Bear Watch (Notebook)

Every time I drive over the pass, returning home to Livingston from Bozeman, I peer out my truck window in hopes of catching a glimpse of a grizzly bear. At one time grizzlies roamed free on Bozeman Pass—and probably an occasional bear still makes her way through—but the bears I’m looking for live in a human-made habitat. They eat food that caretakers supply and frolic and perform for gawking visitors on a daily basis.

I’ve always been tempted to pull off the highway and check out the spectacle that is Grizzly Encounter, but never quite made it until I had visitors in town. I’d been torn; do I even want to see captive bears? Won’t it pale in comparison to the bears I’ve seen browsing meadows in Yellowstone or traversing a hillside in the Absarokas? Is a bear without its home still a bear? My dad and his wife provided the perfect excuse to explore behind the walls of the place I pass so often.

We drove into Grizzly Encounter, parked the rental car and walked over to the bear viewing area. The large, boulder-filled hills provided a play area for three bears—Brutus, Sheena and Chrysti. All three were brought from deplorable conditions (the females lived in tiny cages in which they could hardly move) to live out the rest of their lives in comfort. A waterfall dropped from the top of the enclosure into a pond and if I looked at it just right, I could imagine the bear habitat extending into the Bridger Mountains that rose up behind it.

Like I said, I’m torn when thinking about wild animals in captive situations. The folks at Grizzly Encounter, and the other bear viewing places around the Rocky Mountain West, use the bear experience as way to educate people about the bruins and the issues their relatives face in the wild. Zoos and other bear watching spots have come a long way from the days of tourists gawking at a growling bear being poked with a stick through the bars of a metal cage, but still, bears are meant to roam.

Freedom is not idyllic and wildness does not guarantee happiness, but as Americans we are led to believe these are our inalienable rights, that these are goals we should aspire to. It could be that the bears are more resigned to their lives, caged or not, than I believe. It could be I am projecting my feelings on to them. Freedom is risky; it is the possibility of harm or death. It is also the possibility of exuberant days, swimming across rivers, roaming for miles and eating berries off the bush. Caged bears have neither of these.

As I watched the caretaker throw Ho-Ho’s, Boston cream pies and bacon to lure the bears toward us, I remembered Gary Snyder saying, “Our place is part of what we are.” So, a bear without the wild is not really a bear, or at least it is a different bear. However, the handful of places around the Rocky Mountain West primarily keep bears that cannot be released into the wild. These caretakers passionately care about the bears and provide the best life possible for them. If the bruins can’t live in the wild anymore, maybe it’s worth it to use them to help us understand (and maybe protect!) their wild brethren.

Last summer, hiking along the String Lake Trail in Grand Teton National Park I saw a wild bear. I came around a corner and stepped from the cool shadows of a thick lodgepole forest into the warm sun of an open meadow. Bent over a fallen and decaying log, a black bear searched for insects. The name “black bear” can be a misnomer because the animals’ fur ranges from black to brown to cinnamon to almost blonde. They shed hair in the summer –I’ve seen it stuck in the trees they use to scratch themselves- and this cinnamon bear’s coat was shaggy and uneven. Birds sang and declared territories in the trees as the bear dug its deeply curved front claws into the log and pulled it open as easily as if it were paper. Moving closer, I snapped a twig with my boot. The bear suddenly stopped and looked directly at me. Then it swung around, untroubled, and insouciantly walked away. Black bears are inhabitants of edges; open areas provide food, but they stay close to the forest for protection. For them, nature is not a place to visit, but rather, their home. They live in the wild and they are the wild.

In many cultures other than the dominant American one, bears are revered, honored and often considered a part of society and intricate in maintaining the functions of the world. Today many Americans see bears as either pests or cuddly plush toys and curios that have no relation to wild bears. We have so far removed ourselves from the bears’ world that we have lost any relationship we may have had. Severing that moral relationship has had deleterious effects on the bear. Maybe seeing bears in natural-like habitats helps those who have never seen a wild bear better connect with these curious, intelligent animals. Maybe bear viewing benefits all bears.

The issue still troubles me, but I’m glad these bears were rescued and provided a better life. I’m glad that people are learning about bears, their habitat and the difficulties of being an animal in an increasingly populated world. I hope that living in a cushy captive environment is better than not living at all. And frankly, it’s awfully cool to watch these bears up close.

Idaho
Pocatello Zoo, Pocatello
Specializing in wildlife native to the intermountain west, the Pocatello Zoo has two black bears and two grizzly bears, along with a host of other animals. The male grizzly, Charlie, was born in Alaska in 1975, but became a “problem bear”. After several failed relocation efforts, Charlie moved to Idaho in 1978. At 32 years old, he has more than doubled his expected life span and still rules the roost he shares with a female grizzly named Stripes. Over the next several years, the zoo will be raising money to expand and improve their bear habitat, as well as other zoo features.
Open April 15-October 31
Admission: Adults $3.50, Seniors (60+) $2.50, Children (3-11) $1.75
208.234.6264, www.pocatellozoo.org

Yellowstone Bear World, Rexburg
Education and interaction are both part of the experience at YBW. Visitors can bottle-feed and pet the bear cubs, take a curator tour—which includes feeding the adult bears—visit the petting zoo and play on the amusement rides.
Open mid-May-mid-October
Admission: Adults $13.95, Seniors $12.95, Children (3-10) $9.95 (maximum per vehicle $50.00)
208.359.9688, www.yellowstonebearworld.com

Montana
Animals of Montana, Bridger Canyon
Troy Hyde is an animal trainer and the founder of Animals of Montana, a game farm and wildlife film casting agency. In addition to grizzly and black bears, Hyde raises tigers, mountain lions, snow leopards, wolves and badgers. Animals of Montana specializes in photography workshops and private photo shoots.
406.686.4224, www.animalsofmontana.com

Beartooth Nature Center, Red Lodge
Black bears are only one of the native species housed at the Beartooth Nature Center, a home for animals that cannot be returned to the wild due to injury or habituation to humans. Many of the animals Montana Fish, Wildlife @ Parks confiscates (for being illegally raised) are placed here.
Admission: Adults $6.00, Seniors (55+) $5.00, Children (5- 15) $2.50
406.446.1133, www.beartoothnautrecenter.org

Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone
Right outside the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the GWDC aims to provide an opportunity to learn about, view and ultimately appreciate the grizzly bear and gray wolf. An interactive museum exhibit explores the bear of myth, art, literature, history and folklore with the bear, as scientists, outdoorsmen and researchers know it. The GWDC bears are also used to test bear-resistant food storage canisters and garbage containers.
Admission: Adults $9.75, Seniors (62+) $9.00, Children (5-12) $5.00
406.646.7001, www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org

Grizzly Encounter, Bozeman Pass
Watch three rescued grizzlies play on huge boulders and in their pond and waterfall. Only a moat separates visitors from the bears. The three bears help promote education for bear safety and conservation.
Admission: Adults $7.00, Seniors (65+) $6.00, Children (3-12) $5.00
406.586.8893, www.grizzlyencounter.com

ZooMontana, Billings
ZooMontana is in the process of constructing a state-of-the-art brown bear exhibit expected to be completed by December 2007. The new two-acre habitat will include large boulders and water features in its design. Two cubs will arrive at the zoo in spring 2008.
Admission: Adults $6.00, Seniors $4.00, Children (3-15) $3.00
406.652.8100 www.zoomontana.org

Wyoming
There aren’t any known captive bears to view in Wyoming because state statutes disallow the possession of any kind of ‘Trophy’ wildlife even at game farms or zoos.

Big Sky Journal
October 05, 2007

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