Nature Notes

Vol. II Winter 1984 No. 1

BLACK BEAR, Eurarctos americanus

Charisma, that indefinable quality which makes one item much more hauntingly appealing than some nearly identical thing--sushi has it, chow mein doesn't. Clydesdales have it, Cleveland Bays don't.

Black bears have it. But why?

It could be the Mr. T build. Even the sow looks macho. Local bears top out at 3 feet (shoulder height), 6 feet of length and maybe 300+ pounds--and 120 pounds of that is muscle!

It could be the lovely appearance. The bear wears a cuddly coat (cuddling not advised) thick enough to protect it in high altitudes and latitudes all the way to treeline, for the black bear is a woodland creature. The species comes in an array of charming colours: black, blue-black, gunmetal, brown, rusty cinnamon brown and a smoky white. Regardless the main colour, the muzzle is always medium brown.

It could simply be a chronic case of the cutes. Just try to resist the charms of a rolypoly bear cub (don't resist an angry 300-pound male, either, but that's different). It romps, plays, makes mischief and cocks its round little baby face. That cub is tougher than it looks, though. It was probably conceived in June or July, the prime mating season. But the fertilized egg didn't do much for months, except perhaps migrate into the other horn of the mother's uterus (normally only one ovary releases the 1 to 4 eggs, yet babies develop in both halls of the bicornuate uterus). Somewhere around the first of December, well after mother is in winter dormancy, the embryo begins rapid development. Still, when the baby is born in February it is poorly developed--practically bald and absolutely blind. Its eyes won't open for 25 days. Mother is asleep, so the newborn, hampered by its immaturity, must find milk and warmth on its own. By the time Momma wakes up (imagine waking up one March morning to discover twins or triplets!) the cub is well on its way. It and its siblings are out and romping by age 3 months, and at 6 months could probably get by alone. Normally, though, momma lets her cubs hang around well over a year. So long as she's lactating, a sow doesn't come into estrus. If she should lose her cubs anywhere near breeding season, however, she can be in estrus in a few days; breeding triggers actual ovulation.

Could the charisma stem from familiarity? Of the 30,000± bears in Washington, guesstimates put 100 here in the park (and 200 to 300 in Olympic). Tourists just love to see bears! The very same tourist-bear interactions which plague rangers today--feeding photographing, crowding, cozying-up-to--are recorded on observation cards dating back to the first world war. Some things never change. Bears can become numerous, and therefore in the public eye, partly because they are not the least picky and can subsist well anywhere. They cheerfully eat anything they happen upon, be it ants and termites, berries and nuts, occasional meat or carrion, fungi, contents of garbage cans and backpacks, honey.... Talk about a sweet tooth! Normally rather lazy and laid-back, a bear will work frantically for days to hack a honey trove. Until berries and other natural sugar sources come rip bears may severely damage or girdle young trees by stripping the outer bark to eat the sugary sapwood beneath.

Could it be the bear's comic aspect? Its back legs are longer than the front legs; thus he prefers to escape uphill when startled, for uphill running is easier for him. Running downhill makes even the most graceful bear all thumbs, or unhorses it completely. Observers tell of bears rolling butt-over-tincups down slopes they had fully intended to traverse afoot. Hilarious. And then there's the bear in Yosemite Valley who bit into a pressure can of black spray paint. The can hung up on its canines. As the bear swung its head to dislodge the can, it scrawled graffiti all over itself, tents, rocks, trees and tourists.

But then, the bear's charm probably comes from its humanoid personality. Hard core scientists decry anthropomorphism and refuse to admit that animals possess human attributes and even human motivations (the sociobiologist then steps in and says "Bosh! It's the human being who has magnified animal personality."). Still, there was that black bear in a parking lot who failed his attempts to break into a visitor's car. Screaming tourists were closing fast; he had to flee empty-pawed. Frustrated, the bruin hesitated; with two mighty swipes he took out both tail lights; then he fled--animal instinct, or the humanoid foible of vengeance?

Then there was that bear back in 1927 who was casually raiding a garbage can, minding his own business, when a discourteous man tiptoed up behind him and whooped like a banshee. Scared spitless, the bear didn't pause to extricate himself. The can on his head he took off running--full tilt into a tree. Trashed the can.

Now that's charisma!

Sandy Dengler


For cat lovers: Just after Christmas, mountain lion tracks were seen in the snow, along the power line, just north of Longmire. Back in October, a group of employees were thrilled to see three (count 'em) young mountain lions cross the road just west of Longmire. One stopped for a few moments right in front of their car, then ran off into the woods. After 10 years, I'm still looking for my first mountain lion here.

The fisher has been receiving attention recently. They were never plentiful here, but were occasionally seen in the early 1900's. Some believe that fishers may be making a come-back in Washington, and this is a good place for them. A larger, darker, relative of the martin, fishers are very secretive, and thus seldom seen. We have only five recorded observations, three in 1975 and two in 1977.

This is the time of year when fewer animals are seen. However, it is also a time when visitors are fewer, employees are on the road earlier and later, and animals moving across the snow can be more easily seen, and they leave tracks. If you see any unusual animals, please make a note of what, where, and when and send it to the Chief Park Naturalist or the Resource Management Specialist.

Stan Schlegel

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