BioBlitz Poetic Inventory: Black Bear

While volunteers and researchers record the science of the many species found at this year’s BioBlitz, writers across Colorado are putting down a record of their own as well.

This series of posts presents a brief selection from the full “Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park” to be published by Colorado’s own Wolverine Farm Publishing.

Scientific descriptions, photos, and words can all reveal important and very different parts of the story of life in the park. Camera trap photograph by Michael Nichols.


Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

“Bear Grace” by Laura Pritchett

Bear dens smell good. I know that because I’ve just been in one, face up against a bear – head-first, flat on my stomach. I was drenched in sweat, huffing, and thinking, Isn’t it supposed to stink in here? and I have never been happier.

But my happiness was irrelevant. It was bears’ well-being that was germane, which is why eleven of us snowshoed up 1200 feet on a mountainside in Colorado – a trip that involved several hours of grunting, whispering, cussing the undergrowth, falling through rotten snow. On this trip were several researchers and vets, all carrying backpacks laden with heavy equipment – tranquilizer guns, avalanche shovels, antenna for receiving signals. They’d located this den with two hibernating bears – a sow and her yearling – for one basic reason: To cut off the GPS collar on the sow, but in a larger sense, to conclude a study that will ultimately help bears stay wild.

I wanted to be there to see it; I wanted to crawl in a den.

The den was tiny – a small cave in a small rock outcropping on a steep hillside. I stomped my feet and caught my breath while the researchers dug out the den and tranquilized the two bears. I watched as they gently pulled the sow out to the ledge. Since there wasn’t room for both bears on the ledge, the yearling was left inside the den.

Could I crawl in?

Sure, they said.

And so, on my stomach, I inched myself forward through brush and rock until I found myself lying with the mother bear behind me and the yearling in front of me – sandwiched between two good-smelling Ursus americanus. I breathed in. Vowed to remember this moment.

Reached out and put my hand into the yearling’s fur, traced his paw. I couldn’t see much of anything – it was too dark – and so I closed my eyes and just felt.

And I made a wish: May we humans get our act together. Bear-human conflicts are sharply on the rise, and they account for about 1/3 of all bear deaths in the state. The vast majority of these deaths are easily preventable, and mainly have to do with taking care of our trash. In other

words, being responsible. I thought of the grizzlies that once roamed here, and their sad and purposeful extinction, and I made a wish that perhaps we humans had grown a bit wiser.

After I inched out, backwards, and could see once more, I studied the sow that was outside – her feet pads (so soft) and teeth (so yellow) and fur (so surprisingly thick). I also watched as her radio collar was cut off. She seemed a little freer, a little more wild.

The tranquilizer doesn’t last forever, and as the humans hurried to finish up, the bears were given eye ointment and a shot of antibiotics and weights were taken. Then, with a lot of care, the bear was put back into her den, next to her yearling, the opening was covered, and the bears left in solitude once more.

As we quietly picked up our gear and prepared to leave, I regarded the bear claw marks on the aspen trees. I’ve seen these bear-scars before – arcs of five claws in beautiful patterns, healed over by the tree – but these trees were tremendous, scarred from top to bottom, as if the whole tree was a bear’s canvas. And one simple enormous hope rose within me: that we humans can mark our homes with such grace and beauty.


Used with permission from A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park / Wolverine Farm Publishing.


More in This Series

BioBlitz Poetic Inventory: Wood Frog

BioBlitz Poetic Inventory: Garter Snake

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.