More than 2,000 coyotes live in Chicago. Most of them, slinking through alleys at night, roaming parks, are never seen by humans.
Black bears are like that. Often they have adapted to living in closer proximity to humans in the U.S. than many humans realize. But the bears see you, they hear you – and they smell you. Bears are sniffing prodigies.
Lynn Rogers, a Minnesota biologist, formed relationships with wild black bears that allowed him to replace their radio collars by traveling their paths and calling out, “It’s me, bear.” The bears would emerge, often from quite close by, rising from their daybeds to sit beside him – which is not the sort of thing you should try. Our challenge is to leave them be.
It is harder with grizzly bears, partly because they are so big, with adults in their northern Rockies range topping a quarter ton. And it is harder because they need more from us in the way of letting them alone.
It is not just that we encroach on grizzly habitat, although we do, crowding them against the mountains in Montana; but also that we come bearing irresistible gifts, like the hobby farmer who puts chickens out surrounded by 3-foot-tall, plain wire fence – which is fine for keeping chickens in, but presents, for a grizzly sow in spring, something worth coming down from the mountains to get.
Grizzlies have been shot for that little. And there are only about 1,500 left in the lower 48 states.
Consider the dairyman, on a good spread in Montana’s Mission Valley but still having trouble making ends meet. He plants corn, silage to feed his cows. This is the story Bryce Andrews tells in his stunning new work of nonfiction, “Down from the Mountain.” It is a spare, compact book – a naturalist’s work.
In that cornfield, “grizzlies learned to gather in concentrations that are rare in the Northern Rockies,” Andrews writes. “They massed as Alaskan bears do around salmon streams when the fish are running. Hunger conquered their solitary natures.”
Andrews, a former rancher, gets work with an outfit called People and Carnivores, seeking ways the two can coexist. In particular, he believes an improved three-strand electrified fence might be able to keep the grizzlies out of that corn and keep them away from people; alive and in the mountains, stealing nuts from squirrel caches and eating winter kill, moths and ants.
Andrews follows the fortunes of one mature sow who comes out of her den with two cubs and goes down into the Mission Valley. There, someone shoots her in the face with a shotgun at close range and puts shot in the haunch of one of her cubs.
The sow can barely see. Worse, her sense of smell is destroyed. Helpless, she runs off her cubs. They are about 5 months old, 50 pounds, and still need her milk and instruction to survive.
Her wounds become infected. She comes to a bad but necessary end in the fall, in that cornfield.
The cubs, handsome sisters with blonde blazes, the seed corn of anyone’s wish that we not drive these bears to extinction, land at the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore – where they are still on exhibit.
At the end of “Down from the Mountains,” in a scene that brings home the melancholy toll of us on them, Andrews, another fish out of water, visits the cubs. The zoo had given the sisters all it could, food, shelter and honest care, he writes. “In spite of this, a cavernous lack remained.”
There are people who live in the proximity of grizzlies who will always put their property rights before the value of any old bear. The survival of the bears, then, will depend on their learning – and on our learning how to teach them – to avoid not just people but an easy meal like a chicken or sweet ears of corn, before the only grizzlies south of Alaska are pacing behind bars.