Any sunny afternoon, the main drive at Salt Lake City’s Memory Grove is filled with pedestrians—dogs running blissfully free, nervous girls in poofy wedding gowns posing for their bridal photos in front of monuments, proud new parents with strollers—it looks as idyllic as a latter-day version of Seurat’s famous pointillist painting, La Grande Jatte.
The path continues to cross Bonneville Blvd. and for many, the day’s outing ends there. Because once you cross the street, although you’re in the same canyon, you’re not in the same place. The end of the parking lot marks the entrance to Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, a place managed but not groomed. A wild place in the middle of the city, just a few blocks from the state capitol building.
Here, it’s common to see tarantulas scuttling across the road and rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the warm pavement. In the fall, hunters in full camo with guns or bows over their shoulders hunt for wild turkey and mule deer. On the cliffs over City Creek, eagles and other raptors scan the valley for small prey.
It’s a sweet walk or bike ride for many nature-lovers, who hike the trail or walk the asphalt road up past the Water Treatment Plant to the Bonneville Trail. It’s all pleasant forest bathing. Until you see the bears.
“I was on my way home from my usual walk,” says artist Todd Powelson, who routinely walks his dog, and sometimes his parrot, up the canyon. “I was right near the gate when I saw a female black bear and two cubs foraging nearby.”
So what do you do when you see a bear?
“I backed up slowly about 30 yards,” says Powelson. “Until I thought the bear couldn’t see me. And I just waited about 15 minutes.”
Bears have good close-up vision but their long distance vision is not so good.
Granted, it’s a kind of thrill to see a bear—one of the quintessential wild creatures still among us in a world that often seems too tamed by humans. But wild is the word here. By spring 2019, the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) received more than 25 reports of bears getting too close to humans, breaking into coolers, rummaging in trash cans or dumpsters, rampaging through campsites. Twenty of those incidents occurred in Central Utah or along the Wasatch Front. That’s a big jump in comparison to 2018, where during the entire year there was a total of 25 bear encounters.
Also last summer, a family of mountain lions were caught on camera as they prowled around the water treatment plant further up the same trail in City Creek Canyon where Powelson saw the bears. Bobcats roam around the Huntsman Center and the Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Cougar prints were seen in the snow outside a cabin in Brighton.
In fact, it seems that Utah’s large predators are daring to get closer than ever before.
The American Black Bear (Ursus Americanus) is native to Utah—biologists estimate there are around 4,000 black bears in Utah currently, though the population uctuates. (The last Grizzly in the state, Old Ephraim, an 1,100-pound behemoth who still lives on in camp story tales, was killed in 1923.) They are called black bears, but actually their coloring varies from brown to beige to cinnamon. Like their scarier and larger cousin the Grizzly Bear (Ursus horribilis) black bears are omnivores, but black bears eat less meat than Grizzlies, subsisting mostly on berries, mast, acorns nuts, roots and pinons. And of course, human food.
“Injuries to humans by black bears almost always involve food,” says Darren DeBloois, Game Mammals Coordinator with DWR. “Last year, a bear squashed a camper’s tent and the person inside was scratched.” (Note: A black bear’s claws are about 1 1⁄4 inches long—they’re the only bear that easily climbs trees—so a bear ‘scratch’ is not as mild as it sounds.) “In Moab, a bear took a chunk out of an open-air camper’s head.”
“Make no mistake: If a bear attacks you, its intent is to eat you and a bear typically weights 150-200 pounds.”
So why are we seeing more bears among us?
“There are more bears and several things going on all at once that explain why there’s been an increase in the number of bears in the last few years,” explains DeBloois. “Bears’ ranges change; we’ve seen them in new places in Northern Utah. I mean, Bear Lake is named that for a reason—historically, there were Grizzlies there.” Now black bears come and go. Their core regions are the Wasatch Front from Salt Lake City south, the Book Cliffs, The LaSal Mountains and Boulder Mountains. A dry summer sent them into hibernation earlier and the wet spring encouraged an increase in the number of bears—they hibernated longer and woke up hungrier.
About 30 bears wear GPS collars, but, ironically, bear population is primarily estimated by the number of dead bears the hunters bring in. “We judge by how old the bears are that the hunters get,” says DeBloois. “We want to see older animals.”
DeBloois says scarce resources make them move; the last few years of drought have caused more nuisance incidents. “It was a heavy winter, so they came out of their dens late in the year,” says DeBloois. “They generally hibernate early, around October. Then at some point, they’ll come out like Punxsutawney Phil, take a look around and either stay or go back to bed.” Bears mate in June, but implantation is delayed—if food is scarce, the female can reabsorb the fetal cells. The DWR visits dens of collared bears at the end of January and February to see how many cubs there are. “Once the females are awake, they tend to come down into the valley to find food,” says DeBloois. Those are the bears Powelson met on his city hike.
“We’ve also seen an increase in the number of mountain lions—more encounters with humans and a bigger population,” DeBloois says. “An increase in the number of mule deer always means an increase in the mountain lion population.”
The mountain lion, also known as cougar, puma, catamount, screamer or panther and properly called Puma concolor, live all over Utah, from the High Uintas mountains to the dry rocky deserts of southern Utah. They like pinyon-juniper and rocky areas where they can and good cover—their tawny color blends in easily and its long tail provides balance for clambering among rocky cliffs.
Unlike bears, cougars have to kill to eat. Their main prey is mule deer, so when you see a herd of deer, there are likely to be cougars in the area. In 2018, a cougar was sighted at Oakridge Elementary school grounds and another was captured in a yard in Tooele County.
The past few years have seen big increases in the number of mule deer,” says DeBloois. “That means more mountain lions.” Cougar tracks can be deceiving— because their nails are retractable like domestic house cats, the cougar tracks lack nail prints so the three-inch track may look tame when they’re seen in the snow, like they were often this spring around Brighton. The lions (no relation to the African lion, by the way) follow the deer to lower elevations during the winter and tend to be seen more by humans then. They hunt at dawn and dusk.
Adult cougars can weigh anywhere from 90 to 200 pounds; males weighing more. That’s plenty big enough to take down an elk if they get a chance, often caching the kill to return to later. And there are no cougar predators, just themselves (males fight for territory and occasionally eat cubs) and us. And, of course, the environment. There are about 2,700 cougars in Utah; last year the DWR increased the number of hunting permits to 678, alarming conservationists who argue that killing the young inexperienced lions will destabilize the cougar population. They point to studies proving that getting rid of the cats upsets the balance between predator and prey. They say there is less livestock depredation when mountain lions are left alone and other deterrents are used.
Although the black bear is mighty, humans are still the apex predator in Utah.
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