I was riding my bike on a dirt road in Montana close to a human settlement, being mindful of the original inhabitants of this relatively intact stretch of forest. It had been logged before, and was now somehow growing back to its original height and vibrancy. But only somehow. Its pristine old growth forest vigor was lost for now.
I pedaled really slowly, taking in the energy and beauty of the land, a gentle breeze was blowing in the tree tops and they swayed to the rhythm of the wind.
My breath was going in and out in synch with the movements and I was happy beyond belief. Silently, I announced myself to the forest inhabitants. They had been there long before the onslaught of recent migrants to the Great North and predated the settlers from Europe by many thousands of years.
I knew that this was one of the last strongholds of the North American Grizzly Bears, an animal who once had roamed a large part of Western North America. Black Bears, however, still roam North America all the way to the East Coast. Now, in the lower 48 states of the US there are mostly a few left in Idaho and Wyoming and a population in Montana that has not reached viability. Yet, there was talk about delisting them from the endangered species list where they rightfully belonged. It is illegal to disturb and hunt the animals listed on the Endangered Species Act and what is more, extractive industry is forbidden in their home.
No wonder big companies wanted to see them delisted, more than 20 of them were already lined up outside of Yellowstone National Park to mine the earth for her treasures. By delisting them, the Grizzly Bears would not be an obstacle to extraction anymore. And what is more, hunters were already signed up to “get their Grizz” during a legal hunt which would enable them to display them in a fierce position with their teeth and claws bared in their living rooms, even if they might have shot them while they were bent down, getting a drink of water at a stream.
I was acutely aware of these facts and silently communicated my benevolence to the Grizzly Bear Nation, our last wild bears in North America. “I love you”, I told them. “And I ask for permission to enter your home range and go for a little bike ride. But I do not have to ride my bike here” I added. “I can go on a paved road and anywhere else, you only have a sliver of your former habitat left.” My heart was bursting with love for these animals who look so much like us humans underneath their fur. I was able to recount many happy encounters with them in my heart, they had often brightened my days with their presence. Bears are generally considered omnivores. The percentage of plant food that they consume differs quite a lot among different regions. Generally they eat more meat in the North, just like we people do. In more temperate regions plants make up about 75% of their ingested biomass, in boreal forests 50%, but in the tundra only 40%.
When they emerge from hibernation they feel the hunger of a long time without food and often the plant life has not emerged from the long winter season in the North. That is when they love to share the deer and elk kills that wolves have made, that is when they resort to being carnivores. Some people may call it stealing a wolf kill, but I have been around those situations and rather call it sharing their food. The wolf-bear relationship is thus an ancient one and the bears depend on the wolves for their early season food sources. Where wolves have been exterminated, the bears suffer as well and vice versa. Occasionally they also kill ungulates themselves - this predation mostly occurs in spring and is typically concentrated on deer, caribous and moose calves in their first weeks of life, before they grow strong and fast.
Furthermore, human hunting activity has an impact on the bears. In some regions they have been conditioned to hunters and the sound of gun shots. When they resound, they know that there will be gut piles in the area and that they do not have to go into hibernation yet, because there is food for them still available.
Bears also prowl avalanche areas when they first come out of hibernation. That is where they find dead animals that have been killed in the snow mass going down the mountain.
And, they love to explore unsecured trash cans. When people move to rural and wilderness areas they often live like they used to in the city and leave their trash unsecured, or they leave food out like bird seed or dog food. This attracts bears as well. Often when there is a drought they come close to human settlements in sear of food or they are driven to the areas populated by humans because of fires on the mountains. I remember a particularly dry year in Albuquerque, NM, when the black bears came down from the mountains in search of food and were breaking into people’s water melon stash to get some reprieve from the heat. One climbed up a pole when humans with dogs came near and was shot of it with a tranquilizer gun. Luckily, (s)he had not climbed up that high and survived the ordeal of falling down to the ground.
I also remember witnessing the impact of human encroachment on their habitat. On the backside of the Sandia mountains is a switchback road leading to the summit. Hence, if a bear wants to go up or down the mountain, (s)he has to cross that road multiple times since it does not lead straight up and down. I saw the same bear trying to make it down the mountain with the same cars crossing his path over and over and over. He finally went up on his haunches to see what this stinking thing was that was after him. He looked confused and sat down in the middle of the road, not knowing what to make of all this. Let alone the cameras that people whipped out and stuck in his face. It is not easy being a bear because they did not evolve with any of this.
