Monday, December 10, 2012

"Where the Bear Walks" sample chapter

Work on the book is coming along better than expected, though I fear that it may be shorter than I would like. I'm almost finished with chapter six and getting ready to start outlining chapters seven and eight. To tide you over, here is a brief sample chapter from the book. I chose this one because it's an era in bear history that I've never really discussed on the blog. This is the first chapter in a section chronicling the dark history between man and bear. The rest of the book will profile those few individuals whose cutting-edge work is devoted to overturning the old dogmatic beliefs that caused something like this to happen in the first place. Enjoy!


It’s hard to believe that an estimated 100,000 grizzlies once roamed North America, with roughly 10,000 of those in Southern California alone. From the Mexican Rockies through the Southwestern deserts, from the vast Great Plains to the coastlines of the Pacific Northwest, grizzlies that sometimes topped out over 1,000 pounds prowled the landscape. These were the days before the westward expansion, before the arrival of the white man and the European, when the West was still wild and untamed.
    It’s telling that the conflict between the two species did not really begin until the white man came, bringing with them the American penchant to dominate and subdue all that stands before them. The Native Americans lived alongside the grizzly with few problems. In fact, many tribes revered the bears, giving them names such as “grandfather” and “elder brother”, due to the many characteristics they share with man. To some, they were gods and creation legends that revolved around the grizzly were told and passed down (they viewed the black bear as cowardly due to its timid nature and did not consider them real bears), while some believed that women could morph into bears. Others believed their ancestors were reincarnated as bears and treated them with great reverence and respect. The tribes that hunted the grizzly did so as a rite of passage or a religious experience, a task not to be taken lightly.
    The long-standing peace between man and bear ended abruptly in 1804 when Lewis and Clark began their famous expedition west. Having no knowledge of the great bears, the men often surprised them at close range, foolishly chased them, or otherwise provoked the animals into attacking. The explorers were quick to use their weapons, marveling at how difficult the animals were to kill. Some bears fell under no less than eight rifle balls, prompting the men to write of the unnaturally aggressive temperament of the beasts. In truth, that extreme aggression was caused by the ineffectiveness of the primitive weapons to do little more than cause maddening pain.
    There is no doubt that Lewis and Clark contributed heavily to science (the discovery of the grizzly, ironically, is considered to be their greatest*), and to the birth of our civilization, but there can also be no doubt that they were the first to paint the grizzly bear in an unfavorable light. When their published journals became popular in 1825, the image of the grizzly as North America’s most fearsome beast was burned into the minds of the public. As told around thousands of campfires and printed in as many books, Lewis and Clark’s misunderstanding of the grizzly’s powerful build, curious nature, and hair-trigger defensiveness became so further embellished that, when the westward expansion finally began, along with it came an assortment of guns and traps suitable enough to take on this sinister brute.
    The killing began in California. With the westward flow of humanity, cattle inevitably followed, soon becoming a big business. As early as the late 1830’s, large tracts of prime grizzly habitat were being converted to pasture and farmland. With the advent of large-caliber weapons and repeating rifles, and the fear that cattle would make easy pickings for the large bears, ranchers and farmers hired professional hunters to exterminate grizzlies on their land and some of these hunters were rumored to have killed as many as 200 bears in one year’s time.
    Those grizzlies unlucky enough to fall before the bullets were taken alive for use in public grudge matches against 2,000 pound Spanish bulls. More often than not, the bears would actually shy away from the bulls, attempting to dig a hole to hide in. But when the bull struck and blood was drawn, the confrontation usually ended quickly. The battered and bleeding grizzly would then be subjected to round after round of the fights until it finally succumbed to death, to the great delight of bloodthirsty spectators.
    Eventually public outcry against bear/bull fights finally put an end to the barbaric sport, but there was never to be any such outcry against the mass slaughter that was occurring and the killing continued until every last grizzly had been exterminated from the state of California.
    In the late 1870’s, large cattle ranches laid claim to open grasslands in the West and immediately ran into wildlife problems. While true predators like wolves and mountain lions were responsible for most of the stock killing, it was the grizzly that got most of the blame. Bears are actually very inefficient predators and usually resort to scavenging and feeding on carcasses left behind by other animals. When a rancher would go in search of a cattle carcass, he would find a grizzly feeding on it and naturally assume the bear must have been the killer. As it was in California, professional hunters were hired to shoot grizzlies on sight and some of these men were unspeakably cruel in their practices.


