Wildlife

What Happens When You Plant a Pile of Bear Scat?

One pile of bear scat sprouted 1,200 berry bush seedlings in Rocky Mountain National Park. Almost one third of the seedlings are chokecherry. The rest are Oregon grape. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park

My son returns from the gravel bar and says it will do as a camping site. “Just watch out for the pile of dog poop,” he says.

We’re on the final day of a three-day river trip, and this location seems an unlikely location for dogs. I ask my young outdoorsman to show me the poop. He runs to the edge of the willows, about five feet from the waterline, and squats low for close inspection. I do the same. He’s right. It’s poop. But not from a dog.

It belongs to a bear. I can tell because it’s purple in hue and full of berries. Bears bulk up on berries and while I have no interest in picking up the pile, a greenhouse manager in Colorado does. Right about the time I pass on the pile in my camp, she’s collecting one in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“I was pretty excited when I saw the volume of seed in the scat,” says Trish Stockton, Rocky Mountain National Park biological science technician. “It filled a small Ziploc bag a bit bigger than sandwich size and we didn’t touch it.”

She didn’t have to. The dried sample went directly into greenhouse soil at Rocky Mountain National Park where 30,000 to 50,000 plants grow annually. Those plants are distributed among restoration projects within the park: often disturbed sites like construction zones where roads are widened and waterlines are replaced.

Black bear scat next to a GPS for size reference. © Art Norton / TNC

“If we don’t have somewhat well established plants that we’re putting in the ground, all it takes is a couple of footsteps and the young guys are trampled and killed,” says Kevin Gaalaas, Rocky Mountain National Park supervisory biologist.

Stockton’s one sample of bear scat from last fall sprouted 1,200 seedlings this spring. Now the greenhouse is, well, green, because of one pile of purple poop full of berry seeds. Mostly Oregon grape with some chokecherry chewed in for variety.

Trish Stockton, Rocky Mountain National Park biological science technician, checking on her 1,200 seedlings sprouting this spring in bear scat collected last fall. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park

“It’s not the first pile of poop that has been brought to me, I gotta tell ya,” Stockton says. “This is my third try. Other piles I collected over the years didn’t have such a large volume of seed in them. To find a pile with that many seeds in it, I knew I was on my way.”

Adding to the excitement is the human labor scat saves. Woody plants, like chokecherry, are hard for people to germinate. Nature is better at it. Park staff tries to mimic natural germination by soaking seeds in acid baths, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as a bear’s stomach.

And Gaalaas estimates it would take 100 human hours to collect enough seeds to match what’s in the one sample of scat that took a few minutes to bag up, bring in and dump in the dirt.

“We’ve tried to grow these before and it took a lot of effort,” Gaalaas says. “This by far took a lot less effort and got more results than ever before. Sometimes mother nature does a heck of a better job than we do.”

The scat seedlings, which are twice as tall as any human-grown sprout, are not an official scientific study with volumes of data and hours of research. They’re unofficial and called pocket science. This mini-experiment produced the kind of results that make adding real science motivating.

“If we know what’s at seed and when bears will be eating that plant, we could go out at certain times of year for scat with a little guess work,” Gaalaas says. “You have success every once in a while and find a more efficient or better way of going about things. That’s the stuff that makes our day.”

Black bear. Photo © wongaboo / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

The plants popping out of poop will be distributed throughout the park this summer with the other new plants, grasses and tree starts in the greenhouse. All of them raised with no pesticides, minimum fertilizer and little water. They’re natives so even if they sprout in the greenhouse, they still have to make it in a park that doesn’t have mercy for the weak of limb.

“Rocky Mountain species are well adapted to soils not high in nutrients naturally,” Gaalaas says. “We’re growing for dry climate. They can handle temperature swings. They’re adapted to cold nights, hot days and high elevation.”

Some of the new berry bushes will return to where the scat was found. Maybe one of the park’s other two dozen black bears will come looking for another snack.

