The Crestone Eagle, July 2005:

There’s a world of bears out there

by Keno

I’ve written several articles about bears for the Eagle over the last couple of years, but all of those were about the problems bears cause us humans here in town. Of course, there are many other areas to cover on bears, so let’s have another look at our neighbors.

Colorado has been home to bears since their first ancestors evolved in North America. We have around 120,000 bears in the state, all of them Black Bears. Estimates of the number of Black Bears in North America vary, with 750,000 being the best guess. Here in Crestone, there are believed to be around seven or so Black Bears who call this area home. It should be noted that not all Black Bears are black; color-wise, only 25% are all black, with the remaining 75% shades of brown. Grizzly Bears, which are a member of the Brown Bear species, were believed extinct in Colorado since around 1970, but the last one found, in 1979, was killed southwest of here in the San Juan Mountains by a Crestone resident in self-defense, this to the surprise of the US Forest Service, which by that time already listed Grizzlies as officially extinct in our state.

Some bear facts

Adult female bears are called sows, adult males boars, and youngsters cubs. All bears are classified as carnivores, with each species having a degree of herbivorous tendency. The Panda, for example, is almost exclusively a plant eater, while the Polar bear is almost entirely a carnivore.

There are 8 bear species. The largest bears are Polar Bears and Brown Bears. The Polar Bear is the heaviest, with a narrow silhouette, making it well adapted for swimming. Sun bears are the smallest of the bear species. Male bears are usually larger than females, sometimes as much as 50% larger. Male bears keep large territories that overlap the smaller ranges of several females. Bears will leave territorial signposts both through scent marking and by leaving claw marks in tree bark. Most bears are usually solitary animals, except females with young. A pair may come together for several days during mating season, and in time of abundant food several bears may feed closely together with little interaction.

Scott Stelecki, a wildlife photographer writes: “A male bear tosses large flat rocks aside as if they were made of Styrofoam as he tries to reach a female, but this female has nestled herself amongst a bush surrounded by daisies out on a cliff far from the reach of this pursuant male. Ah, it must be mating season!”

For most bear species, females reach sexual maturity between 4 and 5 years of age, and mating takes place either in the spring or early summer months. Litters normally consist of one or two cubs, but for some species, up to four cubs per litter can be born. Cubs will stay with their mother from 8 months to more than two years, depending on the species. A Spectacled Bear mother may carry her cubs on her back when they are still small.

A breakdown of each bear species:

American Black Bears—(a.k.a. Cinnamon Bear, Glacier Bear, Kermode Bears) Scientific name: Ursus americanus. The American Black Bear is a medium size bear, weighing between 130 and 660 pounds with a total body length of 50 to 75 inches. This bear can be found in many color phases from black, chocolate brown, cinnamon brown, pale blue to white. Its feet are equipped with strong, curved claws.

They are found in North America: in 32 US States, all provinces and territories of Canada except Prince Edward Island, and in northern Mexico. In Colorado, Black Bears are found in central and western Colorado, from the foothills across the mountains to the high mesas of the Western Slope. Although they live usually below 10,000 feet, they have been spotted in our mountains above treeline. Typical habitat is forest, woodland or brush. Their range averages about 30 miles.

Black Bears are omnivores, eating about anything in good supply: carrion, fruit, nuts, honey, young deer and elk, birds, eggs, insects. They have no enemies other than humans. These bears are considered highly efficient hibernators. They sleep for months without eating, drinking, urinating, or defecating. Hibernators with lower body temperatures, such as chipmunks, woodchucks, and ground squirrels, cannot do this. Bears’ length and depth of hibernation is genetically programmed to match the regional norms of food availability. Hibernation is deeper in the northern portion of their range and can last over 7 months. However, in southern states where food is available year-round, many do not hibernate at all. Here in Colorado, they normally hibernate from November to March.

Cubs are born in their mother’s winter den in January or February. Most Black Bears live for about 27 years on average.

