Babies and Bears

Nature is constantly in search of balance, or equilibrium

There’s a remarkable video floating around on YouTube. Recorded near Flagstaff, Arizona, in May, a couple on an ATV appeared to have rolled up on a small black bear discovering a recently born elk calf hidden under a fallen log.

The bear sniffs, then attacks the baby elk, and the calf’s desperate bleats attract its nearby mother. After a couple tentative rushes from the adult elk, the young bear finally climbs a tree and the calf scampers off.

One aside about production techniques. Cell phones are a multimedia miracle. I remember the difficulty my dad had filming, processing and then projecting the images he captured of some of our early family adventures. In today’s world most of us always have a video camera in our pocket. That you can record video and post it for the world to see in minutes is a remarkable thing. But for goodness sake people, video is a horizontal format.

When you want to Snapchat how good your abs look after your latest workout – not a situation I’ve found myself in recently, mind you – vertical is fine. But video is horizontal, like the world, so hold your phone sideways, please.

Back to the subject matter. While bears eating babies makes us sad, it’s one of those realities that makes nature possible. Prey animals have babies, lots of them, while predators are constantly balancing the relationship between calories burned and calories gained whenever they hunt. That’s what makes babies such a good target. Babies provide plenty of calories, while catching them burns almost none.

That elk calf was doing what it does best when it comes to avoiding becoming a meal: It was hiding motionless in cover. Once found, the only reason it survived was the bear itself. It was a black bear, and it was young, not much bigger than the calf. A more experienced bear probably would have made the kill before mom could have intervened.

The mother elk was semi heroic. When she first approached she scared the bear up a tree, but then backed off allowing for a second attack. She rushed again, sending the bear back up the tree, but never really defended her baby with the ferocity one might expect from, say, your average soccer mom.

I didn’t take the mother elk’s tentativeness as a lack of maternal conviction. Rather, this was natural selection at work. The cow elk had maybe eight months, and half her DNA, invested in that calf. With a life expectancy of more than a decade, she might have the opportunity to give birth 10 or more times in a lifetime. She did enough to scare off the bear, but also made sure she’d have a chance to pass down her DNA the following year.

The mama elk understood that in nature, when fools rush in, they often get eaten.

Predators will sometimes key on babies when they are first born and mostly helpless. There is some evidence that as cutthroat trout populations crashed in Yellowstone Lake and griz lost spawning trout as a spring food source, more of them started hunting newborn elk. And when I studied a declining pronghorn herd in Arizona for my masters thesis, one of the most controversial aspects of recovery efforts was the annual gunning of mature coyote pairs. These older, experienced dogs were thought to have refined hunting of newborn fawns to a fine art, decimating the herd.

When things are in balance, a lot of prey species babies are eaten every year, but also plenty survive. There’s enough, usually, to both carry on the herd and also allow for human predation in the fall. Nature is never really in balance, however. Instead it’s constantly in search of balance, or equilibrium. That’s why populations rise and fall with time.

One baby eaten, however, isn’t going to make or break the survival of the herd, no matter how sad.