Rocky Mountain National Park greenhouse gives 30,000 to 50,000 native seedlings a three-month head start. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park

Other plants will re-green construction where a waterline was replaced. They’ll naturally improve the view for 4.5 million annual visitors. At least some of those visitors will most likely have some scat questions for Stockton. She can’t wait.

“I’m getting a lot of questions like, what will come out of deer poop or elk poop? I say, ‘Nothing. They don’t eat berries,’” Stockton says. “It’s opened up a conversation for sure. That’s wonderful. I’m totally into what I’m doing and when I get anybody interested in what I’m doing and they let me talk for five minutes, I’m thrilled.”

And I’m intrigued. A plastic bag for bear scat is going on my next river trip. I’d like some chokecherries in my backyard.

Kris Millgate

Kris Millgate investigates outdoor and environment issues for TV and web with cross publication in newspapers and magazines. Millgate graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in broadcast journalism in 1997, then worked for one TV station or another around the country for a decade. In 2006, she started her production company Tight Line Media. More from Kris

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42 comments

  1. Why I love ecology! Here is a poem I wrote a while back on this subject:

    Coevolution

    OK, says Blackberry
    Here’s the deal:
    I’ll make fruit for you —
    juicy and sweet
    abundant,
    in easy reach,
    a long season,
    just the way you like it.

    And afterwards,
    all you have to do
    is shit in a nice sunny spot.

    Don Falk
    For Gary Snyder

  2. What a great story! I have to admit that I never thought about scat as a method, a very natural method, of recycling. Mother Nature sure knows her stuff. I will keep my eye open for bear scat the next time I find myself out in the woods.

  3. I wonder why you don’t just distribute the scat to areas where it is needed. No transplanting needed, and they are already hardened off!

  4. So can you plant some of the berries in zoo enclosures? Then you don’t have to work very hard to get the scat back, and the zoo bears have some food stuffs that they can forage for on their own.

  5. That is totally cool! My question is how do you grow that many plants from the scat? Do you break it up into little tiny pieces and plant it? Or do you plant the whole piece of scat and then start separating the seedlings as the start growing??

    1. Hi Ron, That is a good question – I found this info on how it was done in a local news article – “They did not pick out the seeds, but simply mixed the scat with soil in germination trays. They had much greater germination success than expected with over 1,200 seedlings from a single scat collection of primarily Chokecherry and Oregon Grape. (sometimes Creeping Barberry)” It sounds to me like mixing with soil would break the scat into parts & give the seeds more space to grow. You might also consider contacting Rocky Mountain NPS directly for more info: https://www.nps.gov/romo/contacts.htm Thank you!

  6. I love reading this! If we would leave nature alone it would be so much better off! This news makes me happy!

  7. This is wonderful! living in Southeast AL and hiking all over TN as well, I am excited about this!
    I have asked my husband too many times what kind of poop is this and look at all the berry’s as he explains what kinds of plants and berry’s might have been passed. Can’t wait to plant and see what grows and replant in our woods.
    Thanks for all the hard work you folks do for wildlife and forests.

  8. I have chokecherry bushes in my back yard that spread and they all have blossoms now. The trouble is the birds eat them before I can harvest. I love to make jelly and butter. interesting article…

  9. I had no idea! Just fascinating. And thanks for the lovely poem.

  10. …some years back, I tried this with coyote scat. I placed the scat and then marked the placement with red wire flags (the type used to mark electrical lines). After a week or two the coyotes had pulled and collected all of the flags and deposited them near the opening to their den.

    Tom Baugh
    biologist/ecologist

  11. Very interesting, I will also check out the bear scat in my area as well…looks like some easy gardening!

  12. So horticulture catches up with mycology. “Nothing” is unlikely to be the answer to what comes from deer poop or elk poop, though I admit the fascinating fungi may or may not have been germinated by a trip through the critter.

  13. lovely more reason to not hunt bears , as they carpet the forest floor with beautiful berries!

