Thursday, March 30, 2017

New documentary "The Grizzly Truth"

Tom Reissmann's new film "The Grizzly Truth" is now available on Vimeo on-demand. It tackles many of the myths about bears and particularly about trophy hunting. Notables experts in the field Charlie Russell and Kevin Van Tighem weigh in with their own experiences working with bears. Be warned there is some graphic content related to hunting, but even so I highly recommend this documentary to anyone interested in the subject. You can find the film at the following link:

You will need to create a Vimeo account and then choose to either rent or purchase the film. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: "Ice Bear" by Michael Engelhard

Of all the bears of the world, polar bears are probably the most fascinating. Unlike grizzlies and black bears, the isolation of the white bear to the polar region means we mostly have to live vicariously through the work of Arctic scientists willing to venture forth into the bear's icy world in order to learn much about them. This gives the polar bear an almost otherworldly sense of mystery.

Few truly great books have been written about polar bears, certainly not as many as have been written about grizzly bears. Richard Ellis's "On Thin Ice", Nikita Ovsyanikov's "Polar Bears: Living With the White Bear", and Ian Stirling's "Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species" come immediately to mind. Now Michael Engelhard's "Ice Bear" joins the ranks as one of the best works devoted to these elusive animals.

Unlike most authors, Engelhard focuses not on the bear's biology but on its cultural history; from myths and legends to religious beliefs and even sexuality; from hunting tales to Arctic expeditions; from cuddly "celebrities" like Knut to the perils and pitfalls of training polar bears for the circus, while presenting wonderful photographs, paintings, and Native arts and crafts along the way. In the end a clear picture is presented of the polar bear as one of the most powerful and resilient animals in the world, not as the anthropomorphized cuddly teddy of human imagination or as the relentless man-eater of Arctic lore and legend.

This was easily one of the best books I've read on the subject of polar bears with information that kept me turning pages. Highly recommended for any bear lover's collection!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What a Trump Presidency Could Mean For Grizzlies

It's impossible to study bears and advocate for or against them without getting sucked into politics. For decades, the subjects of bear management and protection have been fought - sometimes valiantly, sometimes violently - in wildlife agencies, in lecture halls, classrooms, and the field; from Montana all the way to Washington, D.C. and that will probably never change. The issue has always been highly politicized and always will be. The line has been consistently drawn between those who want to protect and preserve the great bears and those who see no need for them and consider them a useless liability.

As hard as I try to stay out of politics and remain unbiased, a bias is ultimately inevitable, and right now a political battle is being waged to determine the future of the Yellowstone grizzly bear and whether or not they will retain protections under the Endangered Species Act. Public comments on this matter have been closed and there are expectations that a final decision will be made sometime this month. 

So what does it say for the outcome of this decision and the final fate of these bears that Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States and the Republican Party (consistently the most anti-environmental and with the most representatives fighting on the side of the anti-bear campaign), is firmly in control?

Well, let's take a look at some of Trump's environmental policies:

1.) He does not believe in man-made climate change. To be fair, I myself am somewhat on the fence about whether climate change is man made or a natural cycle. Either way, I've spent enough time in the far north to visibly see the effects with each passing year and I know full well the devastating impact it's had on the Yellowstone grizzly population and the polar bears on the Arctic tundra. Regardless of the cause, something is happening and there are ways these animals could be preserved and protected from it. But first we would have to stop squabbling about it and acknowledge that something is happening and that's not the nature of politics.

2.) Myron Ebell, one of the country's best-known climate change skeptics, has been chosen by Trump to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency that Trump has even considered disbanding altogether. 

3.) Open protected lands (i.e.: National Parks and forests) to privatization, meaning control by the states with no federal protections. The Republican Party argues that this 200 million acres of currently-protected land should be "used to the best economic potential for the nation". This means logging, gas and oil exploration, and development. Sure those trees, lakes, and mountains are pretty but wouldn't you rather have a shopping mall and a McDonald's?

4.) The GOP is arguing that the Endangered Species Act should be significantly curtailed so that species cannot be listed as endangered in one location if they exist in healthy numbers in another location. The platform states the act has "stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects and burdened landowners." Why should Yellowstone grizzlies be protected when there are plenty of grizzlies in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia? Good enough, right?

