Right about now, grizzly bear mothers are giving birth to cubs the size of tea cups. The process is nothing short of a miracle. Since time immemorial, we have been fascinated by the ability of bears to disappear into the earth in winter, seemingly die, and reemerge with new life in spring.
It may seem strange to discover that the words “bear,” “birth,” “bury” and even “metaphor” all share the same linguistic roots. The Teutonic word ber is short for Old High German and Old English beran, or in Latin, ferre, “to carry.” The dictionary gives us over 40 meanings of the verb “to bear.” The related Greek pherein gives us “amphora” and “metaphor,” so bears are implicated in carrying meaning through symbols. (For more on the word’s etymology, see The Sacred Paw, by Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders.)
These words got tangled up in our language and our psyche because the bear’s birth process has meant something profoundly important to us: the promise of renewal and transformation. In this wild animal, we found a seemingly magical connection with the earth, the growth of plants, and the seasons of life.
One reason that the birth process is so improbable is that, during winter, mother bears are basically sleeping. She wakes up to give birth, but dozes on and off as she nurses the cubs until April – at the same time she does not eat, drink or eliminate waste. Imagine the energy involved in giving birth and feeding young ones for months without eating, drinking and the rest!
That is why she has to be obese before entering the den, because she will need an enormous store of calories to support herself and her cubs till spring. (Amazingly, she consumes roughly 30,500 kcal of digestible energy every day during the fall (link), compared to the approximate 2,700 kcal that a 200-pound couch potato human would need to survive.) She also possesses a host of incredible biochemical adaptations to keep her organs, muscles and bones functioning (link).
Cubs -- usually one to two in a litter -- are born blind and helpless. They are the smallest of any mammal in comparison to their grown size – which is one reason why they need to stay in a protected den, until they are big and strong enough to survive when they emerge with their mom in the spring. Proportionally, bear cubs are one tenth the size of a human infant at birth.
Humans have long been curious about what goes on deep inside a bear’s den. According to some ancient tales, the mother licks the formless cubs into the shape of bears. Looking at this another way, nurturing her cubs with loving care, licking and educating them into the ways of living in the world, mother bears transform her offspring into wholeness.
Scientists have unveiled only a part of her mystery. They have discovered, for example, that mother bears have the richest milk of any known mammal, which helps explain why cubs grow so quickly. Their body weights will have increased 12-20 times by the time they follow mom out of the den to greet the wilderness.
Despite the growth that they achieve in the den and the protection they get from famously ferocious mothers, cubs are still very vulnerable, particularly during their first year of life. About half do not survive to be adults, dying in river crossings and from other hazards, but especially by being killed by male bears.
A Grizzly One Night Stand
Equally amazing, the bear’s birth process begins many months before it occurs. Grizzly bears mate in an elaborate ritual that can occur any time from mid-May through mid-July. When a female comes into estrus, she leaves a scent in her urine that attracts male bears. Violent showdowns can erupt between competing males. A female and her consort can spend several days nuzzling, tussling, playing and courting each other before mating.
Females sometimes fend off the initial overtures of amorous male bears. When she is ready, he mounts her. Copulation does not take long, roughly 20-30 minutes, sometimes more. When the act is done, bears go their separate ways. A female bear sometimes mates with more than one male.
But there is no relationship between bears beyond mating season. It is more or less a grizzly version of a one night stand.
Despite the saying that “you can’t be half pregnant,” that is not true for bears. A pregnant female develops a small embryo, called a blastocyst, which floats around in the uterus for months after breeding. In fact, the amount of body fat accumulated by a pregnant female will determine whether the blastocyst implants in the uterus--or not--once she dens. If she is in poor condition, the embryo is reabsorbed. If she is in good condition, it implants.
This strategy makes sense, given that the birthing process entails a major physical commitment by the prospective mother. Being thin could kill her and her cubs.
The female grizzly’s ability to essentially monitor body condition as a prelude to committing to pregnancy gives her more control over her reproductive rate than perhaps any other animal.
Female grizzly bears do not sexually mature till they are 6 or so years old. When a female has cubs, she raises them for 2-3 years, teaching them everything she knows about how to make a living in the world – which hillsides grow the first biscuitroot in spring, how and where to catch new-born elk calves, when and where Yampa root tends to be best, where moths congregate in the high mountains during summer.
A momma bear is protective, attentive, devoted, strict, and sensitive. Her aggression is reserved for anything that could threaten her babies, especially male bears.
Just as with humans, some bear moms are better than others. Some are quintessential caregivers and rarely lose cubs – like Bear Number 399, the Grizzly of Pilgrim Creek and the subject of a recent book by Tom Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson -- while more scatter-brained moms have fewer cubs that reach adulthood.
The mom kicks off her cubs when she goes into estrus again. She lets them know it is time to leave as fiercely as she once protected them. The process can be heartbreaking to watch because the cubs are deeply confused and upset. They whine and whimper in disbelief. But there is method for her apparent madness: the male bears that she will soon attract might kill her cubs.
Alone and vulnerable, sibling cubs own often travel and even den together for the first year or so. Female cubs tend to set up their home ranges next to or within the home range of her mother, while male cubs tend to disperse more widely. The conservative dispersal behavior of female grizzly bears helps explain why connecting isolated bear populations is such a slow process, especially compared to wolves and mountain lions.
