For years, I’ve hiked and backpacked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. This is the only mountain range totally contained within the boundaries of any national park in the U.S., so it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an isolated habitat. That said, I’ve gone years between black bear sightings there, and it’s not due to a lack of bears; rather, to an abundance of habitat that is removed from human contact.
But that is changing.
For the past 6 months the trails and remote backpacking campsites have been closed to humans, due to closures for Covid-19. October 1 the backcountry sites were re-opened for backpacking, and I took advantage of the first sites available. I was curious to see if anything in the high Chisos complex had changed with a lack of intrusion by humans, and boy, has it ever. BEARS WERE EVERYWHERE.
After reaching my campsite, a wonderful, secluded site down a side trail in Boot Canyon, I unpacked and set up my tent. It was late afternoon, so I sat on a stump with my book, and unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for a snack. Nothing out of the ordinary attracted my attention, but for some reason I looked up from my book, and to my shock, I was being watched by one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen…a mere 25 feet away, right in my camp…and sniffing the air and licking his chops with an eye on my sandwich:
A beautiful male animal of 300 pounds or more.
He had walked into my camp without making a sound…not a twig snap or a leaf crinkle, his huge paws caressing the ground like cat feet. He watched me with curious interest, and showed no fear when I stood and waved my arms and shouted for him to move on. That’s not a good sign. He slowly moved off through the juniper grove and disappeared. I fully expected him to return in the middle of the night, but thankfully I never saw him again.
I put a bottle of water and my camera into a day pack and headed up Boot Canyon toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, the high rim that drops off into the desert and overlooks the mountains in Mexico. I had gone less than a mile when I walked up on this very large bear in the middle of the trail, having quenched his thirst in the water contained in the tinajas from the last rains. This was definitely not the same bear that came into camp, a slightly different color, but was similar in size.
Very health and fatted up for the coming winter.
A short distance on up the trail in the upper reaches of Boot Canyon, I rounded a corner and walked up on a sow and her cub, just off the trail, drinking from the only dependable water source in this part of the mountains. This is usually a bad scenario, so I was careful not to approach, and certainly to not get near the cub. I worried that the youngster might approach me out of curiosity, but it kept its distance and shortly moved off up the hillside, showing a little fear of me.
A sow and her cub along the trail, drinking and snacking on a sparse crop of berries. One of this year’s cubs, still dependent on mom, but gaining in size.
On the way back to camp I was startled by two rare Del Carmen Whitetail deer. These deer are found only here in the Chisos, and across the river in Mexico in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains. These deer have spent generations among humans on this mountain and have no fear of humans.
The situation with the bears coming down using the trails in the absence of humans is critical. If they lose their fear of people, it’s only a matter of time before a careless hiker feeds them and they begin to habituate to humans as a source of food. Even if no one is injured by the bears, increased sightings and close proximity contact will surely lead to artificial control of the bears through removal or destruction.
9 thoughts on “The New “Normal””
The detail that surprises me most is that you didn’t hear the first bear coming. I’m accustomed to meeting deer that haven’t made a sound as they moved through the woods, but I would have expected bears to be at least as noisy as feral hogs. That’s really amazing.
Both the bears and the deer are beautiful. It’s wonderful that you had the opportunity to see a cub, although I’d have high anxiety in that situation. Actually, I’d have high anxiety no matter the size or age of any bear I met, but a mother and cub would crank it up a notch. As for the complications of increased human contact, that’s a huge issue around here with the alligators. Too many city people coming to the refuges think it’s cute to throw food to the gators, and it doesn’t take long for them to associate people with food.
I’m really glad some of your trails are opening. A couple of my favorite places still are closed, but it’s a big world out there, and there’s plenty of room to roam.
Hi, Linda. Thanks for your comments.
Yes, a quiet bear is a new and unsettling development, as is the presence of a bear right in camp near my tent. I stopped hiking in grizzly country for that reason. It’s hard to sleep when you are expecting a thin piece of nylon to keep you safe. It works for deer, snakes and mosquitoes, but bears up the ante considerably.
Bears and alligators are very much alike…they are at the top of the food chain, are both predators with great strength, and are both unpredictable. Far too many inexperienced people go to wilderness and treat it like a petting zoo.
On the one hand some great experiences with the various sightings but, as you mentioned, a little unsettling especially with the one coming into camp so quietly. Of course the book may have had you so rapt that a few sounds didn’t interrupt your concentration. Here in New England we certainly d have bears, proven by missing bird feeders, but I’ve only seen two. Both times I was driving and the bear ran across the road in front of me. I have mixed feelings about running into one while hiking but for the most part common sense means much in those encounters.
Excellent point about the book distraction. I keep a clean camp so that wildlife don’t get habituated to humans as a food source. I’ll just be even more diligent in the future.
I was back on the same trails the past two days (Tues. and Wed.), and I saw two more bears on the trails. These are very narrow trails through the mountains, and a close encounter of the bear kind often means VERY CLOSE, with no option for an alternate route due to steep terrain. I had this happen yesterday, and after the bear moved off up the steep hillside I found myself looking over my shoulder so as to not letting him stalk me from the rear. I used to hike with my eyes down, looking for rattlesnakes. Now, a new element is present on these trails. I’m hoping that as soon as we get some regular rains the bears will stop using the trails to get water. After all, it’s their home and not mine. Thanks for the comments.
I like your statement about it being their home, Bob. Too many people feel the world is their own and don’t respect that at the very least we share it and most often are intruders.
When it comes to a big bear, I couldn’t bear being so close. You’re braver than I could be. I’m glad nothing untoward happened to you.
Well, Steve, I guess sometimes you just don’t have a choice. The one thing I do know about bears is that you do not run from one. They can run up to 30 mph, and black bears can climb trees. I used to backpack in the Wind River Range, and the Beartooths, as well as the Tetons…those mountains all have grizzly bears, and that’s a different equation altogether. After a bear researcher was killed by a grizzly a few years ago only a mile from where we were camped in the Winds, I made the conscious decision to stop backpacking in grizzly country. The fact remains that ALL bears are unpredictable, and sometimes you just need a pocketful of blind luck. Thanks for the comment.
When we visited the Canadian Rockies in 2017 I saw many signs at trailheads advising people to wear bells or other noise-making things to let bears know you were coming. Lots of places there also sold bear spray, which might deter a bear in a confrontation. As you said, luck is a big factor.
So funny…a girl on the trail this weekend had an air horn on her which was designed to frighten bears. There was a very large bear sunning himself just off the trail, and she blew the air horn to scare him away so they could proceed down the trail. The bear lifted his head slowly, then laid back down. Bells and noise-makers are designed to make us feel more secure, but I’ve never worn one. My best friend from high school spent his entire career with the National Park Service, and he did a lot of ranger field training with bear deterrents. He trained me on the use of pepper spray. The important thing is that you have between 2 and 3 SECONDS to deploy a can of bear spray before it’s too late. It takes lots of practice to quickly reach your spray and remove the safety clip, like a western quick-draw showdown. In real life, even with pepper spray, the odds are in the bear’s favor.