*It was actually Spanish explorers in the 1500’s who should be given this credit.

    James “Bear” Moore was one of the most deranged. His face half mangled from a bear he had wounded, he specialized in trapping grizzlies inside a small cabin structure and then would wreak his own personal vengeance by impaling them for hours with white-hot iron rods. When he tired of the torture, he would shoot the hapless animals. Others would corner grizzlies in culvert traps, douse them with gasoline, and light them on fire.
    As the wildlife war raged on, a more effective solution was devised: strychnine. Believed to be a quick and painless death, this slow-acting poison actually causes severe muscle spasms and it can take up to half an hour for its victim to finally die. Stocked in mercantile stores throughout the West, this lethal concoction would be the grizzly’s final downfall. Even the newly-created U.S. Forest Service, more concerned with appeasing ranchers than with protecting wildlife, joined in on the poisoning campaign. Then the U.S. Congress created PARC, the Predatory Animal and Rodent Control Division of the Department of Agriculture, and set in motion a “final solution” for predator control. Massive doses of strychnine and strychnine-laced beef were spread across the countryside by hundreds of government agents.
    And no one said a word. No government employees or Forest Service rangers or ranchers or civilians ever questioned what was being done. They did their jobs and reaped the monetary rewards for their silence.
    The last grizzly in Texas fell in 1890, then in South Dakota in 1897. The grizzly was declared extinct in Mexico in 1920, then California – once one of the greatest strongholds for the great bear – in 1922. Utah’s last was killed in 1923, Oregon’s in 1931 and Washington’s in 1936. New Mexico lost its last in 1933 and Arizona in 1939. The final holdout was a female in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, killed in 1952. A hundred thousand animals had been reduced to only a few hundred.
    The remaining survivors had fled into the high mountains of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in an attempt to escape the bounties and the bloodshed and today they are the last enclaves of the North American grizzly outside of Canada and Alaska. The establishment of those parks is probably all that stopped the holocaust from following them until there were none left. Now those survivors are waiting. Waiting for a change. Waiting for a day when they’re once again free to roam, when these last strongholds are not all they have left.
    As previously stated, the legend of the killer bear is still with us. The days of Lewis and Clark have left us with that inaccurate and misinformed idea and we have yet to let go of it. To this day, fierce battles are waged over the future of the grizzly and what the bear is actually worth. There are a disturbing number who feel that the mass extermination should be re-implemented and should continue until the species is extinct. Fortunately, their voices are not the loudest and there are even more individuals who are standing on the frontlines every day, trying to save what’s left of these bears and trying to change the world’s perception of them.
    With the eradication of the plains grizzly, the roaring gunfire that echoed throughout the western states finally faded to a grim silence. But silence was meant to be broken. It was misguided fear of the grizzly that nearly destroyed him and, in the decades that followed, the bear was completely taken for granted in Glacier National Park. Garbage dumps were publicly opened for bear feeding shows, trash was dumped in culverts and ditches behind alpine chalets and, running underneath it all, was the equally misguided belief that the great bears were not really dangerous…

Copyright © 2012 Chris Nunnally Where the Bear Walks: From Fear to Understanding

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Where The Bear Walks" the book is officially underway!