On a dirt road leading up the same mountain I came across a stalled jeep. I had just seen a bear along the road as I was hiking and been ecstatic about what I called a “huge blessing” and “bear medicine”. I stopped and asked if the person needed help. He was very uncomfortable and anxious. I wondered why and offered to wait for the tow truck to arrive that he had already called. He seemed comforted by my offer and I slowly started asking him questions as to why he seemed so fearful and anxious which is a touchy subject for a burly man. The truth came finally out when he admitted to me: “I am deadly afraid of bears. I wish I would have taken the truck, because I have my gun in the truck. This Jeep does not protect me from a bear attack. I am dead meat if a bear comes along.” I offered to go in between the bear and him should that occasion ever arise and was puzzled as to why in the world two people in the same spot would have such different attitudes toward a bear encounter.
Bird seed is a major bear attractant and sometimes people want a photo op of a bear at a feeder and deliberately put some out to attract a bear and snap away at them with their cameras from their “picture” windows. While this might be a source of happiness for the photographer, it is very dangerous for the bear. Now the back yard is a source of food, the bear will defend it from humans and their dogs and go after the dog next time. This causes the humans to call Fish and Wildlife Services who move the bear to a different area. What they do not know is that this area more often than not is already occupied by another bear and the dumped bear has no other choice but to return to the bird feeder yard which was his territory to begin with. Eventually, the three strikes and you are out rule applies and the bear gets “euthanized”, a benevolent word for killed, or better yet, “murdered” because the whole scenario could have been easily avoided had the humans acted from a care for the whole and not out of human-centricness.
The same goes for practitioners of extreme sport. Often, (ultra) marathons or iron man/woman events lead through pristine wilderness where wild animals still live. They participants enjoy the wildness they say, but there is little thought for the original habitants. One time during a marathon in NM a woman got hurt by a black bear mother defending her cubs. Her babies where on one side of the “running” path which was actually also used by animals and the mother bear was on the other side. The runners kept coming and coming and the mama bear did not have a chance to reunite with her offspring until she whacked the next runner down and crossed the path. Needless to say when the woman came out to the hospital to plead for the bear’s life because she was a mother herself and had contributed to her injury by running through a bear home range it was too late. They had already killed the mama which subsequently resulted in the death of her two cups who were too little to survive on their own.
It is more expensive to buy a bear proof garbage bin and well worth it. When there is no food source around, the migrating bears move on. Once in Southern NM, a bear mother got into a huge dumpster in the wilderness to feed on the trash. When her cubs were born, she naturally brought them to the dumpster to feed in. They got stuck there because they were to little to get out. People luckily drove up to it and stuck a log in so they could climb out. Unfortunately, the “problem” persisted because the dumpster was till accessible to bears and not bear proof and it, in and of itself had become a source of food in their home range. Eventually they all got killed.
A friend had just told me that he had left a hide of a deer outside in a bucket to work on in the morning. His place is in the wilderness and a bear who had just gotten out of hibernation was looking for an easy meal and came around to check out the smelly hide. They made noise to chase him off, but the better option is to not leave such things outside at night when nobody is around. The bear in that case would have just kept going, looking for other types of food.
In Europe, bears often get fed outside of a village. The people believe that this will keep them away from their settlement. The truth of the matter is, though, that bears get attracted to food sources and often the villagers dispose of their dead domesticated animals very close to or at the town perimeters. If a bear or other wild animal gets attracted to a dead animal and feeds on it, they will return for more and see if there is another opportunity for feeding. Thus, this situation can be atoned easily, by burying, not dumping deceased cattle and sheep away from any human settlement.
This spring, people had dumped a little dead foal in the middle of a trail by the river at a pull out at a highway in California. When I stopped to walk to the river I came across her. She was wrapped in a tarp and had just recently been left there, maybe even by the people who left the area just as I pulled into the pull-out and who had acted a little suspiciously. Not only was the animal probably sick and the vultures already circling above her would carry that disease ever which way, but the sight of her traumatized me greatly. It was as if I had come across any dead body, it could have been a human body and I would have been equally shocked, not more. What gives us the right to dump an animal body without triggering an investigating and when it happens to a human there is police everywhere?