5.) Among Trump's potential candidates for the Department of the Interior are Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who pushed to delist the gray wolf and has been pushing the campaign to delist the grizzlies and open them up to trophy hunting, and - according to some sources - possibly Sarah Palin, a trophy hunter who has waged all-out war on Alaska's predators.

As grim as these prospects are, we have to acknowledge the future is uncertain and things could go in either direction, but for now a very, very dark cloud is looming on the horizon in the battle to save the Yellowstone grizzlies.

Friday, August 12, 2016

My thoughts as a solo hiker...

A few weeks ago, a bicyclist was killed by a bear of undetermined species in my old stomping grounds of West Glacier, Montana. The man was not only a Forest Service Ranger but also the cousin of a friend of mine. It was determined to be a surprise encounter and the decision was made to spare the bear's life. The incident forced me to face some hard questions and forced me to answer them.

As a primarily solo hiker, I'm well aware of the risks of venturing alone into grizzly country, especially the risk of encountering a mother with cubs or surprising a bear at close range. Not only do I solo hike, but I tend to hike silently. For me, wild country - and especially grizzly country - is healing and therapeutic and I frequently crave the solitude it brings, so I feel that making a lot of unnatural noise disrupts that solitude. Obviously, this puts me at greater risk of startling a bear and possibly getting attacked and I have in fact startled a grizzly at close range in Glacier National Park on two separate occasions. One on the Siyeh Pass trail three years ago and one just two weeks ago at 6:30 AM on the Iceberg Lake trail. The bear in the first encounter did an abrupt about face and bolted back down the trail. The other ran down the hillside huffing and crashing through the brush. Both incidents happened too fast to react to. So what if I were to run into the wrong bear at the wrong time? What if I were to be the unlucky one and it were to happen to me? 

Although I accept the risk of hiking alone in grizzly country more than I accept the risk of driving an automobile down the Interstate (arguably much more dangerous), I still ask myself the "What if?" question, and the tragic death of Brad Treat helped me find some answers.

Two weeks ago on the Iceberg Lake trail I encountered dozens of hikers decked out in bear bells, clapping and yelling around every corner, and I became so annoyed by their presence that I had to bite my tongue each time I passed these noisy intruders. That said, I completely understand their mindset. I was once so terrified of bears that I wanted to make all the noise I could on a trail but was so paralyzed with fear I could barely make a sound. Now that fear has been replaced by fascination mingled with a healthy respect, so I snap sticks, kick rocks, and loudly clear my throat to announce my presence around blind corners or in thick brush, sounding like a larger animal moving through, and wonder why people who feel the need to wear tourist scams like bear bells and shout at everything are even venturing into places like these. If their goal is to never see wildlife, they're on the right track; I, however, go out with the hope of encountering something. 

So if I were to be killed by a bear - be it surprise, defense of cubs, or even predatory - I would want no action taken against that bear. While I definitely don't go hiking with the expectation of never returning, I would rather die in the woods and mountains than in a chunk of metal on the highway or in the kitchen of the restaurant I'm working in.

When I was younger, I had a nightmare that something happened to me and everyone thought I was dead but it turns out I wasn't and I awoke buried alive in a coffin. Recalling that I can say with certainty that when it comes my time to go, I don't want to be buried in the ground in a coffin. I want to be driven far up into the deepest, thickest grizzly country imagineable and thrown out for the bears to eat. I can think of no greater use for what's left of me than to fuel something else's survival.

How can I get this legally put into writing?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bear Behavior Observations

After six years, I'm back at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska and will be here at least through the summer. Coming back has taken some adjustment, considering the amount of time I've spent with wild bears in Montana over the past few years. For awhile, seeing them in captivity again didn't have the same impact as encountering one on a trail, but being able to closely observe and interact with them has won me over and this time around I feel more suited to be their keeper than I did years ago just because of the vast knowledge of bears I've compiled since then and how much more at ease I feel around them as a result. That's a good thing because this time I've really got my work cut out for me: eight bears are currently housed at the facility, five brown bears and three black bears.

