Mike Stark is the author of Chasing the Ghost Bear: On the Trail of America’s Lost Super Beast from Bison Books. Recently, he caught up with himself over a beer at his home in Tucson, Arizona. With jazz on the stereo and a box full of his new book nearby, this is how the conversation went.
Question: So, I have to ask, what’s the deal with you and bears? That’s all you seemed to think about for the last several years.
Answer: What’s not to love about bears? They’re big, they’re furry, they’re deadly, they’re lovable. They’ve been around for a long time, changed with the times. They’re survivors. And they act a lot like us, only smarter.
A: Well, smarter than me at least.
Q (muttering): Well, that’s not saying all that much…
A: Watch it. Think about all the ways bears have figured out to survive in this world. They’ve lived on nearly every continent and dined on nearly every kind of food you can think of. Some are strictly meat-eaters, like polar bears. Pandas are vegetarians. Others are omnivores. They dig holes, climb trees, travel great distances, sniff out carcasses, break into cars, sneak through suburbs, raid orchards, snatch salmon from streams, uncover moths to eat under rocks, scavenge and provide food for other scavengers. They’re so adaptable across so many kinds of environments.
Q: But this giant short-faced bear isn’t even around anymore. How smart was that?
A: Well, Arctodus simus had a pretty incredible run. They were probably around for more than a million years, which isn’t too shabby. They lived in the Far North and throughout much of the United States, down to southern California, Florida and even the northern fringe of Mexico.
Q: Yeah, but this was the biggest bear around, right? So it had the run of the place?
A: It was a giant, for sure. The biggest stood more than 10 feet tall on their hind legs and weighed close to a ton. But nothing came easy. Remember, so many things were big during the Pleistocene in North America. We had mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth cats, giant sloths, American lions – all manner of wonderfully strange, and often very large, critters. Everybody was hungry and everyone had to eat, so there was certainly a fair bit of competition.
Q: So, what was on the short-faced bears’ menu?
A: It depended on where they were. There’s evidence from Southern California that giant short-faced bears dined on plants quite a bit. Farther north, there may have been more meat in their diet. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how this bear operated. Was it a fierce hunter? A scavenger? Mostly a vegetarian? Opinions differ some, but the leading idea right now is that these bears were probably chowing down on anything that presented itself, maybe a mammoth carcass that another predator had brought down, maybe killing a small animal itself, maybe tearing off some of the local plants or even digging up a few roots. Their long legs made them good travelers, so they probably had a really big range. The bears that survive are the ones that know how to adapt to their surroundings and the giant short-faced bear was pretty darn good at that.
Q: And people were around these bears?
A: Yep, humans and short-faced bears shared the continent for thousands of years. Can you imagine seeing one of these right in front of you? Anyone who did certainly had a story to tell when they got back to camp, assuming they did make it back to camp. There’s a reason why bears show up in so many of our books, stories, art and sports paraphernalia. To be in the presence of a bear is, well, it’s just not something you forget.
Q: So why did they disappear?
A: It’s all in the book. Did you even read it? Don’t answer that. There’s still a lot that’s not known about why so many big animals went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago. It’s a hotly debated topic that has yet to be resolved in any really satisfactory way. There are theories, though, including that there was some kind of catastrophic planetary event – like a comet striking the Earth – or that they were hunted to extinction by humans or that they were unable to survive the changing climate. It’s a great question to ask around a group of paleontologists and then just sit back and let the sparks fly.
Q: OK, so there are all these people studying the Pleistocene and these bears, what were you doing out there?
A: You mean besides hanging around smart people, crawling into caves and getting goo on me at the La Brea tar pits? Well, it’s a fair question. These bears sank their proverbial claws in me somewhere along the line, and I got a little obsessed. The remedy for someone like me, with a life-long habit of journalism, is to follow the story, go to where the bear lived, where it’s been found, read the studies and talk with people who have been trying to put the puzzle pieces of its life together. These bears are still shrouded in mystery, and I got caught up in the fascination.
Q: Speaking of La Brea, didn’t you end up accidentally bringing home some of the tar?
A: Just the bits that were on my shoe and my pen and my notebook and my backpack.
Q: Did you ever eat the gummy bears shaped like giant short-faced bears that you bought at the gift shop?
A: When I finally finished the book, I ate a couple. The rest turned hard as a fossil after I opened the bag and forgot to seal it up again. Are these really your questions?
Q: I have more. Where was your favorite place to visit when you were reporting this book?
A: The adventure into Potter Creek Cave in northern California is probably near the top of the list. It was a great rainy-day climb to get inside and a small miracle that I didn’t return with a serious poison oak rash. That’s where the first skull of the giant short-faced bear was found. I loved my trip to Indiana, too, even though I found myself standing in the middle of a cornfield under the confused looks of some neighbors. Texas and New Mexico were pretty great, too, lots of time driving through big empty spaces thinking thoughts about bears that aren’t here anymore. It’s all in the book, y’know.
Q: That’s what you keep saying. Let’s wrap this up before things devolve any further. Last question: Can I get you another bear, I mean, beer?
A: Yes. One of each, please.