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  • Louisa Willcox

The Miracle of Grizzly Birth

Now is the season of miracles, when deep in frozen earth, grizzly bear mothers give birth to cubs the size of tea cups. Since time immemorial, we have been fascinated by the ability of bears to disappear into the ground in the fall, seemingly die, and then 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," which means “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 long meant something profoundly important to us: the promise of renewal and transformation. In this wild animal, we found – and still find – a seemingly magical connection with the earth, the growth of plants, and the seasons of life.

Bearing Cubs

The birthing process of bears is improbable if only because parturition occurs during winter while bear mothers are more or less asleep in a hole in the ground. The mom wakes up to give birth, but dozes on and off as she nurses the cubs until April. During this time, she does not eat, drink or eliminate waste. Imagine the energy involved in giving birth and feeding young ones for months -- without eating or drinking.

Which is why a grizzly mom needs to be obese before entering the den. She needs 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, compared to the approximate 2,700 kcal that a 200-pound couch potato human needs to survive.) She also possesses a host of incredible biochemical adaptations, which, needless-to-say, humans lack, to keep her organs, muscles and bones functioning.

Cubs -- usually two per litter -- are born blind and helpless. They are the smallest of any placental mammal in comparison to their grown size – proportionally one tenth the size of a human infant at birth. It is imperative that they stay in a protected den until big enough and strong enough to survive during April or May when they emerge with their mom into the wide world above-ground.

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. And, indeed, mother bears metaphorically transform their offspring through love, nurturance, and a lot of patient education into whole beings able to survive in the challenging world outside the safe confines of a den.

Scientists have unveiled only parts of the mother bear’s secrets. They have discovered, for example, that she has the richest milk of any known mammal, which helps explain why cubs grow so quickly, roughly 12-20 fold by the time they follow mom out of the den to greet the wilderness. Despite this growth and the protection offered by 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 often from being killed by male bears.

A Grizzly One Night Stand

Mating among bears occurs roughly 7-1/2 months before the involved females actually give birth. Grizzly bears mate in an elaborate sometimes violent, sometimes loving, 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 potentially attracts multiple male bears who sort out their competing claims through often violent showdowns. The winner of these confrontations then needs to convince the female that he is worthy, often spending several days nuzzling, tussling, playing and courting the object of his affections.

Females sometimes aggressively fend off the initial overtures of amorous male bears. But when she is ready, copulation does not take long, roughly 20-30 minutes, sometimes more. When done, the parents of the cubs-to-be go their separate ways, although the involved female may go on to mate with more than one male.

But there is no relationship between bears beyond the brief but intense courtship and following sex. Mating is more or less a one night stand.

Half Pregnant

Bears flout the supposed truism, “you can’t be half pregnant.” As it turns out, a pregnant female develops a small embryo, called a blastocyst, which floats around in the uterus for months after breeding. 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 health and history than perhaps any other animal.

Bearing Responsibility

Female grizzly bears do not sexually mature until they are 5 or so years old. Thereafter, she gives birth to cubs at 2-3 year intervals, which gives her time to teach offspring 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 book by Tom Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson. Other 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 to her apparent madness. The male bears that she will soon attract might kill the cubs in whom she’s made such a huge investment.

Alone and vulnerable, newly independent sibling cubs often travel and even den together. Thereafter, female offspring tend to settle next to or within areas used by their mother, whereas male cubs tend to disperse more widely. The conservative settlement patterns of female grizzly bears help explain why connecting isolated bear populations is such a slow process, especially compared to wolves and mountain lions that tend to disperse much longer distances.

Bearing Arms and the Problem of Low Productivity

Because of a long adolescence, small litters and long lags between them, a female grizzly bear has difficulty replacing herself before she dies. In fact, grizzly bears have the lowest reproductive rates of any land mammal in North America. As a consequence, grizzly bear populations cannot sustain many human-caused deaths; populations only grow if birth rates exceed death rates.

Excessive killing of females by humans was a major reason why Yellowstone grizzly bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975. And malicious killing by poachers continues to account for many grizzly bear deaths.

Remember the etymological connection between “bury” and “bear”? Poachers give this a dark twist with the moniker “shoot, shovel and shut up.” But federal wildlife managers and their lawyers are reluctant to prosecute poaching cases, even when there hasn’t been any shoveling or shutting up. An example? A few years ago, a party of hunters watched a group of bears from afar eating an elk they had mortality wounded. They then shot and killed one of the assembled grizzlies. The killer was not prosecuted.

State managers have shown themselves to be even more reluctant to pursue poachers—one of many reasons why removal of federal ESA protections (“delisting”) is a really bad idea. Under Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho state laws, punishments for poaching animals such as grizzlies are trivial. Compounding the problem, Wyoming now plans to trophy hunt grizzly bears this fall. State managers claim that there are “spare” bears. Moreover, in a classic non sequitur, they argue that grizzlies “need” to be hunted simply because all other state-managed wildlife larger than field mice are hunted, whether as big game, fur-bearers, or varmints.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), Safari Club—and state wildlife managers who serve as their mouthpiece—also loudly proclaim that hunting will make grizzlies wary and people thus safer, despite the fact that scientists have explicitly debunked this myth.

Meanwhile, the public has expressed outrage and concern over the states’ plans for grizzlies—none more so than native peoples for whom trophy hunting of grizzlies is an anathema.

Bearing Witness

As scientists teach us, and as Native peoples know full 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 also sustain us: salmon, acorns, bison, elk, moose, berries, and pine seeds.

Grizzly bears remind 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 energy-rich Yellowstone bear foods, cutthroat trout and whitebark pine, grizzly bears have had to make major adjustments. Despite the protestations of government apologists for delisting, dandelions and mushrooms don’t cut it.

Bears have turned, in fact, to eating more fat-rich army cutworm moths, as well as meat in the form of livestock and the remains of elk killed by hunters. As a result, grizzlies are being killed in ever-greater numbers by panicky big game hunters and state wildlife agencies on behalf of aggrieved ranchers.

The fear- and domination-infused attitudes of those currently killing Yellowstone’s grizzlies could not be more different from those of our ancient ancestors, who saw bears as mentors and guides. 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 restoring decimated grizzly bear populations.

Bear as Metaphor

As I noted before, the word “metaphor” is derived from the Greek word literally meaning “to carry over.” In fact, bears have long served as messengers between the human and spiritual realms—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, a 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 before dispensing “alternate facts.”

One story that I especially love is the Woman Who Married the Bear. 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 possess other magical powers. In the Modoc creation story, grizzlies are progenitors of the Indian people.

What fascinates me about these stories is that the relationship between human and 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 the complex interconnections between weather, predation, competition, social structure, and behavior. We can watch, listen, feel, and maybe bear it all.

The Great Bear has enriched and sparked our imaginations for a long, long time. Today we are being called on to imagine a better future for threatened grizzlies in Yellowstone and elsewhere. While progress has been made, it is far from enough, and new threats are emerging, especially due to climate change.

For the first time in our thousands of years of co-evolution, we humans shoulder the responsibility for the fate of the Great Bear. It is our turn to carry the bear that has so long carried us. Will we?

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