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Sustainable Missoula: Bear (and human) mommas rock

Grizzly sow with cubs. (Photo by Ron Ream)

Whether it’s a trickle of meltwater in their den or some other signal, female bears with young—bear moms—know when it’s time to venture out. They’ve put the moment off for as long as possible, since baby bears are basically preemies, pink fingerlings, when born.

In the den, moms can guarantee that their young are warm, clean and fed. Outside, while delicious food beckons, so does danger. No matter what the species, the young are vulnerable. So, outside the den, bear moms add two more hats, those of teacher and protector, to the ones they (don’t actually) wear.

As far as teaching, bears learn everything they know from their mothers. As protectors, bear moms are famous among humans as a symbol of ferocity, since mothers, especially bear moms, will do anything for their child.

These are the days, as spring arrived fitfully in Missoula, that bear moms had to negotiate that big decision to move. That’s why spring was the perfect time, believed Chuck Jonkel, who founded the Great Bear Foundation (GBF) in Missoula in 1981, for a Bear Honoring that celebrated mother bears in particular. At this event in Greenough Park and other spots in western Montana, Chuck educated the public about the ins and outs of bears’ lives.

Since moms of every kind focus on feeding young, Chuck treated participants to a walk highlighting wild foods that sustain bear families—even, at the end, hosting an entire bear-food dinner.

On May 8, Mother’s Day, in the honoring spirit, GBF and Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group (RCWG) celebrate moms, bear and human, with a Bear Fair in Pineview Park. It will feature bear experts, a bear walk in the spirit of Chuck Jonkel’s in Tom Green Park, and giveaways for moms.

Mothers of every species always have way too much to deal with. For bear moms these days, survival threats include climate-change impacts and the rampant development that is munching into bear habitat.

Around Missoula and other Montana towns, humans unthinkingly draw food-focused bear moms and their young close to homes, putting both humans and bears at risk and often resulting in bear injury and death. (You can help prevent this. Read RCWG’s May newsletter by following this link

Here’s more about the brilliance of bear moms. Like any mothers, black bears employ babysitters—in this case, trees, up which cubs are sent scooting to safely hang out while Mom forages. In fact, in Alaska, bear moms choose babysitter trees near tourist viewing platforms, aware that crowds of people will keep their children’s predators away.

Sadly, most often those predators are bear dads. Raising cubs for several years removes females from reproductive availability. If males kill a mother’s young, she will come back into estrus, available for mating. Bears are also among the species whose females save their fertilized eggs from spring until fall to make sure they’ll have the resources to successfully raise offspring. If a mom is too thin or stressed, the embryo does not implant.

Come spring, we’re full circle again, with males undenning first, followed by females without cubs and at last, bear moms. At that point, we imagine them like ourselves, poised on the threshold of the den: plunging, after a deep breath, into daylight and a world complex with delights and dangers. Lovingly cuffing their bedazzled and wonder-full cubs in the right direction.

Risking everything—their bodies, their hearts—for their young to grow safe and strong, and their species to continue.

Celebrate bears and bear moms at the Mother’s Day Bear Fair, Sunday, May 8, Pineview Park, 12-4 pm. Cosponsored by Great Bear Foundation and Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group, with representatives from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Missoula County Bear Smart Team, Be Bear Aware, Republic Services, and more. Free and open to all!

Beth Judy is secretary/treasurer for Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – most weeks by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource. 

Please support their work and those of so many other wonderful local organizations during Missoula Gives May 5-6: Climate Smart & Home ReSource. Thank you!

Sustainability Happenings:

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. For more, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter via their homepage here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

May is Bike Month – Missoula’s Bike Month Calendar here

May 1-14 – Missoula in Motion’s annual Commuter Challenge – register your workplace team and compete by logging sustainable commute trips to win team and individual prizes. 

May 1-7 –  International Wildlife Film Festival virtual version.

May 7   Mother’s Day at the Farm. 1 – 4:30 pm. Turner Farms. An afternoon at the farm with 20 vendors with a wide variety of crafts, plants, food and jewelry, food trucks, and of course baby goats! Info here

May 7 – Farmers Markets are back! Missoula Farmers Market celebrates its 50th birthday ! Clark Fork Market info here…. see also Guide to MT Farmers Markets here.  (which will be updated in July).

May 8 — Bear Fair at Missoula’s Pineview Park (near Rattlesnake Elementary school), noon-4pm. Celebrate moms (bear & human).  Bear friends share bear info –Displays, giveaways & a walk into bear habitat led by Elissa Chott of Great Bear Foundation at 1:30 pm.  Co-sponsored by GBF, Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Be Bear Aware.

May 9  Wetland & waterbird conservation during climate change. A talk by Patrick Donnelly of IWJV, hosted by the Five Valleys Audubon Society. 7-9 pm in UM’s Interdisciplinary Science building room 110.  All welcome.

May 14. –  Fixit Clinic — don’t toss it, fix it!.  11 am to 3pm at Home Resource (1515 Wyoming, Missoula). Info/Register here. Free. More clinics on 7/9, 9/10, 11/12.

Don’t forget – Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.