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A Bears Lunch Counter

White Bark Pine Story
by Dan Hartman

Sept. 15, 2020

     I've been busy photographing what I usually do this time of year, pikas and mountain goats.

     I kind of feel the pressure around the middle of September, because you never know when they will close Beartooth Pass.  Last year it closed on September 18th even though they posted it would be open until October 5th. 

     So you never know.

     On August 26th I placed some trail cameras on a couple squirrel middens and just pulled them out last week.

      I got 1,100 30 second clips, mostly of squirrels burying cones.  But also great videos that gave insight to the value of their middens.

     First off, the white barked pine crop was not great for the second straight year.  But there was a crop.  About 30% I'd guess.  Squirrels had to travel farther for their cones, but one midden Cindy and I watched every few days had over a hundred cones buried in it.

     I placed my cameras on middens a ways off any roads and trails so wildlife could come freely, and it did.

     First a small grizzly sow with two cubs came.  They dug cones for 15-20 minutes then moved on.  It was after dark.  The next time they came in full sunlight and once again 15-20 minutes.  Each time they dug cone after cone and spent 1-2 minutes picking the pine nuts out of the cones with their teeth.

     Next a black bear came through, then a cinnamon black bear.

     Each day after the bear had demolished his midden, the squirrel would work to tuck away more cones.  Obviously it was a losing battle because no matter how deep he buried his cones, the bears were sure to sniff them out.

      We did see squirrels from other middens that were looted by bears try a different approach.  They would hide the pine nuts one at a time instead of the whole cone.  Of course this would take much longer but it would make it more difficult for the bears.   Cindy even spotted one squirrel stashing cones in a mistletoe clump.

     You say, why not just leave them on the tree?  Well, the clarks nutcrackers show up by the hundreds to gather the nuts of any exposed cones.

     So the squirrels really are up against it.  On top of that our camera showed martens frequenting the middens, obviously trying to catch the distracted squirrel.  One time a great horned owl also attacked.

     Our cameras also captured snowshoe hares, dusky grouse, mule deer, numerous birds, mice and a weasel.

     On another midden, we got the same grizzly and cubs as well as another larger grizzly sow with one year old cubs.

     I suppose bears both grizzly and black make the rounds of squirrel middens.  In the area I worked I knew of six middens, but further searching probably would have turned up 20-30 more.  It seems they visit the middens every other day or so.  Maybe they figured out the squirrel needed time to replenish his cache.

     To sum up.  The value of white barked pine trees and their cones, together with the stubborn work ethic of the red squirrel causes a food souce bears desperately need going into hibernation.


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