Not just your average bear: Engrained in culture

Dorsey Enlarge photo

Dorsey

By Patt Dorsey

Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns by Colorado Parks and Wildlife about human interactions with bears.

Native Americans honor them. We name our children and our sports teams after them. We find them in figures of speech and in fairy tales. We tuck them in at night. We revere them. We fear them.

As long as people and bears have shared the planet, we have interacted with them in real and significant ways. Unfortunately, Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees spend the majority of our time talking to people only about conflict-based interactions. Now and again, it is important to remember our long, rich history with bears and how it has affected cultures and societies.

Ancient hunter/gatherers survived in part by eating bear meat and using bear grease, bones and hides. These deeply religious ancient hunters performed distinct “bear hunt” rituals to prevent dire consequences from falling upon their communities.

Colorado’s Ute tribes honor the bear by celebrating the Bear Dance each spring. Historically, the scarcity of winter food forced Ute bands to separate into family groups. Similarly, bears limited by food spent the winters alone. The Bear Dance brought the tribes back together. Women and men often met their future husbands and wives at this important social event.

Today, the Bear Dance tradition brings the Utes together and strengthens cultural connections. A wall of sticks encircles the dance ground, representing the bear’s den. The inimitable music created by rubbing notched sticks together symbolizes a bear growling or the thunder that wakes the bear from hibernation.

For more than 3,000 years, bear gallbladder figured prominently in Chinese medicine. While Western culture is not quick to embrace Eastern medicine, the active substance in bile is ursodeoxycholic acid, which is used to treat fevers, gallstones, liver problems, colon cancer and heart disease. Today, fortunately for bears, this acid is easily synthesized, eliminating the black market for bear parts and making poaching less profitable. In Colorado, selling bear parts is illegal; in fact, it is a felony.

The flag of California features a bear. The black bear is the state animal of Louisiana, New Mexico and West Virginia. The grizzly bear is the state animal of Montana and California. The Chicago Bears, Boston Bruins and other sports teams are named for the strength and ferocity of bears.

With a dry summer and high fire danger, we are mindful of Smokey Bear. “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Smokey’s blue dungarees and “Smokey” hat are mainstays of American pop culture.

Our children often bear “bear” first names. Björn means “bear,” and Ursula means “little she-bear.” With respect to surnames, in Slavic languages the word for bear is Medved, and McMahon means “Son of Bear” in Irish.

“Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Berenstein Bears,” and “Winnie the Pooh” are favorite bedtime stories. And children are tucked in at night with Teddy bears.

We know when there is a “bear market.” We give special people “bear hugs.” “Bear tracking” is a mountain-man expression for lying, because bears often lay down false tracks or “double back.”

But myth sometimes, gives way to reality.

Black bears are smart, strong and like to eat what we eat. In some cases, they kill livestock, destroy beehives or damage property.

The cost of those losses is real. Last year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife paid about $325,000 to landowners for damage done by black bears. This column, however, is not about game damage. It is about people and bears. Often the real damages are accompanied by just-as-real emotional losses.

Fort Collins, Denver, Durango and Loveland are among 100 cities nationwide where raising chickens for eggs is done in the front yard, as well as the farmyard. With hundreds of dollars and millions of good intentions, novice chicken farmers build chicken coops and purchase feeders, brood lamps and other supplies. Days of brooding fuzzy baby peeps occasionally ends with a splintered door, a few remains and the silence of an empty henhouse.

With Colorado’s fabulous views and laid-back Western attitudes, we position hot tubs on patios and barbecue grills on decks. We simply cannot spend enough time outside. Our safe havens from the daily grind are sometimes disturbed by unruly ursines, shattering our “living with nature” ideal.

The value of our interactions, however, goes beyond dollars and cents. Bears secured their status as cultural icons because of their astonishing presence. I hope that we all take care to minimize conflicts. And pray that our interactions with bears and the myths they inspire never end.

Patt Dorsey is the area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango.