Bear witness

Posted March 27, 2009, at 5:29 p.m.

Our journey began at Winnipeg, Manitoba, near North America’s longitudinal center. From there we headed northwest across the ancient bed of glacial Lake Agassiz and out through the rich farmlands of Canada’s Red River Valley. Pancake-flat prairies morphed into rolling aspen woodlands as we approached the area around Lake Audy some five hours later.

Our host and guide on this expedition was Dr. Jim Irwin, a bear of a man with a background in wildlife biology and a doctorate in wildlife diseases. Jim and his wife, Candy, operate the 720-acre Riding Mountain Guest Ranch near Lake Audy. Candy is a former guest at the ranch and an educator with a passion for animals and nature.

It was black bears we came to see, and within minutes of dropping off our luggage at the ranch, we were among them. Our first glimpse was of three cubs high in an aspen tree at the edge of a large field.

Black bears are normally shy and wary of people. To enable visitors to view the bears without disturbing them or habituating them to humans, Jim had converted an old school bus into a blind and blacked out three of its sides.

Jim maneuvered his van through the rutted field and slowly pulled alongside the bus. Cautiously and quietly, we transferred ourselves from the van to the bus and lowered its windows. The chilled air of late October poured into the blind and sent us digging in our backpacks for hats and gloves.

Within minutes the dark shapes of adult bears began to materialize in a shrubby clearing. All were females, or sows. The three cubs shimmied down the tree and joined the adults as they foraged among the leaves and stumps.

Suddenly, one of the sows emitted a warning grunt that sent the cubs scampering up another aspen close to the bus. As we strained our eyes against the gathering dusk, a cinnamon-colored female lumbered onto the scene and sat back on her haunches.

“That’s Tripawed,” Jim whispered, pronounced like “tripod.” “She’s only got three legs. She lost her right front one to a trapper’s snare. When she tried to pull herself free, the snare tightened and shut off the circulation. The leg developed gangrene and had to come off. She’s lucky to be alive.”

Jim went on to explain that, whether or not private land is posted, Manitoba law requires hunters and trappers to obtain permission for their activities from landowners or lawful occupants. Permission had not been granted to the individual who snared Tripawed.

The three-legged sow struck some great poses, although the light was fading so quickly that taking photographs was almost out of the question. We were not allowed to use flashes because they would alert the bears to our presence and also frighten them.

“Never mind,” Jim assured the group. “The weather will be fine tomorrow evening. You’ll be able to get all the photos you want when we come back.”

Riding Mountain National Park

Riding Mountain National Park features one of the largest black bear populations in North America. Because the bears are most active at dawn and dusk, we spent our days searching for other wildlife.

The 1,148-square-mile park sits on the highest part of the Manitoba Escarpment, some 1,500 feet above the prairie. It is the protected core area of the UNESCO Riding Mountain Biosphere Preserve.

The park consists of mixed forests and grasslands punctuated by pristine lakes, sparkling streams and secluded bogs. Some 60 species of mammals make their homes here, including moose, wolf, deer, and elk. More than 250 species of birds and about 10 species of reptiles and amphibians also thrive in the park’s varied habitats.

A bison herd resides within the park boundaries and can be approached quite easily. Bison are no longer in danger of extinction, having increased in numbers from fewer than a hundred in 1889 to more than 40,000 in Canada alone. Considering that only about 5 percent of Canada’s original prairie habitat remains, the increase in bison population is remarkable.

We primarily used a safari approach in our search for animals. Traveling by van helped us to minimize our impact on the land and also on the wildlife habituated to vehicular traffic. When on foot, we were careful to keep our voices low and not to stress the animals we encountered during our forays.

One unforgettable view was a small herd of elk browsing along the forest edges early on a frosty morning. The rising sun transformed their coats into golden mantles and their huge antler racks into regal crowns.

Although we were always on the watch for wolves, lynx and cougars, they eluded us. Coyotes, however, thrilled us with their acumen in hunting rodents in the tawny fields and along the roadsides.

As for birds, the most impressive were the bright white tundra swans with their black faces and 5½-foot wingspans.

Gray or Canada jays were more plentiful than other birds and amused us with their antics. Locally called Whiskey Jacks, these small jays fluff up their feathers to make themselves look much larger than they actually are. They seemed to delight in flying up to us and picking crumbs out of our palms.

Animals aren’t the park’s only attractions. Folks with a bent for botany will find wildflowers and other vegetation not present anywhere else in the Canadian prairie regions.

In addition to all this, the park offers visitors a range of activities. It features 250 miles of trails and is a marvelous place for such pursuits as hiking, backpacking, cycling, cross-country skiing, fishing, horseback riding, boating and camping.

