was also able to successfully produce 2 cubs!


Bear Hibernation (Part I)

People are fascinated by bears for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their ability to hibernate. Imagine an animal much like people in many ways, being able to crawl into a den for 5-6 months and remain there, without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating, the entire time. As if that wasn’t enough, females give birth to their young in January and nurse and care for them until they eventually leave the den in April or May.

I began working on bears in 1976 in the North Fork of the Flathead under the guidance of Dr. Charles Jonkel and the Border Grizzly Project. In the 1980’s, I did my Master’s Degree on the effects of hunting on black bears in the Yaak. Part of my research involved entering the dens of hibernating black bears, tranquilizing them, and replacing their aging radio collars with fresh ones and gathering biological data. It was an aspect of my life I will never forget.

For starters, when it comes to hibernation, it is important to first understand bear reproduction. Bears exhibit an interesting reproductive strategy called “delayed implantation”. Breeding occurs from late May to early July. The fertilized eggs of a female will cleave several times and form a blastocyst, but unlike most other mammals, the blastocyst remains free-floating rather than implanting in the wall of the uterus and developing further. The blastocysts remain free-floating until the female bear enters the den in the fall, usually late September or early October. At that time, the female bear’s body somehow senses if she has acquired sufficient fat reserves to not only sustain the mother for 6 months, but also allow the young to develop and then nurse them after they are born. If it has been a good year with lots of berries and the female has acquired a thick layer of fat, the blastocysts will then implant in the uterus and development begins. On the other hand, if it has been a poor berry year and an insufficient amount of fat has been accrued to produce and nurse her young while in the den, the blastocysts are simply resorbed by the female or expelled. This unique reproductive mechanism saves the female from wasting a lot of energy needlessly that might also jeopardize her life.

Hibernation itself is a physiological term that involves much more than just sleeping. Breathing and heart rates slow considerably and body temperatures drop 10-12 degrees F. In “true” hibernators like chipmunks and ground squirrels, heart rates may drop to only a few beats per minute and body temperatures may approach freezing. They are very stiff and comatose and unable to defend themselves, if necessary. Also, they must arouse periodically to urinate and defecate. Because the heart rates and body temperatures of bears drop only moderately, many biologists assert that bears are not true hibernators. However, because they can give birth in the den and defend themselves if necessary, all without eating and drinking for 5-6 months, other biologists refer to them as the “ultimate” hibernator!

-Tim Thier


An Obit that Brought Good Memories

I knew I would one day read Freddie’s obit.  Few are granted long-term cancer survival.  Each of us went on with our own lives after high school – but I remember Jay Penney dragging me to a restaurant in Kalispell.  Jay was one of those half-generation older friends and coworkers who help you grow into a capable adult.  That day, because he was the type of man who shared friends, he had decided that Freddie and I needed to meet.  She knew our introduction was coming, and briefly kept a straight face – finally explaining to him that we had known each other from grade school as she poured coffee.  I’ve known two tremendously competent women who earned their livings as waitresses – and Freddie’s obit brought back good memories of Flo as well.

I don’t know how she convinced me that it was a good idea to head up Deep Creek to observe a beaver dam baptism.  I do  know that when our surreptitious observation failed, she was in the center seat of the pickup, encouraging more speed as I drove away.  My junior year, I think.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

We met at Trego grade school.  Christened Fredricka Louise Osler, she referred to her formal name as “Freddie and contraption.”  I’ve always felt that, had Bobby enlisted her help instead of grabbing the jump rope and running, we would have succeeded in capturing the bear cub and moving it into the kitchen.  Probably just as well we failed.

I recall that Freddie was walking along the highway with Alvin Rongholt when he was hit by a vehicle and died.  My memory of Alvin is of a kid who showed me his parody of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” that morning, who left only an out-of-focus photo in the school yearbook.  I guess he also left me an appreciation for parodies of Sergeant Sadler’s song, and a wish that people’s lives be remembered.

Obituaries that bring good memories are rare.  Thanks for the memories.

Community, Wildlife

I carry a gun

I carry a gun when I go for walks.  Occasionally I see an article about carrying an everyday pistol – yet these folks might as well be in a different world.  I don’t need the pistol to protect myself – I have two small dogs that are at some level of risk when we run across coyote or cougar.  Come to think of it, the last encounter was when Kiki decided to protect me from 2 grizzlies – they ran for about 80 yards, and then one must have realized that there wasn’t much dignity in 2 grizzlies being chased by a 7-year-old Pomeranian. 

The nice lady who handles problem bears for FWAP explained the advantages of bear spray to me.  I even kind of agree that my aging, overweight Pomeranian has an awesome ability to make a stressful grizzly encounter worse.  That said, bear spray is short range – 7 to 10 yards sticks in my mind.  My little companions can range 50 yards from me, and they have already encountered coyotes, a cougar, and an eagle that regarded them as prey.  I’ve had a wolf kill a fawn within 150 yards of the house.  They’ve all been beyond the range of bear spray, and they have all backed off at my confident approach.  Still, at 71, that confidence is enhanced by the pistol on my hip.

