Monday, January 18, 2010

The Central Question

One of the things that has always bugged me when it comes to wildlife management in regards to bears is the idea that bears have a "natural-born fear of man". Although that cannot be proven 100% one way or the other, I personally don't believe it to be true. Bear cubs are born almost as blank slates. They have very few instincts and don't even possess the basic knowledge of how to find food and water, nor what to eat or how to den for the winter. A cub learns all of these things from his mother, who is essentially his guide to the world. In tense situations, cubs look to their mothers as behavior models. They are frightened by what frightens her and are disinterested in whatever she disregards. Think about that for a moment. Fear is something that bears learn, something that they are conditioned to feel, not something that they are born with.

If that's not enough, legendary naturalist Charlie Russell practically proved it in his trilogy Spirit Bear, Grizzly Heart, (see the notes on my Facebook page for a detailed summary), and Grizzly Seasons, the Holy Trinity of bear books. Surrounded by bears all his life in Alberta, Russell theorized that bears who had not been negatively impacted by people would not react negatively towards people and he set out to prove that theory. Tracking and filming a rare spirit bear on an uninhabited island in British Columbia showed just how curious and gentle black bears could be towards humans when they did not perceive a threat. But black bears are a whole different animal unto themselves, so Russell's research led him to Kamchatka, Russia and the massive grizzlies that roam there.

Arriving there with his partner, photographer Maureen Enns, Russell was dejected to find that most of the bears were frightened by his presence, but he quickly discovered why: poachers were operating in the area and had slaughtered a number of bears in order to harvest their gall bladders. Russell was uncertain if he was wrong in his thinking or if the bears had learned fear of man from the poachers. Almost in answer, he was sitting by a lake one day when a mother grizzly with cubs approached. She had never seen human beings before and sat, regarding him with curiosity, but never once displaying fear or aggression. Russell realized that the wind was blowing his scent away from her and so he moved from the area. She automatically went to the spot where he'd been sitting and inhaled his scent. Observing her, Russell said that a visible shudder ran through her body and she began to tremble, then bolted for the cover of the trees, leaving her cubs behind in her hurry to escape. It seems clear that the grizzly had gotten the human scent from somewhere - considering the isolation of this area it would have to have been from the corpse of a bear killed and harvested by poachers - but had never actually seen a man and did not recognize Charlie as something dangerous by sight (there was certainly no natural-born fear at work here). The scent of man was recognized, however, and was recognized as something terrible.

As Russell's work continued, he befriended a different mother grizzly - and in this instance, the friendship was initiated by the bear - and successfully rescued three condemned cubs from a zoo and raised them to be independent wild animals. At no point did any of those ever display a natural fear of man, not while they were young and not after they'd grown, nor did their interactions with Charlie make them more aggressive towards people. Again, evidence that there is no natural-born fear of man, that it's something that must be learned!

So what does this say about the longheld belief that bears must be hunted to ensure that they don't lose their "natural fear of man"? What does this say about the practice of using air horns, rubber bullets, etc., to keep the bears afraid of us? Wouldn't this be intimidating them, angering them, ultimately doing more harm than good? Slowly and reluctantly, a number of bear researchers are opening up to the possibility that our attempts to provoke fear in bears could be a major contributing factor in bear attacks on humans. We've shown ourselves to be a dangerous threat to an animal that is hard-wired and programmed to remove threats, to eliminate danger. Yet with every attack, we respond by hunting and killing even more bears, convinced that they haven't gotten the message. Truth is, maybe we are the ones who haven't gotten the message!

I would love to get my hands on bear attack statistics and compare them with hunting and poaching statistics and see if they correlate, but it's been difficult to find anything relevant. So far, Scott McMillion's Mark of the Grizzly is the only book that I've read that provides some of these details. In it, he shows how dramatically bear attacks in Yellowstone have dropped off after bear hunting in the park was made illegal, yet how the number of attacks in Alaska have increased as the hunting has increased. Curiously, more than half of the people attacked by bears in Alaska since the 1970's have been either hunters or hikers and campers with guns. If any of this is true and we have turned the bears against us, then is peaceful co-existence with the grizzly even a possibility anymore?

Let's go now to McNeil River Falls in Alaska's Katmai National Park, one of the most remarkable places on earth. Remarkable because it's a place where peaceful co-existence with the grizzly is not only possible but is an everyday reality. Thousands of people flock here every year to observe wild grizzlies up close and personal as they hunt, play, and often nurse their young within only a few feet of the awe-struck spectators. This has been the case here for over 30 years and the bears have never behaved aggressively or threateningly towards visitors. But in 2007, a dark cloud fell over these idyllic encounters when it was made legal for bears in the area to be killed by trophy hunters in the off-season to ensure that they would not lose their "natural fear of man". In response, state of Alaska game managers received over 10,000 outraged letters and petitions from all over the world - many of them citing the unfairness of hunting bears that trust people, essentially stabbing them in the back and taking away their trust - and the board miraculously reversed its decision and banned all hunting. Unfortunately, some bears had already been killed, but the damage that was done was minor compared to the damage that could have been done.

A stunning victory, though probably only a temporary one. Man's fear will always win out in the end. It's our fear of the monster in the dark that almost led to a slaughter at McNeil River, one of the safest places on earth to view wild bears, but it's the slaughter that, in some way or another, always creates the very monster that we are most frightened of. Bears are senselessly destroyed every day for no reason other than that we are afraid of them. Charlie Russell's bears were hunted down and killed by poachers - their gall bladders nailed to the walls of his cabin - partly to spite Russell for bringing down their operation and partly because of the fear that his interactions with the bears would make them dangerous. No, bears aren't the ones that are afraid. We are.

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