A farmer friend came to the defense of the dumpers, saying that maybe the ground was frozen or they could not do it any other way. In my way of feeling, though, it is often murder, because not only do we breed domesticated animals to the point of not even being able to give birth by themselves, but also to a point were they are unable to carry their fetuses to term. Such is the impact of inbreeding and “engineering” animals to our liking. And not to have the foresight to dig some graves for this occasion in the fall in cold climates is beyond be. Frozen ground is never an excuse to dump dead animals, and it certainly was not the case in spring like conditions in California in an area were it never snows or hardly ever freezes.
It is also murder of other animals. If a wolf or bear gets “caught” next to a dead, dumped animal they most likely get charged with killing it and get subsequently killed themselves. We humans get away with that sort of thing easily and without any investigation.
I remembered that a bear biologist friend of mine had told me that up to 200 different kinds of plants and seeds had been found in bear scat. Yet, we humans are deadly afraid of these animals. We humans are not part of their prey base for sure. I just read statistics that in Montana where more people per capita get killed every year by animals it is not wild the ones that cause death. Traffic incidents like running into a deer or elk are the number one cause of death to humans . Wasps/bees, dogs, cows and horses follow suit. Usually only one person gets killed by a bear a year, which is completely out of proportion compared to the hysteria and fear that surround them.
But right now, in that very moment I was not thinking of anything. My attention fully belonged to my surroundings as I was slowly pedaling through Grizzly country. I was fully aware of my surroundings, awake and conscious of everything going on around me.
Maybe that was the reason that people were sometimes getting hurt by one of the last bears in the country, I thought to myself. They would jog through bear territory, with ear phones in their ear canals, behaving like prey, looking like a fleeing deer to a bear and not paying any attention to the original inhabitants of the land. They would take over the forest without regards to who was there, who lived there. One person in Montana had run his bike into a bear on a wilderness trail at 35 mph I recalled. Nobody thought about the bear had been badly wounded in the incident. One elk hunter had literally stepped on a sleeping bear. And then there were the dogs. We humans take our domesticated animals anywhere and dogs, contrary to popular belief do not protect us from harm. They actually aggravate bears who have been painstakingly marking their territory over months of time and are regularly going over the markings again to refresh them.
The dog, like a fish out of water outside their own territory runs after a bear and her cubs and brings the bear back to their humans. The rest is history. Contrary to popular belief, domesticated canids, our dogs, often do not enjoy being in the wilderness as it causes them stress since they can still read the signs “stay out” and are literally being forced by us humans to proceed on the path. They would not go there naturally in many instances.
We put up electric fences around our camps up North to protect ourselves from the bears in their home range when we feel like going on a photo safari and we are armed to the max when doing so. They get electrocuted when they touch the unfamiliar fence while wanting to see who is visiting them.
We spray them with bear spray, which is often used as a preventative and not as a last resort. So-called rare “bear attacks” are mostly avoidable if we are mindful, awake and aware.
Why we are so disrespectful towards large wild animals wo are so accommodating to us and our domesticated animals and display so much patience towards us beats me.
A rustling in the bushes next to the road where I was slowly cruising by caught my heightened attention.
Spontaneously, right from my heart I said out loud: “Whoever you are, dear one, please show yourself to me. No reason to be afraid of me.This is your home and I respect it.” I had barely uttered the last syllable, when the head of a bear popped up right next to be. He stood up on his hind legs to take a better look at me. I stopped dead in my tracks. What a beautiful bear! What a beautiful soul. “I love you!” I exclaimed. “Thank you for being here with us on this earth. You are important and you matter.” My heart was beating with love for this creature who had to be so careful in their own home because most of us humans are afraid and carry weapons which we use at the least provocation of one of our many senseless fears. When a bear shows up in their own home, we kill them or at the very least, we spray them with bear spray.
I am a firm believer and practitioner of intuition. Why practice blanket fears at any given moment when we have our wonderful intuition that tells us when something is wrong, in fact, only alerts us when something is wrong. Why not be awake, aware and conscious of our surroundings when we hike?
