The Role of Bears in the EcosystemDecember 19, 2014
By Lauren Wood
On a number of Holiday River Expeditions’ whitewater rafting trips, you may have the lucky chance to see one of mother natures most awe-inspiring characters, the Black Bear. Sitting on a Colorado River bank or lumbering on a talus slope, Utah’s Black Bears are a startling and wonderful site. Because of the way our culture demonizes bears, some people might feel uneasy about how I have framed run-ins with bears in the wild, but after a lifetime in the outdoors and dozens of bear encounters, it’s time to talk about the truth: bears mean a healthy life.
The Black Bear is what is called an apex predator, or rather, a predator that sits at the top of the food chain. Unlike the terrifying visions from our nightmares, this doesn’t mean that they are looking for some delicious human meat for dinner. We are more likely to be killed by bee stings or lightning than by a bear. Apex predators are vital to a healthy ecosystem and healthy ecosystems are incredibly important to healthy people and a healthy society.
A Black Bear will eat pretty much everything. Their diets range from ungulates (like deer or elk), small critters, insects, nuts, and berries. Their role in keeping the population of ungulates controlled helps plant life stay healthy and happy by regulating the amount of biomass they eat. Happy bears mean happy trees and therefore plants and animals that rely on the trees. Bears also tend to prey on the weak or sick, leaving the remaining population healthy and strong for the next generation. A classic example of Darwin’s survival of the fittest if I’ve ever seen one!
Black bears are also not snobbish about their fair. Come spring awakening after a long hibernation, the bears are hungry and efficiently chomp up any smelly carcasses of dead animals that didn’t make it through the winter months; (when I realized this it explained the relatively gamey and foul scent I noticed on my own up-close and personal experience with a bear).
But the benefits of bears don’t stop there. Along with bigger prey, bears eat insects, helping to regulate their populations from booming and therefore overconsumption in the ecosystem. Their appetite is rounded out with berries. This means their scat turns into the perfect fertilizer for the new seeds of bushes to re-emerge, helping endemic plant species sustain. Their heavy bodies and roaming nature mean they break fallen logs and speed up the process of decay and nutrient return to the soil.
Unfortunately, many wilderness seekers do not see this special purpose of bears and as such are both careless about proper bear protocol in the wild and trigger happy when they feel in any way scared of a bear encounter. At Holiday River, we hope that due to proper education, camp protocol, and bear diversion techniques; we can not only keep our guests safe during their whitewater rafting adventure but help these apex predators thrive while we visit their beautiful home.
I have been a river runner my entire life and ever since my first river trip at age two muddy water has run a current through my veins and into my heart. It was learning from the boatwomen and men of the 1990′s that led me to find my own oars. I have been a guide for Holiday River Expeditions since 2009. In the off-season I volunteer as a member of Peaceful Uprising and work on national climate justice campaigns with Rainforest Action Network. I find that the lessons from the river inform my climate justice work and truly all aspects of my life. I love investigating the way natural cycles could work with our cities and influencing the currents that direct and shape our communities.