Grizzly targets bear expert's tent
By MIKE STARK
Billings Gazette Wyoming Bureau
During the week, Mike Rock works on computer models to try to understand
how grizzly bears move across the landscape.
Last weekend in Yellowstone National Park, he got a closer look.
A grizzly on Saturday morning sauntered into the Pebble Creek campground
where he was staying and had some fun with his tent.
Rock, a researcher from Bozeman-based Craighead Environmental Research
Institute, was away at the time and returned after he saw park rangers
hauling a bear trap toward the campground.
"They said a bear had been in campsite Number One," Rock
said. "I said, 'Hey, that's my campsite.' And then they said
the bear had knocked down a tent, and I said, 'That's my tent!' "
A couple from England caught most of the incident on videotape. Rock
watched it a few minutes later.
"He looked kind of playful," Rock said. "He pounced
on the tent, rolled its back on it, rubbed up against a tree and left."
Park rangers think the grizzly may be the same bear that smashed several
empty tents in the backcountry near Lamar last summer.
On Sunday, a bear apparently squashed another unoccupied tent, this
one at a backcountry site near Grebe Lake. It's unclear whether the
same bear is responsible for all of the tent trampling. Park officials
have yet to trap the bear at Pebble Creek and have put up a decoy
tent near Grebe Lake to see if there's a repeat performance. As of
Friday, that tent was still unmolested.
In 1999, a young grizzly ambushed several vacant tents over the course
of the summer. He was eventually captured and sent to a wildlife refuge
So what makes some bears prone to smashing tents?
There are two likely explanations, according to grizzly experts. The
bear has either gotten food from a tent before and is looking for
that kind of reward again, or he's just out for a good time.
"Bears are very playful," said Chuck Neal, a retired ecologist
and recent author of "Grizzlies in the Mist," who has watched
grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone for 25 years.
In the wild, Neal said, he has watched grizzlies slide headfirst down
a snowbank, then run back up like excited children to slide down again.
The tent-tearing bear in Yellowstone may just be enjoying himself.
"Bears are very individualistic. They do things that sometimes
don't make sense," Neal said. "Maybe he thinks it's kind
of fun to jump on a tent and hear it pop."
Mark Bruscino, a bear management officer with the Wyoming Game and
Fish Department, said grizzlies often like to toy with objects.
"Like young people, young bears like to play, take things out
and roll them around," he said. "I've seen them roll bear
boxes, garbage cans, anything that moves."
Grizzlies are also very curious, Bruscino said, which could be one
explanation for the latest episodes in Yellowstone.
"I really don't have clear view of what might be going on there,
but I'd say if it's not food-related, it almost has to be curiosity-related,"
Grizzly bears also have excellent memories, particularly when it comes
to food. The Yellowstone grizzly could have once gotten a "food
reward" from breaking into a tent and is hoping for the same
results again, the bear experts said.
"Maybe he got a Snickers bar out of a tent in the past and it
could be that he's waiting for the Snickers bar to pop out again,"
Neal said. "A bear will remember something like that for the
rest of his life."
Although it was not the case in Rock's incident, some tents have food
inside or have the smell of food imbedded in the material.
Each bear is different, and some may not have any interest in a tent
at all while another might have an impulse to pounce on it, said Chuck
Schwartz, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who leads a regional
team of bear researchers in the Yellowstone area.
"Some are secret and cryptic in their behavior and tend to avoid
humans," he said. "Others can become more conditioned to
people and don't perceive people as threats so they're willing to
do their own thing in front of everyone, God and man."
For the bear involved in the recent incidents, tent-hopping may just
be a passing fancy, Schwartz speculated.
"It's possible it's a short-term thing and the problem will take
care of itself," he said. "He may not find a reward and,
after a while, the animal could get bored and go on with other things."
As for Rock, he's hoping that if the bear is caught, it can simply
be relocated farther from people and not euthanized.
He isn't concerned about his 12-year-old tent, although the grizzly
broke one pole, put a big tear on his rain cover and a smaller tear
on the body of tent. Rock handed it over to the Park Service on Saturday
as they investigated the incident.
"I slept in my car that night," he said.