I've posted before my plans to adapt this blog into book form. Now that I've returned home from Glacier National Park, I feel that the time is right and I've officially begun. I had tried once or twice to write the beginnings of an introduction only to find that the opening is the most difficult part. I've now written a handful of pages in half an hour and the gates have finally been opened. Words and ideas are bursting forth now. The introduction, which I expected to be the hardest part, is now looking like a piece of cake. I still expect it to be a slow process, but at least the journey is finally underway.
My final days in Glacier proved to be of some interest. The black bear that I mentioned in the previous post returned while I was sitting outside my cabin one evening. he came down out of the woods, crossed the driveway, looked back at me for a moment, then hobbled on towards the river, a noticeable limp in one of his front legs. Word got around very quickly about the injury, but no one knew what had caused it. The bear seemed to disappear until just before I left town. I saw him that last night at the river. He appeared at dusk, still limping, swam across the water, and hobbled off into the woods, snapping sticks the whole way (I cannot stress the importance of snapping sticks while hiking. Every bear that I've heard in the woods has done this as they walked to warn other bears that a larger animal is approaching. This is a much more effective technique for recreationists than simply talking or yelling).
As incredible as the encounters with the black bear were, I longed to see a grizzly or, as the Indians called them, "the real bear", noting that the timid nature of the black bear doesn't even lump it into the same category. While camping at Many Glacier in late September, I got my wish. We had observed early that morning a young black and silver grizzly feeding on a hillside through binoculars. A hike to spectacular Iceberg Lake later that morning brought us to the crest of that same hillside and, waiting in the trail about a mile in and 100 yards or so away, was that very same grizzly. He had been walking the trail headed in our direction until he saw us coming, then he seemed to become undecisive as to what he should do. We could easily see that the bear's mouth was hanging open like a dog's, a clear body language signal that indicated complete relaxation. He was not at all stressed to encounter us. We waited in the trail for a long time, watching him as he foraged for wild flowers. He started moving further up the trail and we moved with him, keeping him in sight but maintaining that 100 yard distance. Other hikers showed up and we all just stood, watching quietly. It was late in the season after all when bears are forced to scramble for calories to get them through hibernation, so we didn't want to push him away if he had found a viable food source. Finally, he seemed to sense that we wanted to move on and he moved off the trail and down the slope into thick grass, allowing us to pass only thirty feet away. We didn't see him again, but we did stand six feet away from a mother deer and her young and were pleasantly surprised to find the lake still very much full of ice, making it a very good trip all around!
Back to work on the book for now. I'll keep providing updates and offer a link to the book on this site when it's finished.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Night of the Grizzlies, 45 Years Later

Michele Koons (top) and Julie Helgeson.

This August 12th and 13th, as planned, I visited both Granite Park Chalet and Trout Lake for the anniversary of the fatalities that occurred that long ago fateful night. While I can't say that there were any stunning revelations as to why I've felt such a strong connection to both victims, visiting the sites has given me a sense of deep peace and personal closure on the matter and, in a strange sense of irony, the evening of August 14th ended with my very first wild bear encounter, capping off what was one of the best hiking/wilderness experiences I've ever had.

Early on August 12th, I set off following the same path that Julie Helgeson and Roy Ducat took on the same day in 1967, along the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet. Despite all the hours I've clocked hiking and exploring in Alaska, the Highline, with its sweeping panoramic views, was the best hike I have ever been on and Granite Park Chalet was extraordinary and beautiful. Seated along the alpine country that surrounds the Chalet, with vast mountain vistas rising before me in every direction, I flipped through my paperback copy of Jack Olsen's book and compared some of the black and white photos to the real thing. Obviously the terrain has changed somewhat, but I was able to find some of the locations shown in the book. I did not attempt to locate the old campground where the attack occurred, but instead sat 500 yards above it outside the Chalet taking in the view and the quiet serenity. Before leaving, I stood in the dining room of the Chalet, where Julie ultimately lost her life, easily the most heartbreaking of the two tragedies due to the amount of time that she spent lying alone and wounded in the dark, no doubt wondering if the bear was going to come back for her. As badly as I wanted to stay at the Chalet that night, it is almost always overbooked and getting reservations can be very difficult, so I began making my way down the Loop Trail. I felt a pang of sadness when I caught one final view of the Chalet peeking over the granite hillside and I knew then that I would be back here some day. It's the closest I've found to Heaven on earth.

The journey to Trout Lake on the 13th was not so relaxed. The trail is very narrow, runs through thick, heavy brush in prime grizzly and cougar country, and receives little human traffic. Fortunately there were several visitors that day, perhaps also there for the anniversary, so I decided to cowboy up and make the journey. Despite my initial apprehension about venturing into that area, I found that my fear faded away quickly, replaced by a strange calmness, as I entered the heavily-damaged burn area on the Lake McDonald side of Howe Ridge and a level of heightened awareness came over me that I had never experienced before, despite all the time I've spent in grizzly country. I clapped my hands and called out often as there were many blind corners and thick berry patches along the trail. Occasionally I picked up a large stick and snapped it, sending smaller creatures scattering for cover. The track of a grizzly's hind foot was pressed deep into the mud about halfway up the trail, but the bear that left it was nowhere to be seen. When I reached the Trout Lake side of the ridge, that twinge of nervousness returned. I had moved out of the open burn area which provided no cover from the pounding sun and the blazing 90 degree temperatures and entered a darker, cooler terrain virtually untouched by the fire. If the rest of the park was the bears backyard, this was their living room, though I was more concerned about mountain lions than grizzlies.