The five brown bears I'm very familiar with. My old buddies Chaik and Killisnoo (Killisnoo pictured above) are still here, along with Baloo, Lucky, and Toby, the three cubs who were breaking into the facility on a nightly basis with their mother. The trio is much bigger now, with Baloo beating out Chaik as the largest, and now most dominant, bear.

                                          Baloo regarding his reflection.

The three black bears are Bandit, Smokey, and Tuliaan, a native Tlingit word that means "gentle". Smokey and Tuliaan were siblings orphaned in Seward and Bandit was a lone cub living in a tree in Juneau. All three are as passive and gentle with the keepers as their brown bear cousins and are impossible not to fall in love with from the first moment of interaction.

                                          Bandit (lower), Smokey (left), and Tuliaan,


I was skeptical if any of the bears would remember who I was after so many years, but Fortress director Les Kinnear was adamant that they would and it seems he was right. My first meeting with Chaik and Killisnoo, I held my hand up for them to smell and they almost instantly reacted with recognition, licking me and taking treats from my fingers.

                                          Feeding carrots to Chaik and Killisnoo.

Toby, Baloo, and Lucky took a bit longer to get used to my presence since one of our interns primarily worked with them last time, but they've adjusted to me extremely well, as have the black bears. I feel like I know them and I get the sense they feel as comfortable with me.

Daily observations are interesting. While the black bears mostly frolic and play, the social dynamics of the brown bears, while mostly cordial, are always changing. Two or three years ago, Les constructed a breezeway connecting both habitats so the brown bears could mingle and interact with one another. While Chaik and Killisnoo are both extremely passive, Toby, Baloo, and Lucky spent more time in the wild and can be a little more pushy. Baloo has already established himself as the bear in charge while Toby has begun courting Chaik. Lucky mostly stays on the sidelines and poor Killisnoo gets the brunt of everyone's bad side. 

When Chaik and Killisnoo were rescued as cubs in 2007, Killisnoo was in bad health and didn't fully develop so he's considered something of an outcast by the wilder bears, particularly Toby, who would find him unworthy as a suitor in the wild and is instinctively compelled to push him away, so she usually dumps all her aggression on Killisnoo and keeps him trapped inside his den. During the more intense scuffles, Chaik usually comes to Killisnoo's aid, often landing him in the doghouse with Toby. It's wonderful to see Chaik so protective because when he and Killisnoo were the only residents six years ago, Chaik was often pushy and rough with Killisnoo, as older brothers often are with younger brothers, so seeing Chaik's devotion to him now when he's outnumbered is heartwarming.

Of course, Baloo and Lucky feel equally protective of their sister so they sometimes take her lead and gang up on Killisnoo or try to block Chaik from rushing to his brother's defense, leading to some pretty hair-raising bellowing matches. Fortunately, Killisnoo has started standing up to Toby and has backed her down a few times. While none of these confrontations have been really serious, Killisnoo did suffer a bite to the back of his knee and a bruised tendon so we've separated the two sets of bears for now to give Killisnoo time to recuperate stress-free (The photo at the top was taken while sitting and talking to Killisnoo during his recuperation in the den). Now Toby sulks and picks on her brothers because she can't snuggle up with Chaik. 

And the soap opera continues...

                                          Lucky balancing on a pipe while Killisnoo watches and Baloo sleeps.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

I Saw a Bear Today

A moving and powerful piece that I found and had to share:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Article Disappeared

It's been brought to my attention that my article about the delisting of Yellowstone grizzly bears - published online by the Earth Times in November 2013 - has disappeared along with the entire Earth Times website, so here it is in it's complete, unedited form. Please note the links to the IGBST website at the end no longer show the data indicated in the article due to political forces removing it to support the delisting agenda

The article:

THE FALL OF THE WILD: Are We Losing Our Grizzly Bears?

The grizzly bear is one of the last symbols of wilderness remaining in North America. Already in danger from a failing habitat, the grizzly now faces its potential demise at the hands of political ladder-climbing. Will we act in time to preserve the species or allow this majestic and misunderstood creature to fade into the annals of history?

By Chris Nunnally

Each spring, I look forward to the arrival of summer with great anticipation. This is that time of year when I leave my cluttered city life behind and begin migrating to the Northern Rockies of Glacier National Park. I go in search of solitude, tranquility…and bears.

