Steamboat Springs Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the type of chemical found in the osha root. The oxytocin in the root has been found to create a sense of love, trust and cooperation in bears.
The residents of Northwest Colorado could learn a few things about medicine from the increasing number of black bears that roam the Yampa Valley, according to Colorado Mountain College professor of biology Shawn Sigstedt.
Sigstedt said bears frequently visit a pharmacy as big as the outdoors, and he has the video to prove that bears don’t just ingest medicinal plants but also rub them on their sore spots.
“Animals are capable of detecting medicines at a level we previously thought only doctors were capable of,” Sigstedt said.
He’s also convinced that the native peoples of New Mexico and Colorado learned to use the medicinal plant osha by watching bears do the same.
The term Sigstedt uses to describe the phenomenon of wild creatures actively collecting and using medicines from the forests and plains is “zoopharmacognosy.” When people learn how to use medicinal plants from wild animals, it’s called “biomimicry.”
Speaking before an audience at CMC’s Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs this week, Sigstedt illustrated his point by describing his long-term research on the special relationship he has uncovered among native people of the central and southern Rockies, bears and the osha root.
Osha is regarded as a medicinal herb that is used to alleviate everything from sore throats to arthritis. It’s thought to counteract viral and bacterial infections, thwart fungus and, in some cases, even make it easier to give up smoking. Osha contains small amounts of the chemical oxytocin, which Sigstedt said creates a sense of love, trust and cooperation in bears.
Osha commonly grows to 3 feet tall beneath aspen trees above the Yampa Valley floor, and the long stalks are topped with a snow cone of small white blossoms. Unfortunately, osha can be tricky to discern from poisonous hemlock. Osha has a mass of chocolate-brown roots from which tall stems grow and spread.
Sigstedt said it’s virtually impossible for people to propagate the plant away from its natural setting. And his own fieldwork shows it is disappearing from some of its historic habitat, particularly in northern New Mexico. Individual colonies of osha, which grow from an expanding crown of roots, can be hundreds of years old.
Sigstedt came to his revelation about native peoples, bears and osha while living for seven years with a Navajo family and observing its spiritual life in Northern New Mexico.
“Native Americans and the Navajo people believe every species on Earth has great gifts,” Sigstedt said.
The bear’s stature in Navajo culture, Sigstedt added, is on par with a deity.
“They believe that the creator, through the bear, gave the Navajo the knowledge of osha and how to use it,” Sigstedt said. “Several tribes have the same legends and refer to it as ‘gift of the bear,’ ‘plant that the bear knows’ and ‘bear medicine.’”
As a biologist, Sigstedt set out to test the hypothesis that indigenous people learned to appreciate the gift of osha from the behavior of bears.
His research began decades ago when he delivered dried osha root to a pair of adult brown bears in captivity in Colorado Springs. The male and female bears, Pa and Ma, had developed an antagonistic relationship and both roared violently anytime Pa approached Ma. The bear was known to her keeper as an arthritis sufferer.
Sigstedt first tossed a large osha root to Ma, who jealously protected it while chewing it down into a mash. Next, she spread it across her shoulders and chest. She also sprayed an aerosol of osha root mush into the air with her mouth and rubbed it into her head.
Finally, Sigstedt tossed a piece of dried osha root to the male bear, Pa, who actively was shunned by the female. He chewed a piece of it and then offered Sigstedt a breakthrough. While maintaining a submissive posture, Pa carried the remaining root to Ma and gave it to her.
The female used the remaining osha root to ease her pain and then, in a move her keeper never had seen before, she approached Pa and licked him on the nose.
Now, more than two decades later, Sigstedt has reconfirmed his conclusions about bears and osha root on his ranch outside Steamboat.
He purchased a camouflaged motion-detector video camera designed to capture footage of two bears utilizing a patch of osha months apart. Both bears rubbed osha pulp on a tree and then rubbed their bodies against the bark. One juvenile bear repeatedly rubbed his jaws against the tree.
“What have we learned?” Sigstedt asked his audience in conclusion. “We’ve learned that the ancient beliefs have a biological basis. The Native American legends are confirmed. Bears taught humans to use osha.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials announced this summer that to their dismay, some young bears in Steamboat have learned to open car doors with their paws. Maybe it’s time the residents of the Yampa Valley learned a few new tricks from the bears.
Healthy bears a sign of a healthy planet
As far as Colorado Mountain College biology professor Shawn Sigstedt is concerned, residents of the Yampa Valley should celebrate the resurgent bear populations in the surrounding mountains.
The presence of apex species like bears and wolves in the Rocky Mountains is a sign of a healthy natural environment, he told a Steamboat audience Tuesday night. And a healthy natural environment is the key to the well-being of humans.
When a person isn’t well, “we deal with the health of the whole body,” Sigstedt said. “That’s what we have to do with our planet.”
Sigstedt has developed an approach to restoring the health of Earth based on protecting indigenous people, expanding the remaining tracts of land where the natural world remains intact and honoring the world’s conservationists. He calls this strategy “World Park.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1
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