  14. This is wonderful! One more reason to thank the bears and not to shoot them!

  15. If mankind would just learn to leave Mother Nature alone – at least enough of it so this planet can survive all the harm that greed does to it – like all Keystone pipelines all over the country; oil exploration, fracking, GMO’s, monocultures, etc., etc., etc. Won’t we ever learn? Sufficient green energy could be available if it weren’t for the endless greed of giant corporations – MONSANTO & BAYER come to mind, killers of bees, butterflies, even birds, and all kinds of other useful insects. GREED IS THE BIGGEST KILLER OF OUR PLANET. One could wonder if any of these multi billionaires have children?? Don’t they think about what they are leaving their children, grandchildren and their children???? The White race (I’m lily white!) has learned nothing from our Native Nations. How sad…

  16. You WANT chokecherries in your back yard!? WHY? They are a huge mess. They are propagated by birds & become a horrible nuisance. I have one large chokecherry tree in my front yard (no bears). It’s seeds have been spread over our entire neighborhood, accursed by the neighbors. The tree is about to be ‘removed!”
    It’s OK to have them where the bears can forage on them – in the wild, but not your back yard. Ya want the bears there, too? 🙂

  17. The EPA under Trump, will surly screw something up with this Native Plant Restoration, experiment!!

    Richard Studley
    Blairsville, GA, 30512

  18. hello author to above article: thanks for writing this. in a similar vein, i have noticed here in northern michigan, that morel mushrooms prefer? to grow under apple trees. is this because the white tailed deer eat the mushrooms and then pass their spores on the ground under the apple trees while they are eating the apples? or perhaps it may happen because apple trees have some other required nutrient for morel mushrooms? do you know if anyone else has noticed this phenomenon? thanks for any feedback.

  19. We have a couple of small chokecherry trees on the edge of our woods at the road. I wouldn’t mind more in a different spot because chokecherry jelly is delicious when the bears don’t beat me to them.

  20. Many thanks to the bears.
    Another reason to cherish these wild and beautiful animals.

  21. Many years ago, in East Texas, I picked up what I thought was Coyote poop with persimmons seeds in it. I planted the whole mess in a pot of dirt and actually had some seedlings come up. However, when transplanted, they didn’t make it in my yard in North Central Texas.

  22. What fun and fascinating info. Mother Nature is soooo far ahead of us!!!

  23. Wow, who knew? As a hiker walking past such scat every once in a while either in Glacier National Park or here in New Jersey I never gave it a second thought. Bravo to Kris Millgate for writing this very informative article and the folks at Rocky Mountain National Park for bringing those seeds full circle. When might I see some of those seedlings at my local landscaping store out east here in New Jersey? Very interesting bit of outdoor news! Thanks.

  24. I was really tired 1 night & was trying to sleep.I had all my dogs upstairs w me when they starte howling like Crazy!!…I just shushed them & tried to get back to sleep…a week later I found out a 100 lb baby bear was seen up in the tree near my room,not 8 ft away!! too bad I didnt look outside & then checked in the morning I might have had collected some scat before the rains dispurst it

  25. Very interesting story. So wonderful that unwittingly the bears are helping restore habitat. Have to love those bears.

  26. Great article. To get Russian Olive fruits (contains one seed) to germinate, we ran them thru turkeys. Without doing that about 2% germination. After going through turkeys, we had about 98% germiantion

  27. It’s not a wonder the woods I live in are so biologically diverse–there are lots of bears here in Northern Wisconsin! Another thing they love to eat is Hazelnuts–they are everywhere around here. Also wild plums, apples, Juneberries, raspberries, black berries–lots of food out there, for us and for them!

  28. This is fascinating! Thank you for such a great, informative article! I will never look at bear scat as just a pile of stinky waste but as a lovely organic gift that keeps on giving !

  29. I remember learning that many seeds must pass through an intestinal tract in order to be broken open–and distributed, of course! This is a fabulous account.