Mary Ellen Hannibal, in The Spine of the Continent writes: “While other hibernating animals wake up every couple of days to eat, drink, and eliminate, grizzlies don’t. In a process tracked but incompletely understood by science, hibernating grizzlies live off the breakdown of fat, muscle, and organ tissue as a starving animal would, but then in a reversal from the trajectory that would eventually kill that animal, the bear utilizes urea to actually build new protein. As Tom McNamee puts it in The Grizzly Bear, “There is a phoenix inside a midwinter’s bear, creating new self from the ashes of the old.” Living off their own fat, hibernating bears create a unique form of bile that prevents hardening of the arteries or cholesterol gallstones . . .
Though predominantly solitary creatures, “the famous maternal solicitude shown by the female for her cubs begins before they are even implanted; a mama grizzly can carry a fertilized egg in her womb for many months, ready at any moment to attach to the uterine wall and begin becoming a bear, which it does not do until the conditions are right. How the bear knows that she has enough body fat to support a pregnancy through hibernation, or how she knows whether there is enough forage available to support her progeny, is a mystery to us. If conditions are right for pregnancy, a bear will wake up in January long enough to deliver her cubs. She’ll go back to sleep, periodically waking to minister to the cubs. For approximately three months, these little ones will not hibernate but live in a half-waking world with their slumbering dam. Talk about attachment theory. It’s no wonder the mother-offspring bond in bears is so ferocious; they are more or less unified in darkness until the group emerges in spring.”
These miracles of nature are at risk. There are many conservation groups trying to better understand grizzlies so to better protect them. Folks are also working to protect and maintain grizzly bear habitats, prey animals and the vegetation needed to supply bears with the extra calories they require to survive hibernation. Still, Defenders of Wildlife reports that: “Once common throughout much of western North America, the grizzly bear (also known as the brown bear) has been reduced to 2% of its historic range in the lower 48 states. A total of roughly 1,600 individuals still survive in five populations. The greatest threat to grizzlies today is conflict with people. Bears are often killed by wildlife officials once they start to frequent residential areas for easy meals of garbage, livestock, pet food and birdseed, or by hunters or hikers who encounter them in the field and shoot out of concern for personal safety rather than use bear spray. Much of the grizzly’s habitat has been lost or degraded as a result of development, road building and energy and mineral exploration. And climate change also poses new challenges to the bears; they are denning later, putting them on the landscape longer in the fall when unintended shootings by hunters are most common.”
A report in the July 22 issue of the Calgary Herald also lamented that: “There are only about 60 grizzlies in Banff National Park, where their biggest threat is getting hit on the transportation corridor. Since 2000, 13 grizzlies were killed on the tracks in the mountain park and another two just outside its boundary. Another eight have died on the Trans-Canada Highway in the same period. Survival in the protected area is considered critical because there are only about 700 grizzly bears throughout Alberta, leading the province to declare the species threatened.”
Featured image: Stereoscopic view of a grizzly bear at home in the wilderness of Yellowstone Park. Published by Underwood and Underwood. Available from the New York Public Library’s Digital Library.