In this case, my intuition was not telling me that anything was wrong, that in fact, this was how it was supposed to be, that we were supposed to coexist together in a fearless and loving way. There was no reason for me to panic or behave irrationally just because there was a bear right next to me. I kept exuding my love for this animal instead. And hence the bear did not have to defend himself from me. I was pretty sure that it was a male, but could not discern for sure if that was true. In all my remaining years on this planet, I will never forget the look he gave me. Such an intelligent gaze, so full of brightness and with a twinkle that lit up the forest. It was almost like he was playing with me. He had finally found someone who was not running away from him or threatening him. He had met his equal in me who was equally thrilled to have met him. In a way, we both threw overboard what our mothers had told us, namely to run, panic and be afraid of each other and did the exact opposite: we made contact with each other to better understand one another. “Bear, this is what a bear truly is” I thought gleefully with a healthy dose of joy thrown in. “Women”, he seemed to think, “this is what a true woman is like”. I grinned from ear to ear and he did the same. “You are sacred, this is a sacred moment in time” I told him. Bears are called the “doctors of the forest”, they are sacred to the indigenous people and considered powerful and essential.
No reason to fear them unnecessarily. In fact, I practice being fearless, empty and loving, whenever I enter a forest or other territory where wild ones reside. I do not throw fear at the animals there, I do not force any encounters, meetings, or photo ops, I do not bait them and see them as an object. They are the co-producers of whatever project I work on. I work with them, I come with all my love for them after I have asked for their permission to enter their home. When I do not get that permission, I do not proceed on the path. I am mindful of the original forest inhabitants and of the fact that they do not have much space left to roam anymore.
I feel for them. It must be very stressful to hide from us humans in their own homes. It must be sad that they cannot meet us on equal terms, on terms of curiosity and mutual understanding and respect for each other. It must be very difficult to have the 3 food sources that nourish them the most when they are hyperphagic in the fall be gradually and sometimes not so gradually taken away from them, namely, white bark pine bark, salmon and huckleberries.
The white bark pines are leaving the Northern Rockies because of drought conditions, they need more water. Salmon is endangered because we put up dams. We introduced other animals into lakes and streams who are not compatible with them and their food sources. We are overfishing them everywhere, straightened the rivers so they are unable to reach their spawning ground and hence, in general the salmon are on the decrease.
Huckleberries ripen in cycles. They are not abundant every year and what is more, we started to harvest them commercially. “Huckleberry everything for sale” signs, advertising berry concoctions of every possible imagination are abundant in the Northwest. I once counted over 40 of them leading up to a place where they sold them.
Yet, this particular wild bear right next to me harbored no grudges against anybody. He was just doing what bears do. He checked me out with his little beady eyes, full of kindness and curiosity of who was treading through his home. Tears welled up in my eyes: “I will do whatever I can for you, I will tell you story. I love you!” I told him.
Our encounter did not last very long. I did not want him to get habituated to humans in general and possibly not be able to discern who was benevolent towards the Bear Nation and who was armed and ready to “get his/her bear”. I did not take any pictures of him. The moment was too sacred to be exploited by me. I pedaled on, all the while blessing his presence, talking to him, telling him good bye.
A friend had seen this little black bear on the property he had just bought and been enchanted by her presence. The bear was young and minded her own business, never came too close and never threatened the safety of my friend. His dog, luckily was well trained and in turn never encroached on the bear who had been there first, before their arrival on this particular piece of land. Neither did he bark at the bear. In fact, the dog’s name is Bear.
The three of them had enjoyed each other’s company regularly for months when my friend saw a dead bear at the side of the road near his property with a parked vehicle and a woman with a gun. She assured him that she had a “bear license” and that she was a legitimate hunter. She had possibly killed the animal after she saw it at the side of the road while driving by which is very different from being a hunter who has to measure his/her strength and stealth with the animal and leaves them with an equal chance to get away.
Since that day he has not seen the bear. The size of the dead animal matched that of “his” bear . What are we going to choose? Connection or disconnection? Life or death? Each one of us has to make that decision on their own. Fear or love?
My heart continued to sing from the meeting with the bear. I lifted my gaze up to where the trees were still swaying in the wind. Today was a good day to be happy. Today was a day filled with joy. Today was a day to be love incarnate. Every day is … I choose love.
Please in-joy my short bear video … Thank you!