Robert Ruark penned the phrase, “Use enough gun.”  I believe – but it is inconvenient to carry enough gun for a pair of grizzlies everywhere I walk . . . and there are only a few moments of my life spent in grizzly encounters.  Coyotes are more common, as are cats – and over a half-century ago, Paul Totten explained that a 22 is adequate for cougar.  Even a 45 feels small when you’re looking at the real bear, and politely asking, “Please Mr. Bear, you go your way and I’ll go mine.  Neither one of us wants trouble, OK?”  So far the conversation has been effective every time.

So I carry a small, inadequate HK4.  It can protect my small dogs from the common predators, and, if worse comes down to worst, I think I’d feel more competent concentrating on my sights and trigger than praying. 

Community, Wildlife

Game Camera Fails

At 6 am, Mike was out collecting firewood from the stack to start the days fire. Kiki, the older, chubby white Pomeranian was out with him.  Kiki positioned herself off the back steps and started trying to raise the dead with her bark. With enough firewood in hand, Mike called Kiki to the house.  Remarkably, she came when called.  Mike noted that some critter was out there but thought a follow up investigation was better left until daylight.

Later that day, we received a call. “Looks like a grizzly walked down your driveway” the caller reported. We had received 1 ½ inches of snow during the night.  “How’d they know it was a grizzly?” I wondered. Mike replied the prints probably had claws. 

Bear tracks wider than a size 12 insulated boot but not as long as the boot

Wandering down the driveway with the dogs, we found the tracks in the fresh snow.  Holy **** ! That’s a big bear. We followed the tracks up and down the driveway. The bear had lumbered by all 3 game cams.  I pulled the SD cards from the cameras to look for pictures of a big bear.  The Stealth camera did not have pictures of a bear despite the bear slowly walking by the camera. The Stealth camera’s record remained unbroken. (Game Cam 2 link) The Herter’s camera missed the bear.  It had daylight photos of cars and deer but no nighttime photos.  Time to change the batteries.  Only the Cabela’s camera had a not very good picture of the big, fat, healthy grizzly.

The grizzly that left the bear tracks on the driveway at 5:53 am

This grizzly approached the driveway through the woods, lumbered onto the driveway and exited onto Fortine Creek Road before making its way back to the creek bottom. From the time stamp, by the time Kiki was reporting on it at volume the bear was probably on the road.  Our neighbor reported that the bear had been leaving signs in the lower pastures that bordered the creek for several weeks.   Seems we might have a couple more weeks of bears around the place. 

Great pictures of game cameras are frequently a matter of luck.  We have a “good enough” picture to confirm the type and relative size of the bear.  Two of of the cameras completely missed the bear. Even the “best” camera had 1 poor picture but that time stamp sure caught our attention.

Update: A day later with the fresh snow and more reports of tracks, we again went hunting.  This time we found 2 sets of tracks. One large set and a smaller set of tracks that sometimes were adjacent to the larger tracks and sometimes they overlapped the larger tracks. We followed the tracks into the woods to find a deposit from the smaller bear.  Lots of hair in that deposit;  the bears appear to be eating well. Again the bears had walked by 2 game cameras.  Not 1 picture of either bear on any camera.  There are multiple reports of bear tracks in the neighborhood. The bears appear to be making a large loose loop around the Trego school.


Patches' Pieces, Wildlife

The Not So Perfect Game Camera

Now days, I take more wildlife photos with my game camera than with my digital camera. At 4 am on a cold wintry morning my game camera is awake, I am not. What is the perfect game camera?  The camera that takes the photos you want or need. It is the camera that is reliable, consistent, and inexpensive. Do you want a camera for surveillance with the occasional acceptable wildlife photo to show friends?  Or do you want great photos the majority of the time for wildlife photography? Does the camera record video? If so, for how long?

Since all roads lead to Rome, I have a game camera on my driveway. I use my camera for surveillance. I have seen feral cats, stray dogs, foxes, coyotes, skunks, racoons, turkeys, deer, mountain lions, and bears.  Also included would be bicycles, UPS trucks, and errant hunters.

Grizzly Bears! The pictures on the game camera alerted us to the possibility they were in the neighborhood. These ladies walked down the driveway before they walked into the yard.

Since bears are on the move and are in the general area, I am checking my camera daily for the presence of bears.  Our lack of fruit has resulted in few bear sightings this fall. Trophy hunters are looking for the presence of antlers on deer. We have no regular sightings of antlers. A coyote has been hunting in the area.  A feral cat carried a squirrel past the camera. Does are ever present.

A beautiful coyote poses for the camera.

While my old single lens reflex camera was serviceable for over 20 years, the life of a game camera is short.  Game cameras are expected to perform in all types of weather. Amazingly they do take pictures in temperatures from 20 below to 100 degrees above and in rain or snow. Wildlife have damaged more of my cameras than adverse weather.  A plastic camera with an electronic circuit board is no match for a careless deer.

A coyote stops  on the driveway at night. Nighttime photos are difficult. Common is the lack of clear detail.