I walk through a gnarled and stunted grove of Gambel’s oaks near the Fisher Mesa trail on the north flank of the La Sal Mountains. The afternoon is “brilliant,” from the British vernacular meaning “spectacular.” Schools of massive cumulus clouds swarm high overhead, their presence a reminder of the August weatherman’s daily mantra, “chance of afternoon showers.”
On the ridge above me immense ponderosa pines indicate a transition from this scraggy forest to one comprised of towering trees. But the oak woodland holds my attention as I am drawn to the evidence of an animal’s passage. The “pumpkin patch” of orange-barked pondos will have to wait; I’m too consumed with the bonanza of bear scat all around me.
The scat is dark, almost purplish and in sufficient quantity for me to guess that the bears like to hang out in this grove. There are bits of acorn shells and what I presume to be the seeds of serviceberry embedded in the coiled piles like fossils in limestone. I take a stick and poke at the dried and brittle samples hoping to find some other telltale features of this bear’s diet, like butterfly wings or beetle shells or belt buckles.
El oso negro or black bears are a common species here in the La Sals. They inhabit all of the mountain drainages and have a stable population that rebounds from hunting pressure. That the bears barely get a moments rest during the season – seems like there is always some type of hunting or pursuit season upon them – it isn’t until they go into a deep sleep, known as torpor, that the bears get a well-deserved break. Not true hibernators, bears may emerge from their dens to forage and fatten up during the winter.
When they are out, a black bear’s gait may be referred to as “deceptively clumsy” and that’s a good description. Whereas they seem too big and awkward to move quickly, insert an image of a National Football League linebacker in your mind. Speed, strength and agility, these are all shared features between Chicago Bears and American black bears.
Standing 2 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder and stretching maybe 5 feet nose to tail, these bruins may weigh up to 450 pounds or more. And when you hear one crashing the forest to avoid hikers or dogs, their passage registers on a Richter scale.
Though these large animals seem like they could haul down a small elk, their preference for eating berries and bugs creates a different image than one of a massive carnivore. Their “see food” diet consists of a smorgasbord of ants, acorns, berries, grasses, birds, eggs, amphibians, bugs, fish, small mammals, and human food scraps. Carrion may comprise about 10% of their diet.
Garbage or human food scraps are not good for bears, and they will tear into garbage cans, tents, cabins, and automobiles looking for food. One study done in Yosemite National Park indicated that black bears “profiled” certain cars and pickups for their “smash and grab” antics. That and they figured out on which models they could pop the doors open by jumping on the roof.
Although I don’t encounter a bear during this particular visit, I have seen them in the La Sals and Abajos on many occasions. When I worked at Arches National Park as a ranger, we sometimes had reports of a bear at Delicate Arch or of them swimming across the Colorado River. These were rare and infrequent sightings, yet some bears crossed Interstate 70 and open desert to disperse from the Book Cliffs to the La Sals, even going from the La Sals to Breckenridge, Colorado. On more than one trip into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, I’ve seen bear tracks in some of the canyons. They were probably bears from Elk Ridge or the Abajos going walkabout.
If I had encountered a bear on this trip, my first priority would be to slow down and access the situation. Many times the bear will retreat or evaporate into the forest faster than I can think. Other times we both get a good look at one another. The bear may stand on its hinds legs to get a better perspective or give a “woof” or “grunt” to see what I’ll do. I’ve never been charged, although I’d stand my ground and shout if the bear got too close. I would also take a look around to see if I was between a sow and her cubs, then rectify that situation without a lot of commotion. In other words, I’d enjoy the moment.
Though I always feel lucky when I do encounter a bear in the woods, I’m sure el oso can “bearly” stand the intrusion.