Sunday, January 13, 2019

On the Border with Black Bears

 By Sean Graham       

      The sun was going down so I hustled back up the trail to avoid hiking out at night. Walls of yellowish-pink igneous rock stood vertical on either side of the trail, thickets of shrubby vegetation lined the arroyo leading up a couple of miles to Casa Grande, the picturesque mesa of Big Bend National Park. I passed an older man heading back up the trail, and he said something like, “You’re really pushing it!” I hiked this trail every weekend, doing standardized surveys, and people always wanted to know what I was doing holding a notebook, and many mistook me for a park ranger. After the hike down, I was free to put on the afterburners and “push it” on the return hike. I rounded a corner with a blind spot behind it, like entering a room in a strange house.
            A loud grunting stopped me in my tracks. I looked up from the trail and saw a small bear standing in the middle of the trail, his nose snorting. The hair on his back went up, he wheeled, and I watched him haul his cute little ass across the arroyo. The whole thing lasted no longer than a second and startled me witless. I continued up the trail, watching the little bear scramble halfway up a brushy hill. 
            Then I saw mama.
            A large female bear was down in the arroyo fifty feet away. She was sniffing the air, looking agitated. I walked backwards the other way, up the trail, talking softly to her. 
            “It’s ok mama. You’re a good mama bear. I didn’t do anything. I’m walking away.” I walked up the trail and was about to turn around and resume my earlier pace and get the hell out of there when I thought about the heavy-set man behind me. I just spooked a baby bear and managed to separate it from its mother. If the man walked right into mama, things could get bad. I stood next to a large boulder and waited. I watched her continue searching for her youngster, sniffing the air. Looking at me, sniffing my way. The baby climbed up to the ridgeline. The man appeared and rounded the corner. I got his attention, and waved him over, silently. 
            “Look.”
            “Oh goodness a bear!”
            I explained what happened and we admired the bears for a minute. Then I shook his hand and walked back to my car. 
            I’m a big fan of bears, and not just because they’re cute and charismatic, and not because of all of their ecological benefits. It’s because they’re potentially dangerous. It’s because of their swagger. Having to change your plans because of the presence of another, much larger animal that can kill you is one of the great things about places like Big Bend. It wouldn’t be the same without them.
            By the 1940s and the establishment of Big Bend National Park in Texas, black bears were largely extinct in the state. Bears, along with wolves, were poisoned, trapped, and shot out; the same old story for most of our large, potentially dangerous mammalian carnivores.
            Then in 1985, a bear was seen in the park, and sightings increased year by year, so that by the time I first visited Big Bend ten years later, they were reestablished. The origin of these bears was out across miles of desert flats, across the winding, grey-watered Rio Grande, out past the desert cliffs, up in the mountains of Mexico. 
Bears, like many mammals, have an instinctual tendency to leave their parent’s territory when they approach maturity. This is encouraged by the mother, who, after lovingly nurturing their young for months, essentially kick them out of the house. Juvenile mammals wander until they find vacant habitat. I saw a young bear wandering in the desert—in the bare, low creosote out near Terlingua, Texas. Out looking for greener pastures. 
This repopulation is happening all over the country due to species protection and the declining popularity of hunting: jaguars, mountain lions, wolverines, fishers, and wolves are all rebuilding their numbers and juveniles are dispersing, reoccupied territory where they have not been seen in decades.
Progress reestablishing many wildlife populations relies on natural dispersal and connectivity between the U.S. and Mexico. A wall erected as a political ploy will block their way.

