Sunday, September 26, 2010


So picture this – you’re in the middle of the majestic mountains of western Montana (near Frenchtown, Missoula County), it’s midnight, you’re ready to go to bed and you’ve just let your dogs out for their nightly ritual and suddenly all hell breaks loose. Your dogs immediately garner the attention of a black bear who was apparently stealing a few apples from your backyard when he/she is spotted by two of the dogs who started frantically barking and then in an unusual and uncharacteristic show of intelligence - immediately beat feet. That left the homeowner (an unnamed Lady about whom we know nothing except her courageous demeanor) and the remaining dog, a 12 year old semi-mobile and compliant collie, to fend for themselves.

Before the Lady could react the snarling and growling bear (estimated at about 200 pounds) attacked the collie and started batting it around. The Lady screamed and then kicked at the bear landing a pretty good shot (her estimation) just under the chin of the bear - enough to distract attention from the collie. The bear took a swipe at the lady ripping her jeans and scratching and bruising her. The bear now fully focused on the woman attacked her as she stood in the back doorway of her home. Though this Montana Lady retreated and tried to close her back door, the bear managed to get its head and shoulder wedged in the doorway (Houston, we have a problem…).

Our homeowner continued a firm hold on the door and with her other hand reached for anything to defend herself. Her hand found a recently picked 6½ pound, 14-inch zucchini (they measured it - see photo) which she threw at the bear, hitting it on the head. Startled, the bear fled and hasn’t been seen since. We are assured that the zucchini (courgette to you Scots) suffered no damage and is still on the menu or maybe even headed for the Smithsonian?

As I picture our homeowner desperately searching for a weapon I was reminded of the scene in The Perfect Murder where Gwyneth Paltrow as Emily Bradford Taylor frantically, blindly reached back and found the meat thermometer which she used to dispatch her attacker. What would she have done with a zucchini?

Aside from all that, order has now been restored in Frenchtown appropriately named for its original French Canadian settlers. Local authorities continue their search for the bear and have set up traps for this mean spirited critter that will probably be relocated or even euthanized upon capture. Our courageous though shaken homeowner only had minor injuries and will probably get a tetanus shot. The equally traumatized collie was taken to a vet and is doing fine. We are now left to ponder the fate of native fauna who invade the human domain.

Not only are traditional lines being crossed by native wildlife into our domain – they are now crossing boundaries within their own traditional habitats, much to the chagrin of those species down the totem pole. Black bears crossing into Grizzly territory or vice versa always come out the loser and that appears to be happening with more frequency. Of course, we also see species like the mountain lion, bobcat, fox and the ever encroaching coyote reasserting their presence in suburban neighborhoods.

The current range of the black bear includes all of Canada except Prince Edward Island, most of the continental United States and now even in the less-settled forested regions and the northwestern mountains of Mexico. While a large male black bear in the wild weighs on average 300 to 400 pounds (the female considerably less), they have been known to top out at over 800 lbs. The largest black bear in captivity now approaches 1,000 pounds. Like humans, the black bear did not originate in North America, rather traversed the Bering land bridge from Asia about a half million years ago.

For the most part the highly adaptable black bear appears to be doing OK (neither endangered nor vulnerable). Even with the loss of their prime habitat (hardwood forests) and despite hunting and trapping throughout most of Canada and in 27 US states, there appears to be a sustained black bear population growth that could translate into a U.S. black bear population of nearly one million bears by 2025. That means more opportunities for bear-human interaction.

Our Frenchtown bear makes the point again that black bears are omnivores – they will eat anything though fruits, berries, roots, grasses, flowers and nuts (plant foods in general) make up the bulk of their diet. Yes, they will eat insects, carrion (road kill to you Georgia folks) and occasional small prey like deer fawns or even a stray pet. We know of a certain bear in Red Lodge, Montana who has learned how to open casement windows and invade refrigerators. Her favorites include ice cream, berries and (I am sure) Flathead Cherries.

The bottom line lesson here is that while we can share our habitat with the black bear, we must be ever vigilant and better understand their habits. We must be careful to keep food – especially pet food and birdseed and garbage stored where bears cannot smell them. No access to food – generally means no problem. We also recommend that you completely clean your grill after every use including the drip and catch pans so as not to attract our furry friends – any of them. No, our Frenchtown Lady should not cut down her apple tree.

When I was leading regular backpacking trips in less kinder and gentler times up to the LeConte Lodge (Rainbow Falls, Bullhead or Alum Cave trails) on the mountain of the same name (6,593 ft.) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over Gatlinburg, Tennessee I would forbid participants from carrying or using several items including perfume, any cosmetic that smelled, after shave, antiperspirant (etc.) and snacks that were not going to be consumed in route. Fact is the bears at LeConte would take these items as an open invitation to inspect and eat your possessions. The lodge then had a garbage pit which attracted lots of black bears. Because we took precautions and educated our guests we never had any problems and we always wore bells. The LeConte Lodge now hauls their garbage off the mountain - part of the problem solved.

Now, we will never eliminate those rogue bears (or other critters) who because of their circumstances become habituated to man or are just so desperate or sick they will do anything - including attacking humans. It’s all about education and understanding the animals, their behaviors and taking the proper precautions to avoid a confrontation. If you are in bear country carry bear spray if you can. Note, however, that carrying bear spray is not a substitute for following those aforementioned proper bear avoidance safety techniques. Bear or dog spray should only be used as a deterrent when in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a vicious animal. Brush up on the law as some states regulate its use.

Thank God our Frenchtown Lady and her critters went unharmed. We need to draw some important lessons from this confrontation. Me? I’m going to start to grow and cultivate bear-ready zucchinis…


Ned Buxton

PS - Just a nod to the hopeful selection of the new Ole Miss mascot as the Bear, a noble testament and homage to the courage and tenacity of this recovering Ursus in the Mid-South. Perhaps this writer is influenced by the Brown University or the Baylor Bear? You bet!


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