Riding Mountain Guest Ranch

When you step into the Irwins’ home a few miles south of the park, you enter a world where pressures and cares evaporate as readily as morning mist on a sunny day.

The house is a 3½-story structure with abundant insulation and passive solar gain. It features a high-efficiency wood-burning furnace with rock heat storage and a preheating coil for hot water.

Beaver-felled trees and deadfalls provide most of the wood for heating the house and hot tub. According to Jim, the furnace is so efficient they haven’t had to worry about creosote in the chimney since 1983.

Even with such practical, high tech features, the place comes across as downright cozy. Dogs and cats roam at will, except for the dining area, and guests can relax and chat while enjoying a selection of delicious wines provided by their hosts.

While the house is relatively new, the wooden floors squeak as if they had been trod upon by generations of happy dwellers. Rooms take advantage of every available inch of space. There is no sense of crowding here, and multiple bathrooms ensure that nobody has to wait in line. A three-bedroom bungalow accommodates additional guests.

The house overlooks Lake Wasamin, a private 150-acre body of water that serves as home to loons and lots of other water-loving wildlife. Guests are welcome to stroll along the shore or explore the lake by canoe or kayak.

Hayfields, pastures and hills invite wanderers, as do the woods and meadows. If you truly enjoy nature’s serenity, as well as starlit skies and brilliant displays of northern lights, you will delight in this place.

As for domestic animals, you will find everything from goats and ducks to donkeys at the ranch. An orphaned deer is a permanent resident. Candy also rehabilitates raccoons and other critters for release back into the wild.

If you enjoy watching beavers, you will want to spend some time in the blind Jim built at the edge of one of the ponds. We spent an early evening observing a pair of beavers busily felling aspens and filling their food stores. The entrance to their lodge was virtually at our feet.

It’s not just the facilities and animals that guests enjoy. Jim and Candy are attractions in themselves. Friendly, congenial and enthusiastic, both are eager to share their considerable knowledge about wildlife and ecosystems.

In addition to wildlife biology and ecology, Jim’s interests include photography, history and composing music. Candy is a skilled cook who prefers to use locally grown products for the delicious meals she prepares for guests. She enjoys yoga and other quiet pursuits, and is especially interested in wolves.

If you wish, Jim can arrange for you to participate in First Nations cultural learning programs at Anishinabe Village of Shawenequanape Kipchewin. He will also take you to a self-sufficient family homestead where everything is grown or made on the property.

If you are interested in waterfowl you are in for a special treat. Jim will drive you to Oak Hammock Marsh or Delta Marsh. Both serve as major staging and feeding areas for ducks and geese. Waterfowl taking off and landing at these sites are so numerous that their wings nearly block out the sun.

Back to the bears

As Jim promised on our first afternoon at the ranch, we had plenty of time to watch and photograph the black bears from the blind. Because bears are not predictable and the hibernation season was fast approaching, there was no guarantee that we would see them at all. However, they did not disappoint us.

Jim scattered a bit of kibbled dog food to tempt the bears into the clearing. In a manner consistent with the Riding Mountain Biospheres Reserve resource-use practices in the “Area of Cooperation,” he is careful not to habituate the bears or encourage a dependency that might interfere with their normal roaming behavior.

First on the scene that afternoon was Tripawed, the three-legged cinnamon bear. Despite their reddish-brown coats, cinnamon bears are actually a subspecies of black bear.

Tripawed already had driven off her cubs and was likely pregnant again. However, we saw no other cinnamon bears in the area.

What we did see — and there were plenty of them — were black bears. The adults were all females, some with cubs.

The cubs romped and foraged, sometimes batting at a brazen red squirrel that seemed to take pleasure in stealing kibble from under their noses. The squirrel quickly stashed his pilfered treasures in and among the stumps and trees at the edge of the clearing.

Quite often a mother bear would grunt, sending the cubs scampering up the nearest aspen trunk. The alarm usually signaled the arrival of an ill-tempered sow from the far side of the clearing. The grouchy sow had no cubs, and she tended to pick fights with the other adults.

Sometimes it was difficult to determine which bear initiated the fight or which one was sent crashing through the woods to escape potential injury. The cubs waited patiently in the aspens until it seemed that danger had passed. Then they cautiously descended to the ground, but any sudden noise or motion sent them scurrying back up the trees to safety.

As visitors, we were thrilled to be within feet of bears that seemed totally unaware of our presence. Numerous mothers and cubs came and went over the course of a couple of hours. At one time, nine bears foraged together in the same clearing.

If seeing and photographing black bears appeals to you, consider staying with Jim and Candy Irwin at their Riding Mountain Guest Ranch. You can visit their Web site at www.ridingmountain.ca/ or e-mail them at bears@ridingmountain.ca.

You can also, as I did, merge the black bear and polar bear experiences by booking a trip through Frontiers North in Winnipeg. Go to www.frontiersnorth.com and click on the Black & White Adventures link for information and prices. You can also speak directly with an adventure planner toll free in North America by calling 1-800-663-9832.

The blinds at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch are unheated, and they can be downright cold in mid- to late October when the combined bear trips take place. The warm clothes you’ll need for the polar bear expedition also will serve you well with the black bears.

Beth Parks is a wildlife biologist and retired UMaine educator. You may reach her at bparks@maine.edu.

Black bears, like the brute above, populate Riding Mountain National Park in southwestern Manitoba, which also has cinnamon bears (center), a subspecies of the black. A cub (below) scaled a tree in a hurry when its mother warned of approaching danger.

photos by Beth Parks

• • •

Black bears at a glance

Black bears, Ursus americanus, live across North America from Alaska and Canada to Labrador and Newfoundland. They can be found throughout the United States and down into Central Mexico.

Black bears are the most common and widespread bear in Canada.

They get their name from their jet-black fur. The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, as only black bears east of the Mississippi are predominantly black.

In western and southern parts of their range, black bears vary in color. Their fur tends to be lighter and may be cinnamon, brown, reddish, cream, or even blond. In certain northwest coastal regions the fur sometimes even takes on a bluish tinge.

Black bears usually have a light muzzle and sometimes a white chest spot.

Male black bears generally weigh 250 to 600 pounds and can stand as tall as 7 feet on their hind legs. Females are about a third smaller and average 90 to 400 pounds. The largest black bear on record was Tennessee; it weighed 881 pounds.

Although the bears can walk on their hind legs, they usually do so only to get a better view or scent of something. They have an excellent sense of smell.

Black bears shuffle when they walk for two reasons. First, their hind legs are a bit longer than their front legs. Second, the legs on one side move together rather than alternating with the ones on the opposite side.

They have sharp, nonretractable curved claws for tearing, digging and climbing. The claws enable the bears to scale trees easily.

Black bears have been clocked running at more than 30 mph. They are also good swimmers.

The bears tend to be most active at dawn and dusk. However, they vary their activity with the availability of food and can feed and travel at any time.

You will find black bears in a variety of habitats that range from forested and shrubby areas to meadows, swamps, fields and even tundra.

Bears are opportunists and eat just about anything. Their typical food includes insects, berries, roots, grasses, acorns, bee larvae and honey, fish, birds and carrion. They sometimes take livestock. They are also attracted to garbage, which can pose a danger to humans if they lose their fear of people and associate them with food.

Black bears tend to be solitary. Home ranges typically are 8 to 60 square miles for males and 1 to 15 square miles for females. The size of the home range generally depends on the availability of food, water and shelter.

Females generally begin to breed at about 3 or 4 years of age. When properly nourished they usually breed every other year.

Males may be 4 or 5 years old before they win breeding rights.

Although breeding takes place in the summer months, the implantation of the fertilized egg is delayed. Embryos don’t begin to develop until the female dens in the fall and enters hibernation. The whole process may take about 220 days, but actual embryo development takes only about 10 weeks.

First-time mothers usually give birth to only one cub. The average number is two or three, although as many as six cubs have been documented.

Newborn cubs weigh less than a pound and are blind and nearly hairless. They don’t begin leaving their dens until the spring thaw and their weight reaches four to eight pounds.

Cubs are weaned in the summer and early fall of their first year and stay with their mother through the first winter. The mother usually breeds again the next summer.

Black bears are light hibernators and go into a state of dormancy or lethargy from which they can be aroused. Although they usually do not eat, drink or eliminate during this period, pregnant females give birth and nurse. Males and females without cubs will occasionally leave their dens during the winter months. In warmer climates the bears may not hibernate at all.

Although black bears can live up to about 30 years in the wild, most live only about 10 years. Mortality is primarily attributed to hunting, trapping, collisions with vehicles, and other interactions with humans.

Poaching poses the greatest threat to black bears. Illegal kills supply mostly Asian markets with gall bladders, hearts and paws thought to have medicinal value.

Not sure if you’re seeing a black bear, a brown bear or a grizzly (a subspecies of brown bear)? You will find black bears only in this part of the country. North American brown bears and grizzlies live primarily in the northwestern states and Canadian provinces.

Black bears are distinguished from the other bears by their smaller shoulder humps, convex as opposed to concave profiles, and longer, less heavily furred ears.

Unlike grizzlies, black bears seldom attack humans unless threatened, wounded or cornered. Only 56 human deaths have been attributed to black bears in the last century.

If you encounter a black bear in the wild speak calmly, back away slowly and give it plenty of space.

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