Brown Bears—(a.k.a. Grizzly Bear, Kodiak Bear, “Teddy” bear ) Scientific name: Ursus arctos. One of the largest and most widely distributed bear species, Brown Bears weigh between 300 and 860 pounds and can be up to 9’6″ in total body length.

They are usually dark brown in color but can vary from a light cream color to almost black. Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), the smaller of the two North American subspecies, has white tips in their hair, this gives the bear a grizzled appearance, and why they are so named. The larger North American subspecies, the Kodiak Bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), lives mainly in the Alaskan islands of Kodiak, Shuyak and Afognak. Brown Bears are distinguished by the characteristic muscle hump over the shoulders; they have longer claws on their front paws than on their rear paws.

In North America, they can be found in western Canada, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. There are officially no more Brown Bears in Colorado. In Europe, they are found in Russia and in fragmented populations in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. Other small populations are found in India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

Brown Bears inhabit dense forests, tundra and lower alpine mountain regions. They are omnivorous, eating a mixed diet of grasses, fruits and roots, insects, fish and small animals. In a few areas they are known to be predators of larger animals such as caribou and moose. They will also scavenge carrion when available, including whale, walrus and seals that have washed up on shore.

Brown Bears are listed in the lower 48 states as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Giant Panda—(a.k.a. Bai Bao [White Leapord], Cat Bear or Black and White Bear) Scientific name: Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Don’t let the name of these bears fool you; Giant Pandas are actually small bears. They are a black and white colored bear with large black fur eye patches, which gives them a childish look. Most of its torso and head are white with a black saddle across its back, black fore and hind limbs and black ears. They can weigh up to 270 pounds.

Giant Pandas live in the mountain ranges in Western China between 3,000 and 10,000 feet. They live almost solely on a diet of bamboo, up to 33 pounds a day, and will very rarely eat other plants or scavenge the meat of dead deer.

Reproduction is a problem for Pandas. They become sexually mature at between 4 and 6 years of age. Females are in estrus for only one to three weeks out of the year, usually from March to May, and in that brief period are at peak receptiveness for only a few days.

Pandas are extremely endangered, with little more than 1000 individuals remaining in very isolated habitat islands. They do not breed well in captivity. There are currently about 110-120 Giant Pandas in captivity, with the majority of those in China.

Polar Bears—(a.k.a. Ice Bear, Sea Bear, White Bear, Walking Bear) Scientific name: Ursus maritimus. Polar Bears are more aggressive than other bears and are considered to be the largest of all bear species, weighing in at between 440 and 1760 pounds with an overall body length of 8′ 5″.

They have a distinctive all white coat, triangular profile, long neck, and small ears. A Polar Bear’s nose, lips and all skin under their fur is black. They use their wide front paws for paddling through arctic waters, and use their hind feet as rudders. The soles of their feet are covered with vacuoles that act as suction cups while walking or running on the ice. Their heavy fur, dense underfur, and thick layer of insulating fat allows them to maintain a normal body temperature when the outside temperature drops below -30° F.

Polar Bears are found in Greenland, Norway, the former Soviet Union, Canada and Alaska. They are almost exclusively carnivores, feeding on ringed and bearded seals, young walruses and occasionally a narwhal or beluga. They have been known to eat carrion and may occasionally eat berries or other plant material when available.

Asiatic Black Bears—(a.k.a. Black beast, Dog bear) Sciencetic name: Ursus thibetanus. A medium sized bear, with a body length of 50 to 74 inches and weighing between 220 and 440 pounds, they are normally blackish in color, with lighter muzzles and a V-shaped patch of cream colored fur on their chest. The ears of an Asiatic black bear appear much larger than those of other bear species.

They are found in Southern Asian, Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, China, the former eastern Soviet Union, Korea and Japan. They prefer heavy-forested areas and are omnivorous.

Sloth Bears—(a.k.a. Honey bear, Jungle joker) Scientific name: Melursus ursinus. This species has been recognized as one of the most threatened with extinction.

