A tale from bear country
It was 1:30 Sunday morning when Boz, my six-year-old Rottweiler, woke me up from a deep sleep. He was running from the front of the house to the back barking and growling. Something wasn’t right.
Still in a daze, I checked the deadbolt on the backdoor and then headed to the entry in the front of the house where the dog food is stored. That door was locked, too.
Upstairs I heard some rummaging, but nothing unlike the stir the cat can cause when he wrestles to get a twitching mouse out of a trap. I turned to walk upstairs, prepared to yell at the cat, throw out the mouse and go back to bed.
Cursing under my breath, I climbed the stairs. The light went on and I looked into the kitchen. Standing in our pantry, perusing her culinary choices was a bear, and it just shot me a glance that said, “Leave, huh? Make me.” The cat was still sleeping on the back of the couch.
“Holy Sh*t!” I backpedaled down the stairs and got the dogs corralled in the bedroom. Every yell or bang on the wall would only break the bear’s focus for a moment and then it went on. Clanging stainless steel dog food bowls didn’t faze her. I was glad my wife and three-year-old son were gone for the night.
Minutes passed like hours as she went from pantry to cupboard to fridge.
The front door was open and I assumed the door upstairs was open as well. She should have no problem finding an exit when she wanted, I thought. But why leave? I climbed the stairs again, this time with a make-up mirror in hand.
Using the mirror to look around the corner, I clanged the bowls and yelled again. She only paused to note my proximity and then went on munching, pulling boxes of pasta now from the shelves of a cupboard and mouthing the dry noodles.
Then she pulled open the freezer, pulled out the fish and then found the box of ice cream sandwiches. It was time to call 911.
The consequences of making that call were clear to me. This bear, which our family had been watching over the last several months, was one of a pair. Her friend was blonde and far more outgoing than she was. He had come into the entry of our house one day and taken the dog food, prompting us to lock the doors every night thereafter.
The bears were young, probably just setting out for their second spring. Even though the authorities, and my own experience, suggested there was ample food in the backcountry, the two would come around every couple of weeks. More often the blonde bear came around on solo expeditions, trying to get a taste from our hummingbird feeder.
Our relationship with the bears started out as a trying one. Our frustration grew with every attempt at getting the dog food or beating the garbage truck to the stash on a Tuesday morning. Then we took a more holistic approach and accepted the bears as our neighbors, albeit annoying ones. Eventually, after the bears would visit without any problems, it turned to amusement.
Then, hunkered down in the bedroom with my dogs and finally the cat, completely unarmed and feeling vulnerable, I was back to frustration that was moving toward anger.
The 911 operator seemed completely unsurprised by my situation and knew just what to say. “Stay someplace safe. Try to give the bear a way out. Relax. Help is on the way.” Then she called back to confirm that someone was in fact on the way and to ask if I was still safe.
I told her the only gun I had in the house was a .22 and, with some amusement in her voice, she replied, “Well, maybe that’s something you’ll think about changing.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Time continued to creep by and my scare tactics were only scaring the dogs until two SUVs came charging down the driveway. When Mt. Crested Butte police officer Jerrod Hooks and Crested Butte marshal Peter Daniels got out of their trucks, it was go time.
Both carried assault-style 12-gauge slug guns and wore shooting glasses. It was an odd experience, having these guys in my front yard, but I couldn’t have felt safer. These guys were professionals and they were on my side.
Despite the officers’ preference that I stay outside, this wasn’t something that happened every day. Hooks took the lead and we went into the house and started up the stairs.
We could hear the bear rustling around on the other side of a knee wall. The quarters were going to be cramped and no one wanted a bear shot in the house, so we went outside to regroup.
For a guy who spends much of his working life in front of a computer and the weekends quietly on backcountry streams, this was awesome. I was standing in a circle with two police officers that were armed and ready for action. We were laying plans to assault an ice-cream-sandwich-eating bear at two in the morning in the glow of a flashlight. Fantastic.
Time started to speed up and soon the three of us were scampering up the stairs to the deck. When we came around the corner and looked inside the house, the back end of the bear was sticking out from the kitchen. I knocked on the window and soon she stepped into the three beams of light.
It took her a moment to react after noticing us standing outside the window, but it seemed she knew she was in trouble. She spun around and hopped up onto the counter. Then she stepped onto the windowsill and out of the window she had come in.
Seeing that we were the only thing standing between the bear and her freedom, the officers and I turned and hurried back down the stairs. “I’m going to put her down,” I heard Hooks say, before he ran to the hillside next to the house. Daniels followed and, once he gained some elevation, started calling out the bear’s position.
“It’s coming across… about to turn the corner. There he is at the top of the stairs.” Everything paused for a moment, then CRACK. The shot pierced through the quiet night like a stone tossed into a reflecting pool. Immediately, the bear flew down the stairs at top speed and into the yard.
The dogs were waiting in the back of the truck and barked, turning the bear. She tried to run out into the open field but paused to consider climbing an aspen tree. One paw made it to the trunk when she sat down and rolled onto her back. After a few deep, labored breaths, she was gone. My heart sank, but it was over.
Cleaning the kitchen at four in the morning, I couldn’t help but think the pasta on the floor and the empty freezer was a stupid reason for that bear to die. Sure, she scared me and made me fear for my son, who, thankfully, wasn’t at home. And she had gone from being a welcomed part of the landscape to being potentially dangerous pest inside my home. She had committed an unforgiveable offense and she had to die.
I wondered if there was a connection between a lack of food in the backcountry that brought the bear to my back door and the heat of an early-August night that caused me to leave a window open and let her inside. Or was the food in my fridge just easier to get than berries from a bush.
While she was concerned with getting enough calories to survive the winter, I was sleeping in my warm bed, sure that breakfast would be waiting in the morning. Although our struggles were completely different, we were both assuming a position at the top of the food chain. There we were at the same unfortunate place, so I called back-up.
When he came to get the body of the dead bear the following morning, CDOW District wildlife manager Matt Thorpe said he thought the bear was just two years old and not yet able to breed. He said it could have been something else that brought her into the area, but my kitchen enticed her to stay.
Crimson bullet wound aside, her coat was clean and shiny. Thorpe said she was a healthy weight, at no more than 150 pounds. She was just a child whose bad habits got her killed. But had she lived another 18 years, as black bears can in the wild, those habits would likely have only become more engrained and been passed on to other young bears.
Things changed that night. A bear had gone from being a part of the landscape to being a potentially dangerous pest. I had just gone grocery shopping, then in a few short hours I needed to go again. The bear went from looking for food, to looking for an escape.
But what hasn’t changed is my hope that we can keep living in this place without taking away any more of its wildness, and that we can learn to live with bears better than some of them have unfortunately learned to live with us.