Grizzly bears are indispensable to me and one of the most powerful symbols of wilderness we have left. Statistically, they pose a ridiculously small threat (with falls, drownings, and exposure topping the “cause of death” lists in the national parks), but you still have to be alert and aware when recreating in their backyard. For me, the heightened sense of awareness that comes over me in grizzly country is the strongest feeling of life I have ever experienced. In my mind, that humility and awareness is the true value of wild country and is a large part of what I go out there in search of.

But how long will it last? The Glacier and Yellowstone ecosystems contain the only surviving grizzly bears in North America outside of Canada and Alaska and at least one of those populations is facing an uncertain future.

Due to increasingly warmer winter temperatures in Yellowstone, an infestation of the mountain pine beetle has spread to higher elevations where it has never before been able to survive and devastated the whitebark pines and the annual crop of nuts they produce, which are a vital source of late-season protein for grizzly bears. In 2010, the year of the infamous Soda Butte attack near Cooke City, Montana, overall whitebark pine health was dramatically low, an anomaly that cannot be ruled out as a causal factor in the attack.

The details of the Soda Butte incident are not entirely clear, the reasons why it occurred having been glossed over and left unexplained, the usual standard when it comes to bear attacks. While there do seem to have been some predatory aspects to the attack (one of those killed was fed upon, though it’s unknown if that was the bear’s intention going in or if it was an opportunistic feeding once it found itself with a dead body), Deborah Freele, who survived the attack, said that the bear did not let her go and move away until she stopped screaming and resisting and played dead. Had the attack been predatory in nature, playing dead would have only encouraged the bear to start feeding; the fact that it let go of Deborah and went away indicates the attack may have been defensive, as if something had given the bear concern for the safety of her cubs.

Killed two days after the attack, the mother bear was necropsied and isotopes from her blood, serum, and hair revealed that for the previous two years, she and her cubs had lived on a near exclusive plant-based diet with no indications of human food or garbage present. Isotopes of sulfur, which would indicate consumption of whitebark pine nuts – what the family should have been eating that time of year – were not present, nor were any indications of having eaten meat. Even though it was late July, the bears still wore their winter coats and they weighed in at the low end of the normal range for average bears. They were extremely malnourished.

It is well documented in many studies that the nutritional value of a good pine nut crop not only greatly increases a bear’s odds of surviving winter hibernation but also results in better cub reproduction. When a female bear successfully mates, the pregnancy does not automatically take. If the female enters her den with enough stored fat and protein to support herself and young, the pregnancy will develop into a cub; if she has not built up sufficient reserves, the pregnancy will terminate itself. With the continuing loss of the whitebark, mortality rates will inevitably increase. Natural vegetation alone will not suffice to keep bears healthy.

Making matters worse, other important food sources for bears are also on their way out: berries do not grow in Yellowstone with the abundance that they do in Glacier. Cutthroat trout are threatened by lake trout, which have been illegally introduced into Yellowstone Lake. The migration patterns of army cutworm moths are being influenced by pesticide spraying in the Midwest and Alberta. The wolf reintroduction program has resulted in an over-population that has robbed the bears of a large number of winter-killed carcasses, an often critical food source for bears just emerging from their dens in spring.

The International Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) maintains a list of bear mortality records in Yellowstone and whitebark pine cone reduction data from 2009 through 2013. The correlation between the two is undeniable. Field operations in 2009 show 80-88% of whitebarks dead or dying. That year, nine abnormal bear incidents resulting in bear mortality were recorded (in filtering through the records, I tried to eliminate any incidents that may have involved defense of cubs or carcasses and focus only on those that were unusual or in which bears raided campsites or residential areas in search of food), with one labeled as “cause unknown, under investigation”.

The change recorded in 2010 is very dramatic. Whitebark pine health is shown to be alarmingly low with mortalities heavily increasing. A grand total of 28 incidents occurred that summer, including the Soda Butte attack, making the 9 of the previous year look infinitesimal by comparison. Some of these were highly disturbing, including persistent stalking of hikers and elk hunters during the late season months.

