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Jim Duke | Author

Won't You Be My Neighbear?

We have a bear for a neighbor. Well, actually four bears, a sow and three cubs. Their den is on our property. Well, actually their property from the perspective of a bear. And I certainly wouldn't argue with them even if I disagreed, which I don't. I'm beginning to believe less and less in the concept of ownership, especially concerning land, and concerning bears. In the natural world, occupation is ownership and I think I prefer that concept. It allows us to own more through owning less.

Anyway, mamma and cubs live across the river in what used to be a fox or badger den (I had checked it out years ago) which she had expanded to accommodate her expansive body. This fall we watched her excavate further expansions to accommodate her three plump cubs, throwing pawfuls of yellow dirt into their curious faces as they sat or stood around watching.

It had been just over a year ago when Kathy had asked me why we never saw any bear dens. We did, as she pointed out, spend more time in the woods than anyone we know. I didn't quite say “Well, duh! It's not like they're going to bed down right in front of you.” But I'm sure sounded like a condescending know it all as I explained that bears are very intelligent and secretive critters and not likely to bed down right in front of anyone. The very next day I had to eat crow as we watched a bear bed down right in front of us about 150 yards out our back door.

We saw her go into her den that day and never saw her come back out or any sign of her afterward, so we were pretty sure she was in bed. After the snow got deep, I really wanted to go over and poke a stick through the snow to see if she was there. I was pretty sure I could do it without doing her any harm or putting myself in too much danger and it could be pretty cool bragging rights to poke a bear with a stick. It would have been easy to tell if I was poking a soft furry bear instead of frozen ground and I was pretty sure it wouldn't bother her in her deep state of hibernation.

I told Dave, my good friend, about my plan to poke a bear and he warned me that he didn't think bears were true hibernators but instead went into a state of torpor from which they could awaken under certain conditions. With him being a naive young lad and I being a highly educated wildlife expert, I assured him that bears were true hibernators and I went on to provide examples such as raccoon and squirrels as those that wake up and feed during winter warm spells. Not that I doubted myself, but I did eventually google it to discover that he was right. Damn! I wasn't having much luck as a know it all lately. But even if only in a state of torpor I don't think a little poke would have done any harm.

We saw her again when she came out last spring, along with three cubs. It was actually our dog, Charro, that pointed them out to us. He had also been the one to bring her to our attention when we had first seen her.. He doesn't miss much and is a good communicator whenever there's something of interest. My mules also point out more wildlife than I would ever see on my own. It's good to have observant friends. Another observant friend is my neighbor, TJ, with whom I frequently exchange info on wildlife passing through such as “bear heading your way” or “bobcat and kittens across the river”. He informed me that, upon leaving their dens, bears generally hang around, waking up and stretching their limbs for a few days before setting out in search of food. Everyone knows that bears wake up hungry and immediately start looking for food, but I fortunately didn't say so and we watched over the next week or so as mamma and the cubs made their daily appearances, sticking close to the den. Batting zero as a know it all.

Long after they'd left for the season, I went up and hung out in their den for a bit. It was amazingly tight quarters for the huge sow and three cubs. I felt awkward and out of place and knew that I had no business being there. It was obviously their home, their property, not mine.

With her being a light gold color, along with the unusual case of triplets instead of twins, they were a pretty recognizable quartet. Although Charro pointed out many other bears invading our (his) turf over the spring and summer, we never saw mamma and cubs on our side of the river. But we did hear of their exploits up and down the river around the neighborhood. It sounds like they developed a taste for chickens and specialized in raiding chicken coops for several miles around all summer long as well as a few trash can and fruit tree sprees. We've all had our struggles trying not to feed bears.

The bear family came back and hung around their den much of November giving us plenty of viewing time. They began to seem like part of our extended family. Watching these bears prepare for winter, even though they all appeared to be fat and happy, I'd never felt so tempted to feed wildlife. Against all logic, I had an overwhelming desire to participate and be part of their situation. I wanted to hang out on the dirt mound and watch mamma dig, crawl in and snuggle for the winter. Better that I should poke them with a stick.

As the bears prepared to bed down, the mule deer rut heated up and our neighborhood herds took on a higher profile, being driven by love struck bucks who seem to lose all good sense even worse than men in similar situations. Here again, the temptation to protect and feed them to keep them around can be overwhelming. In truth, the mean little kid down the street that wants to throw rocks at them is helping them much more than is the loving, caring housewife who sneaks them sliced apples. Human interaction almost never benefits wildlife. It is no favor to encourage wildlife to trust humans. It is very dangerous for them and us, but especially for them. If we wrongfully kill an animal, we might get fined. When they lose their fear of us and become a threat, they get euthanized. The best we can do is to protect habitats where they can thrive with a minimum of human traffic. There's no such thing as tame wildlife. We can love them best by keeping them at a distance. But I still might go poke a bear with a stick.