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Grazing the Tomichi

By Polly Oberosler

The Bears Are Coming

One fall morning several years ago in Mt. Crested Butte, my husband went out to start the truck and when he came back in he asked me why I had frozen corn packages all over the driveway.

He comes up with these ridiculous questions occasionally as if I would make a practice of spreading corn in the driveway in the middle of the night. I shook my head and ran outside to look because the only thing that could be was a bear gone rogue. Sure enough, not only were there multiple packages of corn scattered around, but bags of frozen green chilies, all having come from our freezer in the garage.

The garage door didn’t ever latch properly, but it would close and that morning it was up just about bear-height. I flung it fully open and of course the lid on the freezer was wide open. Thankfully what was left was still frozen, but the entire freezer, contents and all, was covered in mud. Apparently the bruin had taken a bath in the small creek before taking on the garage reconnaissance.

I cleaned up the mess and put back what had been in the yard that was not opened and in doing so it hit me that the bear had not touched the raspberries. It was fall so the bears were really bulking up on sugars and the corn and green chilies were better-suited to provide that than the berries, apparently. Neither did the bear touch the meat. We had chicken, beef, elk and pork bacon in there and it was all untouched. I hadn’t awoken that morning seeking a lesson in bear diet, but it was laid out for me like a nutrition plan.

Somehow, we had to figure out a way to keep that bear out of there as it would surely return for another meal, as they always do. I mentioned the affair to some folks and someone suggested I talk with our police chief because he had the same issue some time before and had designed a way to keep them out of his freezer. When I got together with him he showed me the setup: four straps of steel times two that went all the way around the chest freezer and bolted closed. It worked! The bear came back and, try as it might, the attempt at a free meal was thwarted.

In my time as a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service I had many absentee encounters with bears. They are really curious and the single, biggest thing that drew them to my camp was the clear plastic water jug. It appeared to them like a jewel in the sun, shining and glinting, coaxing them to come look as it dangled in a tree. When I would return to camp the bears had always left their calling card and holes in my water jug. They also were fascinated with the “lean-to” tarp I had over the kitchen and often attempted to walk up it. I have always wondered if the fascination with hummingbird feeders was not the nectar at first, but the shine of the bottle. Bears also know that blue plastic tarps mean food, so I keep blue tarps for under the tent as a ground cloth and green or brown ones for the falling rain.

With the high winds and lack of rain, the bears will have no berries this year so they will come out of the woods looking for food. Having stretched their stomachs by dining on tender leaves and such in the early part of the summer they begin to demand more and more food now. Bears that grew up in urban settings know what freezers are and can gaze through windows and spot refrigerators. We had bears on our deck in Mt. Crested Butte many times—once a bear’s muddy paws slid off the slider glass toward the closed side. Had it slid the other way… Forever more I locked my doors at night.

Once I confronted a bear at our back door and yelled at her. I was about 10 feet from her and she looked at me like I was a gnat on a window pane, so I gulped hard and closed the door as the two cubs came around the corner. I went back to bed feeling mighty lucky. The next morning, I discovered that while she was telling me that she was not afraid of me, her cubs had been in the back of my truck trying to get the grain bucket open. Team work and urban feeding class it was.

Bears are funny in their antics and cute to look at, but they are dangerous. They can cover 100 yards faster than any sprinter and have the power to take your head off with a simple slap. The highest incidences of negative bear encounters are with black bears, partly so because they are found in all 50 states and partly because we do not take them seriously. Don’t underestimate their athleticism, their tenacity or their power.

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