Bearing Arms and the Problem of Low Productivity
Because of the energy involved in reproduction, small litter sizes, and the long lag times between litters, a female in Yellowstone has difficulty replacing herself with a another reproducing female in her lifetime. This explains why the grizzly bear has the lowest reproductive rate of any land mammal in North America. As a result, grizzly bears cannot sustain high rates of human-caused deaths.
Excessive killing, especially of females, was a major reason that grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Continued high rates of killing is why removal of protections (known as delisting) is a really bad idea (link).
Remember the etymological connection between “bury” and “bear”? Here is a dark twist on the theme: the moniker “shoot, shovel and shut up,” coined by poachers. Malicious killing of grizzly bears continues and the government is reluctant to prosecute poaching cases. A few years ago, a party of hunters watched a group of bears from a distance eating an elk that they had killed. They then shot and killed one of the assembled grizzlies. The killer was not prosecuted (link).
Under state law, punishment for poaching will be effectively nonexistent after delisting. If a recently introduced bill in Wyoming’s state legislature is passed, Wyoming wildlife officials will not even be able to help investigate possible grizzly bear poaching incidents – despite the fact that the state is currently rolling in money for managing wildlife (link).
Adding to the problem, the government now proposes a grizzly bear sport hunt. Its reasoning is based in large part on the myth that hunting grizzly bears will make them more wary. Scientists have been contesting the rationale (link), and the public has been expressing outrage and concern. For the Tribes, killing their brethren the grizzly bear and mounting their heads on walls is an anathema (link).
As scientists teach us, and as Native peoples know well, the grizzly bear serves as a window into the complexity of entire ecosystems. It eats everything from ants to bison plus hundreds of plants in between. It knows when and where plants are most palatable, and it monitors them constantly for their nutritional quality, teaching their cubs to do the same. To win the seasonal war of calories, in preparation for hibernation and winter birth, the grizzly bear has to be a champion forager, which means keenly observing the subtlest details of the natural world.
We humans as well have long watched what the bears ate, and followed suit. Foods that fatten bears sustain us also: salmon, acorns, bison, elk, moose, berries, and pine seeds.
Grizzly bears reminds us what John Muir famously wrote: you can’t “…pick out anything by itself [without finding] it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In the wake of the collapse of two key Yellowstone foods, cutthroat trout and whitebark pine grizzly bears have had to make major adjustments to compensate for loss of these energy-rich foods. Despite the protestations of so-called government “experts," dandelions and mushrooms don’t cut it (link).
Bears have turned to eating more fat-rich army cutworm moths, as well as meat in the form of elk and livestock (link). As a result, they have been killed in ever-greater numbers by big game hunters and by state wildlife agencies on behalf of aggrieved ranchers (link).
The current attitudes of those killing grizzlies could not be more different from those of our ancient ancestors, when bears were seen as mentors and guides. The stories told by modern-day ranchers and hunters are too often about fear, domination and control. While there are hunters and ranchers who embody a more progressive ethos, it does not take many with guns and motivation to reverse the hard-fought progress towards recovery, especially given the grizzly bear's inherently low reproductive capacity.
Bear as Metaphor
As I noted at the beginning, the word “metaphor” is derived from the Greek word that means literally “to carry over.” In fact, the bear has long served as messengers between the human and spiritual realms, and as guides and mentors.
Because of the night-time prominence of Ursa Major and its proximity to the North Star, the bear is a symbol of navigation as well -- as embodied in the term “taking bearings.”
In Siberia, the grizzly bear was literally a symbol of the truth. The Samoyed, Ostyak, and Vogul peoples swore oaths by the bear before testifying at trial. Using a paw or a nose, which they bit, they said, “If I am wrong, so bite me as I now bite thee.” Supposedly, if the swearer perjured himself, the bear would eat him. Their word for “honest truth” is “kojubat,” from koi for bear and bat for truth. Oh, that our modern legal system allowed the grizzly bear to dispense justice for perjury…. Some who manage our wildlife would be more careful with the facts.
One story that I especially love is the Woman Who Married the Bear (link). There are thousands of versions of this story told throughout North America, Scandinavia, Russia, around the North Pole. In some versions, the woman betrays the ways of her tribe and is raped by the bear, but in most, the maid falls in love with a handsome man who turns out to be a bear. In all, she bears children. Sometimes they are shape shifters, who can change form from human to bear back to human, and have other magical powers. In the Modoc creation story, they are the Indian people.
What fascinates me about this story is that the relationship between the human and the bear births a world of new creative possibilities.
This, perhaps is the nub of what many of us seek when we go to places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks to see grizzly bears and other wild animals in the flesh. We yearn for a brave old world that, through wildlife and wilderness, makes sense to us in a way that our frenetic modern lives do not. Here, we can hope to understand interconnections between the weather, predation, competition, the complexities of animals’ social structure and behavior -- and between us. We can watch, listen, feel, and maybe bear it all.
The Great Bear has carried our imaginations for a long, long time. Today in Yellowstone and elsewhere, grizzly bears are still threatened. While some progress has been made, it is far from enough. For the first time in our thousands of years of co-evolution, we humans bear the responsibility for the fate of the bear. It is our turn to carry the bear that has so long carried us. Will we?