A bottleneck of bears
By Steve Wasylik
My telephone rang as I was pouring my first early morning cup of coffee.
"You've got a grizzly in your trap in town," an RCMP officer advised. I would have been less surprised if he had told me there was a walrus in my bathtub. I had set the trap for a black bear and no grizzlies had been seen in the area for a good many years.
"It gets better," my Mountie friend continued. "The grizzly in the trap is a cub but another cub and the sow are pacing around the trap and the cub in the trap is putting up quite a fuss."
The Mountie assured me he would stay near the area until I got there. In a flurry of jackets, boot laces and gun belts I headed out the door. Enroute, the Mountie and I kept in touch by radio. I learned that the cub was the larger of the pair. Mom had climbed all over the trap trying to free Junior while the other cub stayed back near the trees, away from its squalling sibling and furious mother.
"She's just headed off into the bush with the other cub and I can't see her anymore. You think she'll be back?" the Mountie asked. I couldn't imagine what had made her leave her cub behind, but I knew that she'd be back.
I pulled into the yard next to the Mountie and stared into the dark interior of the trap. Inside was a very agitated 100-pound grizzly bear. Mom was nowhere to be seen. The woman who owned the property came to her door and wanted to know what all the commotion was about.
"You never told me about any grizzly bears!" she said when I told her what we had caught. I tried to explain that I didn't know about them myself but she was certain I should have known before I set a trap in her yard.
I summoned the assistance of another officer and when he arrived we considered our options. We had to search the area to be sure the sow had indeed left. The forest around the trap site was relatively open but the thought of a sow grizzly lurking around lonesome for her cub kept the three of us on our toes. We didn't locate the bears and fortunately they didn't locate us either.
The little grizzly continued to raise a ruckus in the trap and was drawing quite a crowd. We decided that the best course of action was to remove the cub and set a pair of traps to try to catch the sow and remaining cub.
I spent the remainder of the day locating and setting up the traps. Figuring how best to set the traps so Mom would go in one and Junior would go in the other, presented quite a puzzle. Would they go into the traps at all after seeing one of their family members caught? I briefly considered setting some leg-hold snares, but given the proximity of some houses, the thought of having some unsuspecting individual walk into a grizzly bear tethered to a tree sent a cold shiver through me.
Once the traps were set there was little to do but wait. Early the next morning I was back at the traps. Both doors were closed and all the bait was gone. As I puzzled over this unusual situation of how a bear could get in and out of the usually fool-proof traps, the lady of the house came out.
"Those two bears were around all night. They walked around the traps for a long time and then the big one went in each of the traps. When the door closed it would hit her in the butt and she'd back out. Are you sure you set them right?"
The woman obviously lacked confidence in my bear trapping ability but I had set bear traps a few hundred times. The bear had just figured out a way to beat getting caught.
I carefully reset the traps and added a twist or two into the normal procedure hoping the bears would return for a second try. Late that night the Mounties called and said one of the traps was occupied. I hurried over and found that the black bear I had originally set the trap for was now caught. As I was hooking up the trap to my truck the lady of the house once again came out and advised me I had caught the wrong bear. Thankfully, when I returned with the trap later on she had gone back to bed and I was able to reset the trap without the benefit of her advice.
The phone rang again well before daylight and again the Mounties advised that one of the traps was occupied. I returned to the trap site and found another black bear in the trap. I hooked up and left before the woman could comment again on my trapping skills. I returned to the site in the early morning darkness. After positioning the traps in what I figured was an attractive position for a double catch, I had to re-attach the bait bag to the trigger mechanism inside at the front of the trap.
I climbed into the cramped trap and by the light of my flashlight opened sardine cans and dumped them into a sack, then added molasses and hung the bag on the trigger. The smell inside that trap, of sardines, molasses and black bear was no substitute for the cup of coffee that was on my mind as I started to back out of the trap. A gentle sound outside the door stopped me in my tracks and froze most of the blood in my veins. Something was quietly shuffling through the leaves and grass outside the trap. I strained to hear more and turned to face the opening at the back of the trap. The noise stopped briefly and then continued, coming closer to the trap. My eyes were focused on the narrow doorway and I'm sure my heart beats were echoing off the steel trap walls. One bear or two, grizzly or black? Whatever it was, it was just outside the trap. I tried to undo the snaps on my sidearm holster as quietly as I could and cursed myself for getting sardine oil and molasses on my hand.
In the same second as I was going to draw my sidearm from the holster, a voice startled me from beside the trap.
"You think you'll ever catch the right bears?" The lady of the house appeared in the trap doorway. "I'm not getting much sleep with all this coming and going you know".
As I re-set the snaps on my holster, several dark thoughts crossed my mind. I took several deep breaths and waited until my heart rate dropped to a dull roar. "Nobody's getting much sleep I guess," was about the best I could do as I checked the trap over one last time. I could have said more but the subsequent paperwork would have taken more time than it was worth.
The traps remained quiet for a day or two and the sow grizzly and her cub never returned to the trap site. They left the area as secretively as they came. When I returned to take the last of the traps to a new location, the lady of the house was came out to meet me.
"They'll be back you know, and you can be sure I'll call."
I hoped for both the grizzly bears' sake and mine that they could find some place more peaceful to live.
Steve Wasylik is a Conservation Officer at Castlegar, B.C.