2011 shows some improvement in the production of whitebark pine cones but that’s in a forest 90% depleted so a large number of abnormal bear encounters were still reported, totaling 27, with ten of those classified as “cause unknown, under investigation”. In all, 150 grizzlies died from 2008-2010; a record 51 in 2012 alone.

This data presents a very clear cause and effect picture yet, astonishingly, many of the very scientists who founded this information are now either outright denying any impact from the loss of whitebark pines or contend they are “still studying the issue”. Chris Servheen, Grizzly Recovery Coordinator, told me personally that there is no evidence that whitebark pine loss will negatively affect grizzlies. They’re omnivores, he argues, and will find other food sources.

On that point, he is absolutely correct because now those same hungry bears are roaming outside the park boundaries into human habitations, seeking supplemental protein to replace what’s been lost. The IGBST’s data supports this, showing the majority of bear mortalities in 2012-13 to be a result of cattle depredation and property damage in residential areas. Not only has this created the illusion of an exploding population of grizzlies, it’s drummed up the standard public reaction of fear and intolerance. Many people are calling for sport and big game hunting regulations to control this “overflowing population”, with no understanding of why bears were suddenly turning up in these unusual places.

In the summer of 2012, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar responded to Wyoming governor Matt Mead’s request that final assessment and delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) be completed and proposed by 2014. It is expected that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other agencies will finish their analysis of the situation by early next year and that the USFWS will then propose the delisting.

Yellowstone’s grizzlies were originally delisted by the Bush Administration in 2007 partly, according to Servheen, to show that the ESA was having some success. A Montana environmental group rightfully challenged this ruling on the grounds that there was no accurate way to count the number of grizzlies in Yellowstone to conclusively determine the size of the population and that the USFWS had failed to prove that the whitebark decline would not harm the bears. The delisting was successfully overturned in 2009.

The USFWS was dismayed by this decision and even seemed to take it as a personal affront. They immediately went into action drafting a second delisting proposal, this time with a “new approach”: to show – on paper – that the estimated 600 grizzlies of the Yellowstone ecosystem are actually more in the range of 1,000. 

This is not about science or conservation. It’s a political game. Basically, whoever can “prove” that the grizzly bear population of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is stable and growing and can successfully get them delisted gets the keys to the car, so to speak, of bear management. Personal political stature is the only thing many of these people are really working for.

Having swallowed the “exploding bear population” line hook and all, Governor Mead has decided to allow sport and big game hunting of grizzlies in Wyoming should the delisting be successful. Mead has cited grizzlies as a “heightened threat to humans” and there are a number of locals who literally cannot wait for their macho moment to kill one.

This is a terrifying prospect. For one, grizzly bears have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any mammal in North America. They do not reach sexual maturity until five years of age, females remain with their cubs for up to two years and, depending on environmental conditions, may not reproduce again for three or four years after separating from previous young. With the failing health of the Yellowstone ecosystem, the reproductive rate is already below normal. Throw big game hunting into the mix and the mortality rate will very quickly exceed the birth rate, just as it did in the 2007 delisting. This species cannot survive such grim odds.

The better and sounder solution would be to let the bears move into the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where winter temperatures remain cold enough to prevent the mountain pine beetle’s intrusion and whitebarks are flourishing. Then let’s establish travel corridors across Montana, linking Yellowstone with Glacier, where the habitat is healthier and more diverse. This would, of course, involve getting bears over and under highways. With our technology and know-how this is very much an attainable goal, though apparently not as easy as simply drafting a potential extinction plan that could adversely affect the species to a disastrous extent.

And all the while, the voices of the multitude, the voices that could promulgate change, are silent on the issue. Many truly have no idea that such critical decisions are on the verge of being made and others fear bears to such an irrational extent that they honestly cannot conceive of coexisting with them. But it’s not too late. It’s not too late to let it be known where we stand on this issue; otherwise I fear we may wake up one day to find that the wild has been taken out of the wilderness.

For IBST mortality data visit:
For IGBST whitebark pine data visit:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Nunnally studies bears independently, has worked with them in captivity, maintains an educational blog, “Where the Bear Walks”, has authored a book by the same name, and writes freelance articles about bear issues. He divides his time between his hometown in Alabama and the rugged mountains of Alaska and Montana, which are among the last strongholds the grizzly bear still calls home.