I’ve always been interested in animal homes. Whether it be a tree cavity, burrow in the ground or maybe a hollow in a witches broom. As I walk through the forest I’m always investigating natural caves and hollowed out tree snags to see if there is sign they have been used by wildlife.
Over the years I’ve stumbled across fox, coyote, wolf and even bear dens. The latter has always fascinated me because of their different types and locations. I’ve found dens in narrow openings in rock out croppings, tumbled boulders, in rockslides. (Like the “fish den” visible from Elk Creek.) Even under tree trunks. (One is above the highway just west of the traditional Druid Den site.) But the most common are “sod dens”. Holes dug into a steep slope, usually high above the valley floor where flooding could be a problem.
The road to the Beartooths finally opened. I hiked in with a couple of friends Adriane and Gary (The New Yorkers) to investigate a cluster of black bear dens I discovered a few years ago. The bears would be out and gone for about a month now, but there still will be sign to reveal if a den was used last year or not. Fresh bedding in the hole. A nearby bed with scat to show the size of the bear and the probability of cubs. And of course tracks.
At the first den site, last used in 2009-10, there were distinct tracks and maybe fresh bedding, but no beds in the area. Inconclusive evidence. The second den was about fifteen minutes farther up the canyon. This was last used in 2007-08 by a sow and two yearling cubs. A quick look showed it was obviously not used last winter. The third den wasn’t far away as the crow flies but was straight down across a small hollow then a gut busting straight up. In the hollow below fresh tracks of a sow and yearling indented the soft mud near a water hole. Part way up the vertical slope we came across a bed with scats matching the tracks below. Finally reaching the den, I was not surprised to see fresh bedding trailing out of the egg shaped hole. This den was last used in 2005-06.
The last den I knew of was on our way out and about a half hour distant. Along the way we came across an aspen scarred from many bear claw marks. Evidence bears had been using this canyon for years.
Approaching this last den was a little more challenging as it was well hidden. A dead tree marked the location of a faint game trail. This trail would pass just below the den. One could not actually see the hole unless you stood five feet from the entrance. This den showed no recent use. Last year a sow and twin yearlings had called it home. The first time it had been used since 2003-04.
It was a good day. It had taken us about two and a half hours to check the area. I was surprised however to find no sign of the sow that had used the fourth den last year. She should have been close by with spring cubs.