                                                                      ****

 We arrived at the headquarters of the CEMEX El Carmen office in northern Mexico after a 12 hour drive. CEMEX is the largest cement corporation in the world, and offsets its environmental impacts with proactive conservation programs. The El Carmen Project is its crown jewel: the company purchased, restored, and protects a 208,381 hectare preserve across the river from Big Bend. Together with adjacent preserves in Mexico and Texas, the region represents one of the largest protected areas in the world. We have the privilege of surveying the preserve for amphibians and reptiles.
We turned in at the bunkhouse. In the middle of the night my colleague Tomas woke us up.
“Guys, it’s a bear!”
Tomas was jealous of all my recent bear sightings. He had never seen one.
Now a large black bear was rummaging through our stuff in the bed of my truck. We had brought all our food indoors, but realized we left out a few granola bars. We opened a window and hissed at it, yelled at it, swore at it.  It dropped from the truck without a sound—remarkably stealthy for such a big animal—and walked away. Ten minutes later, it was back. We shooed it away again, and went out with headlamps to bring in the rest of our stuff. Dogs started barking. The bear didn’t return. 
Tomas had a very unusual first-bear experience. The bears of the Chisos Mountains are remarkably well behaved, and not a single bear-human mishap has occurred since their return in 1985. The park established a network of bear-proof boxes throughout the park, including at remote backcountry sites, and does a great job of educating the public, preventing nuisance bears. 
  We saw several more bears that week, including seven in one afternoon driving across the grassy foothills of the Carmens. We searched an oak canyon, finding small lizards perched on the rocky cliffs, where black-capped vireos—an endangered species in the U.S.—were common and twittered nervously, about one every hundred yards. A big commotion, crashing in the brush, an amorphous black shape in the shadows. A huge fresh turd in the wash where the commotion began. 
We were having good luck, searching canyons by day, driving roads by night, and found many rare snakes, representing new records for Mexico. We tended to celebrate after days like this. And celebrating in Mexico means endless Tecates and copious tequila.
 I was in and out of a swirling, syrupy sleep. An incredible racket woke me. I assumed it was the wind slamming shut the front door. It went on smashing like that for a minute, but I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t know if I could get up. My spinning head came to life, focused on the sound. It was more of a wrenching sound. I thought somebody was screwing around trying to get one of the windows closed. But it went on for another full minute. I was right about to get up and start yelling when I heard Tomas.
“It’s a bear!”
“What the hell?” I called out. My brain wasn’t working right, but now a small dollop of fear dripped into my inebriated delirium.
I stumbled into the kitchen. Tomas was standing there looking at the window near the sink. The sound was incredible. It sounded like a linebacker trying to push a car door open the wrong way. Like the raucous squawking of a pterosaur. Like a piston at an industrial plant. Like an enormous bear trying to tear its way into a house. 
All the windows and doors were reinforced with metal latticework. The bear was attempting to rip open a weak spot to get inside. Tomas started hissing, yelling at the bear. 
It looked like he had everything under control, and I could barely stand up, so I crashed out again. 
The wrenching sound came back 30 minutes later. El Oso Negro had returned. After more shooing and shouting, he finally went away.
Black bears are extremely common in the Carmens, possibly exhibiting higher population densities here than any other place in North America. Bears can be active year-round in the Carmens because of the many kinds of oaks; a good mast of acorns is always coming into season. Given their densities here, it’s obvious how the black bear returned to Texas. 
And more are on the way. 
You may wonder why I would mention a story of marauding bears in Mexico crossing the border into Texas. Isn’t this just more fodder for those who favor a strong border, and a big, beautiful wall? What kind of argument is this? Well, anyone who would use this as an exemplar for border security would only be using senseless fearmongering. The chances of a black bear attacking you are vanishingly small, even when ornery and habituated to humans. Anyone who is more scared of bears than getting into car accidents or getting gunned down by their fellow Americans has clearly succumbed to irrationality. Anyone who doesn’t respect the beauty and courage of these bears, who cross dozens of miles of inhospitable desert to find a better place to live, doesn’t have enough measurable empathy and humanity. The bears enrich our local flora and fauna and contribute to biological productivity. And, there’s the economic incentive: bears consistently top the list of things national park visitors want to see, and the parks are an enormous economic boon for nearby rural towns. Big Bend is a classic example, and the migrant black bears a case in point. 
You might recognize some parallels between the bears and other timely issues. I stand by the metaphor.

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