They are a medium size bear weighing between 175 and 310 pounds with a body length of between 60 and 75 inches, and with a very shaggy coat of black fur, with gray and brown hairs mixed in. On the chest there is a white or cream colored U or Y shaped patch of fur. This same lighter color occurs around the muzzle and sometimes extends around the eyes.

Sloth bears are found in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. They prefer grasslands and forested area at low altitudes. Their diet is mostly comprised of termites. Their upper incisors are missing, forming a gap, and the lips can extend to form a tube. With this, the sloth bear is able to suck up the termites, making a loud sound. Other items in the sloth bear diet are fruit, eggs, insects, honeycomb and carrion.

Spectacled Bears—(a.k.a. Short-faced bear) Scientific name: Tremarctos ornatus. The Spectacled Bear is a small black bear with cream-colored facial markings around its eyes that give it its name. Females weigh about 150 pounds and males may reach 250 pounds. They have a total body length of 60 to 72 inches.

The Spectacled Bear is found in Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. It lives in a variety of forested Andes mountain habitats, ranging in elevation from 500 to 14,000 feet. The Spectacled Bear is an excellent tree climber and forages in the trees.

The favorite food of the Spectacled Bear is fruit, and it will also eat varieties of rodents and insects. Little is known about the behavior of this bear. It is believed that they are mostly nocturnal and spend the daytime sleeping in self-made tree nests, large tree root cavities or on ground beds.

Sun Bears—(a.k.a. Ape Bear, Dog Bear) Scientific name: Helarctos malayanus. The Sun Bear is the smallest of the bears, with a body length of 48 to 60 inches. They can weigh between 60 and 145 pounds. Sun Bears have short, sleek black fur with a golden or white colored crescent shape on their chest and the same lighter color around their muzzle and eyes. The muzzle is short and the ears are small and round. Their paws are large with bare soles, possibly an adaptation for better tree climbing. The claws are long, curved and very pointed.

They are found in Asia: India, Burma, China, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Sun Bears prefer lowland tropical rain forests. They are omnivorous.

Not a bear: The Koala Bear of Australia is actually a marsupial, complete with a pouch for carrying its young, and is related to kangaroos.

Bears have provoked fear in man throughout history, and as is usually the case, this fear factor is based on misconceptions. Bears have never been vicious man-eaters as some might think; in fact, most bears eat little meat in their diet. And although most bears have the power to injure or even kill humans, they are usually timid and retreat at the first sound of human activity. They only attack if they feel threatened or, in the case of Grizzly Bears, when they are protecting cubs; yet our Black Bears are highly unlikely to do this.

Yet even Grizzlies with cubs have to be provoked, as Lynn Rogers a bear photographer notes: “We saw a mother bear, a beautiful blond whose fur glowed in the soft northern light. Her cub was nestled beside her, and she was resting with her chin on a piece of driftwood. As we walked toward her we lost our fear when we saw how she reacted to us. We could see that this blond mother had a calm personality. She lifted her head and watched as we approached. This mother ignored our small group since we acted nonaggressive. As we lay down on the lawn, she dropped her head back onto her driftwood pillow and closed her eyes. She regarded us as non-threatening.”

In general, most bears go out of their way to avoid human contact. The noted exception to this would be the Polar Bear, known to hunt humans when no other food source is available. Because of this, Polar Bears are the only living creatures on the planet that are considered above humans on the food chain.

Don’t fear—or feed—the bears

Overall, people create problem bears. Garbage kills bears. In Colorado, a bear will be destroyed after its second run-in with people. So remember, a fed bear is a dead bear. Be “Bear Aware”; make sure you keep your trash stored in bear proof garbage cans. Also remember to lock all your doors and keep your windows shut and locked when you’re away from your home. If you don’t, you just might have a hungry bear drop in while you’re out, as several Crestone residents can testify to.

If you meet up with a bear while out on a hike, or in your front yard, just remember the basic rule: stay calm, don’t run, slowly walk away facing the bear, and all should turn out fine, as the bear more than likely will be more frightened than you will be!