Bear-ing the NASCAR offseason

January, 14, 2013
black bearKaren Bleier/AFP/GettyImagesBlack bears (Ursus americanus), such as this one in Virginia, can be a common site -- and sometime nuisance -- across North America.

JASPER, Ga. -- Except for Friday's "big one" at Daytona, NASCAR has largely been in hibernation lately. The black bears of the north Georgia mountains have not.

Last time I wrote about the majestic animals that seem to love my little piece of the Blue Ridge, readers complained that surely there must be something going on in NASCAR that would trump news of bears.

But, our David Newton having reported and analyzed the 12-car pileup in winter testing, you'll pardon me for getting worked up over another kind of big one entirely -- a 250-pound pregnant female taking up residence under my deck.

Besides, we're always writing about what drivers did on their winter breaks -- sunning in the Caribbean, or going on charity missions -- so why can't I tell what I did?

This bear's intentions were clear: to make this her maternity ward and then a nursery and pediatric center through, oh, about March. That could put me at Daytona for Speedweeks at the time of the blessed event.

With all due respect to the celebrated pregnancies of various NASCAR wives in recent years, this one promised more impact on me personally. You see, each member of the species Ursus americanus considers its place of birth its home for life -- and our game wardens up here have seen bears up to 27 years old. I've spent the past two years dealing with one such family that considers mi casa their casa. Another generation would be just too much (to) bear.

We think this particular bear might be the one my late wife named Ella -- not for Jeff Gordon's daughter but for the next town north of here, Ellijay. Or it might be Ella's daughter, all grown up now and yearning for a family of her own.

At any rate, Ella or Young Ella came to precisely the same spot under the deck where the first family was born, and she settled in -- sort of. If only she'd lapsed into a long, silent winter's nap, that would be one thing. But the black bears of the Blue Ridge don't really hibernate -- they take naps of weeks or days, then stir, then nap again. Or, they settle in to bear a litter, but don't sleep throughout.

As Ella grew uncomfortable and restless, we could hear wood breaking and crunching as she chewed and clawed out more comfortable digs for herself. Put it this way: my deck was once supported by two-by-10 joists. They are now two-by-fours, thanks to Ella's remodeling.

Late in the afternoons and at night, we could hear her working. At one point it sounded as if she were going to tear through the walls and come out on the stair landing.

On New Year's Eve, my son, home from law school, went to Atlanta to party with friends in Buckhead. So here we were, just the two of us, Ella and me, with only a wall separating us, and Ella seeming intent on tearing more of that out.

I wasn't afraid of her. Bears cross my property routinely -- a big male lumbered along the ridgeline, out my kitchen window, on almost a daily basis back during mating season, and a sow and three cubs were headed straight into my garage before I closed the door, just in time, a few months ago. (They didn't look angry about it, but their feelings seemed hurt that they were not invited in.)

But Ella was doing damage beyond remodeling the underside of my deck. She'd torn two huge holes in the wire mesh and lattice work of the sub-decking. A propane gas line is so close to one of her entrances that I was warned she might crimp the line, cutting off my heat at best -- or causing a dangerous leak at worst. And as she stirred in her sleep, she was scratching her back against the area where the house meets the foundation, gouging out little gaps for smaller critters -- squirrels and chipmunks -- to get inside and nest.

Finally, in midafternoon on New Year's Eve, I phoned the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. I didn't even expect to get an answer during the holidays.

Which brings us to the story of one state agency that works, that does its job above and beyond the call, with great courtesy, patience and humaneness. If all agencies in all states worked as well as my region of Georgia DNR does, there would be no complaints about government bureaucracy.

I was hoping to get game wardens up here within maybe a week at best. Ronny Holcomb, the duty game management officer for this area, said he could come up here the very next morning, on New Year's Day.

A cold rain was pouring as Holcomb, with 20-plus years' experience at dealing with bears, shone a powerful flashlight down through the cracks between the boards. "One bear, looking at me," he said. But his view was obstructed so that he couldn't tell whether she already had a cub or not.

He would consult with Mitch Yeargin, North Georgia's most experienced bear management officer, and with state bear biologist Adam Hammond. They would all come out together to evaluate. We agreed that if she hadn't had her litter yet, they might encourage her to move on. If she already had cubs, she could stay till spring.

And so, on the morning of Jan. 7, I had a lot more on my mind than just the Alabama-Notre Dame BCS championship. If Ella already had a family, she would be my gnawing, clawing, 250-pound guest till March at the earliest, and her offspring would consider this their home for perhaps decades to come.

It was Yeargin, who'd been up here before, during construction of the house, who suspected that this was either the mama or a daughter of the original family. Hammond, the biologist, had the call on whether Ella would stay or be encouraged to move.

Upon close assessment, they saw no cubs. Hammond popped a tranquilizer dart into Ella's flank, and all three officers stood ready, the game wardens with their hands on their sidearms, just in case. The wire mesh under the deck began to shake, and here came Ella -- not charging, just loping out, as if to complain about being bothered.

She is too big for a tranquilizer dart to bring her down. Merely woozy, she continued to lope along the ridge line and then over it. The game officers followed her for, I suspect, nearly a mile along the mountain, hoping Hammond could place a radio collar on her.

But Ella just kept going. Yeargin's experience told him the morning had been so stressful on her that she probably won't return. Hammond placed a digital wildlife camera near Ella's favorite entrance, just in case.

There is a cave just across a stream bed from my house that has always seemed to me a perfect dwelling for bears. Holcomb went in to explore it, and came back certain it had indeed been a haven for Ursus americanus, for thousands of years.

But that was before development.

Now, human structures have become more convenient than the caves. Worse -- much, much worse, some humans are na´ve enough to feed the bears.

I pointed up the mountain toward another residence, where a neighbor once had told me he used to feed the bears.

Holcomb pointed underneath my deck. "That's not your problem," he said. Then he pointed up the mountain: "That is your problem."

I never put out bird feeders (aka bear popcorn) or use an outdoor grill. But because some do, human dwellings have become associated with human comforts, human food. If one house feeds, the bears are attracted to nearby houses as well.

"We try to tell people, 'A fed bear is a dead bear,' " said Yeargin, who recently, heartsick, had to put down two bears from another development because they'd become dependent on feedings, and turned dangerous.

Ella and her offspring, for generations to come, would be welcome to live in my cave, and forage for themselves. I miss her already, but don't miss her thumping and scratching at night.

So I didn't go to the Caribbean, or on a cruise to Alaska. But I did have a different kind of NASCAR offseason.



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