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Yosemite Nature Notes 47(3) (1978)


NURSING BEARS

Chris Russo

Upon arriving in Yosemite National Park, visitors frequently ask me “Where’s the wildlife?” Although unstated, I know the wildlife picture is of deer, mountain lions, foxes and bears. Directing anyone to a guaranteed find is unpredictable by the very nature of nature.

However, if directed toward a concentrated area of smaller wildlife (beetles, millipedes, frogs) the visitors are less likely to be disappointed — especially if perchance a bear or buck happens along. Tune-in on nature’s more subtle beauties and often the more spectacular ones will find you. Experience has proved me out.

Time and again, while poking around a stagnant water hole looking for mosquito wigglers, I have been rewarded with the visit of a curious squirrel or a dipper looking for lunch in a nearby stream. But try telling a Park visitor looking for wildlife to spend his time in stagnant ponds and he’ll probably be sorry he asked and walk away mumbling, “You’re crazy.” After all, he reasons, bears don’t hang out in scummy ponds. He has missed the point.

For example, my interest in the lodgepole pine needleminer moth is what lured me for an all-day hike to needleminer study plots with Dr. Thomas Koerber, United States Forest Service. As a result of the needleminer hike, we saw a sight we will never forget. After a satisfying day of work visiting the study plots, we were returning by way of a little used fishermen’s trail. Listening, while following Tom down the trail, I heard movement in the distance. The wildlife making the sound was bears — the animal everyone wants to see!

The shade made the bear appear black, but she was a cinnamon color with an orange ear tag. Of course it was big: all bear stories are about big bears. We soon noticed that the big bear had two cubs. They saw us, too. Communication began quickly. A nose turned toward her cubs, a grunt, and the cubs headed up a tree. Taking a breather after their quick ascent, the cubs peeked around the trunk to look at us. Mother bear remained at the base of the tree eyeing us, as we tried to see her identification number. With the cubs safely up the tree, the mother bear ignored us to take a rest.

We circled around to a granite outcrop to get a closer look. Imagine sitting 140 yards from three bears, only to have mother bear snooze. Time passed. Now and then she’d reshift her hips for further comfort, raise her head effortlessly, give a few snorts, and flop down again If there was a distant sound she would show brief concern with another lift of the head. Finally she appeared knocked out, so the cubs thought.

Backing down the tree, the cubs awoke mom and up they went twice as fast. The hip shifting, a few snorts, a flop of the head and she’s out again. The cubs and us grew restless. Tom and I began discussing the snoozing mother’s behavior. We concluded it must be lots of work raising cubs and were satisfied she had an opportunity to rest. Next, the cubs quietly crept down the tree again and pounced on mom.

Having few options now, the bear rolled on her back, right paw and hind foot in the air, left paw and foot dangling, relaxed and nursed her young — an unexpected and unusual sight for us. Eight minutes later a distant sound interrupted the mood and up they sprang. The alarm ended the nursing. The cubs, filled with energy-providing milk, became playful and a nose-pawing episode began among the three. Mom soon tired of the game, and snoozed-out again. The cubs took a few minutes to sniff the area and they too fell asleep. Nothing seemed to bother them now. One hour and fifteen minutes were well spent and this we felt was the appropriate exit time.

Upon returning to camp, we told of our summer’s highlight experience to the Berkeley bear study people. Without the bear identification number the bear study people had no knowledge of the bears we had seen. Tom and I found out why the mother was so anxious to sleep: this bear and her cubs were notorious for staying up nights searching through backpacks for food at a popular lake where backpackers stay. From where we found her she still had an uphill journey that evening of a few miles. It seemed almost impossible that the bears we saw would spend their time rummaging through aluminum-framed backpacks full of food. I guess if I were a bear, I’d lift my paws for freeze-dried filet mignon or squeeze-tube honey, even if it meant giving up a few daylight hours of roaming.

It was once said, “A bear in the wilds is worth more than twenty at a feeding trough.” I think Tom would agree that this certainly is the truth.



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