Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Fall of the Grizzly

In the early 1800's, grizzly bears were as common throughout North America as the black bear is today. Ranging from the Mississippi River westward through the plains, into the deserts, across the mountains, and all the way to the California coast, hundreds of thousands of grizzlies roamed the West. Some of the Indians hunted them, some feared them, and some revered them as gods, but when the Lewis and Clark expedition began its westward progression, all they saw was a dangerous killer. With no knowledge of bear behavior available in those days, all actions displayed by the grizzlies (huffing, jaw-popping, bluff charges, and even harmless curiosity) were treated as dangerous and the explorers carved that path westward with gunfire. Throughout the coming decades - as the encroachment of human civilization decided that a monster like the grizzly had no place in the world - the mass extermination began. Those hundreds of thousands of grizzlies were shot, stabbed, trapped, burned, poisoned, and blown out of existence. Today all that's left are those backed up against the wall in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, with a few remnants scattered throughout the Cascade Mountains of Washington State and (possibly!) the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. And today, as then, the final downfall of those few remaining grizzlies may be taking shape.

Although it's somewhat old news at this point, the attack this summer on a group of campers in Yellowstone by a mother grizzly and her malnourished cubs deserves a second look. Re-reading Doug Peacock's article on the attack (posted here:, several interesting details were brought to light. As an aside, if you're unfamiliar with Doug Peacock, he is one of the leading grizzly bear conservationists in the world as well one of the most intense personalities out there. His book Grizzly Years is a literary masterpiece!

As is the case with the majority of all bear attacks, the reasons why this one occured were glossed over and left unexplained. According to Peacock, the bears were malnourished due to a lack of their most important food sources: whitebark pine nuts. Once plentiful, the increasingly warmer winter temperatures have allowed an infestation of mountain pine beetles to ravage the whitebark pines that produce the nuts, which, in turn, provide the Yellowstone bears with most of the nutrition that they need, nutrition that a diet of grasses and berries will not give them. With the nuts all but gone this summer, the bears were in a desperate place, needing the nutrition and having no source of it available to them. This is presumably what led to the attack in Soda Butte Campground, and while there do seem to be predatory elements to the attack (one of those killed was fed upon, though it's not clear if that was the bear's intention going in), a woman who survived the attack and who recounted her story from the hospital said that as she screamed and resisted the bear, the animal increased the attack and did not let go and move away until the woman went limp and played dead. Had this been a predatory assault, playing dead would have encouraged the bear to start feeding; the fact that she let go of the woman and went away indicates a defensive attack and a determination on the bear's part that the threat had been removed. Not a stretch considering that mother grizzlies with cubs are highly volatile, but the events of that night and the motivations of the bear are not clear, nor will they ever be. After all, who can know the mind of a bear?

What is clear is that if the pine nut crisis continues, predatory attacks on humans will no doubt escalate in the coming years. Peacock himself states in the article that if things continue on this track, the predatory bear may become the Yellowstone bear of the future. He predicts that the bears will expand their range and roam far and wide outside the park boundaries in search of food, ultimately running into the brick wall of human intolerance. When that happens, the public outcry will be fierce. If you refer back to my post Fighting The Grizzly Wars (March 12, 2010), I discuss David Knibb's book Grizzly Wars and the vicious, spiteful public backlash leveled at wildlife officials working to protect and conserve the grizzly population in the Cascade Mountains. All of the fears voiced by citizens in this instance were based on fear and ignorance, which will always prevail unless reasons for bear attacks are made more clear. As hard as it is to imagine - I would never have believed it had I not gone through so much material from so many different perspectives to get to this point - the last ragged remnants of the grizzly still exist here in the lower 48 tier of North America by the sheer grace of God, because there are so many people out there who not only have a voice but who have the power to make that voice into a reality, who want that animal gone. And if predatory attacks escalate due to the failure of the Yellowstone environment, those voices who so angrily opposed grizzlies in the Cascades, the same voices that cast death threats at the wildlife agents working for that recovery, will direct their venom to the national parks and will call for the complete eradication of the grizzly in the lower 48 states. With the public pressure and the threat of litigations, what will be the result? It sounds unlikely, but the fate of the grizzly in this country has been hanging by a thread for a very, very long time and it will not take many more missteps before the decision is made to cut that thread once and for all. Peacock's article goes more in-depth and shows how many other food resources throughout Yellowstone are failing as well. It's lengthy reading, but very important material.

Now we play the waiting game. Waiting to see how winter temperatures will play out in Yellowstone and then waiting to see how bear/human interactions will play out next summer. Unfortunately, there's not much else that we can do.

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