After the steep climb over and down Howe Ridge, I arrived at Trout Lake and the famous logjam. Although the campsite has long been closed down and nobody stays the night there anymore, it is very near this area where Michele Koons lost her life, her death more mercifully swift than Julie Helgeson's at Granite Park. I'm only able to guess from that little info where the campsite was but that feels irrelevant compared to just being there. I stand at the shore of the lake, gazing out over the logjam and turquoise waters, Heaven's Peak towering above. The other hikers have disappeared, either back up the ridge or further down the trail to Arrow Lake, and I'm left alone in this peaceful place. This and Granite Park have already become two of my favorite places in Glacier and I think they will remain that way. There are no man-made tributes to Julie and Michele at either of these sites and I don't think there need to be; the stunning beauty of the country and the silence that hangs over it like a blanket is the best memorial anyone could ever have and ensures that their lives will long be remembered. Like Granite Park Chalet, I'm sad to leave Trout Lake but I know I'll return here one day. That night I'm sore and tired from two big trips in as many days, but I feel a sense of peace so deep that it's almost a tangible thing and I can't stop smiling. There is a very strong spirit in those places and it's ready to touch anyone who is receptive to it.

August 14th:

Late in the evening I'm returning home from the Flathead River with a friend and co-worker. Lightning illuminates the western sky in those final minutes before dusk. As we walk off the main road onto the private drive to the employee cabins, we are stopped by the sight of a dark, lumbering shape coming up the drive towards us. We're not terribly concerned; this is the 300 pound black bear that's been foraging in the area for weeks and who has been behaving in a very docile manner during close encounters with people, so we backed away and gave him plenty of room to get out. He crossed the entrance of the drive 50 yards away from us, entered the foliage, and emerged onto the main road, eating berries as he moved in the opposite direction. Just as we started down the gravel path, he ducked back into the foliage and started coming down the slope back to the drive, right toward us. We clapped and announced our presence. He stopped for a moment and then went crashing through the brush. We grabbed our bear spray in case we were being charged. With the increasing darkness, we couldn't see what happened, but the bear seemed to be gone so we continued on to the cabins, bubbling with excitement and chatting up the encounter the whole way. The bear did not, as far as I know, follow us. Kind of ironic in a way, it served as an interesting exclamation point to the previous couple of days.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Bears Have Arrived!

It was midnight and I was lying in bed watching a movie on my portable DVD player. The player was casting an eerie blue light across the curtained window over my bed. From outside, I hear sticks snapping as a large animal approaches. Suddenly the animal rears up and I hear claws tap on the glass. I hear it sniffing around and then the claws scrape across the glass as it drops back down. Sticks resume snapping as it walks away. For a time, I lay there paralyzed with terror and then I force myself to cut through the fear and recall all the knowledge I've gained about bears. In the dark, it's easy to imagine the bloodthirsty monster but I know this is just the black bear that's been patrolling the area for several nights and dining on wildflowers near the cabins, occasionally encountering people and reacting with no signs of aggression. I know he has never seen such a strange light at my window and I know his reaction was simply out of curiosity, considering that he lingered at the window only long enough to assess the situation before moving on with disinterest. But it's not easy telling yourself that in the dark, where the monsters and demons lurk, waiting to rend and rip human flesh. The fear of bears: a primal response to an unfairly demonized animal, a response that is often irrational and unnecessary. What the human mind can conjure is often worse than the reality, leaving nothing but the fear itself as your greatest enemy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Glacier Park Bear Situation

One week so far in West Glacier, Montana on the outskirts of Glacier National Park and the bears have already been making headlines. While I have not yet encountered any, many people that I know have. One co-worker has had 11 grizzly encounters so far this summer and others say the bears have been irritable and confrontational due to a shortage of wild huckleberries. In several of these encounters, the ornery bears were discovered in the middle of hiking trails, silently following people on their treks, only to run hurriedly away when spotted. Sounds like simple curiosity to me but is nonetheless very bizarre behavior.

I'm staying in a cabin near the Flathead River, a five minute walk through heavy brush and a few huckleberry bushes. Job duties have occasionally required me to stay late and walk home through this brush in total darkness. I've been sure to carry bear spray and a flashlight and make lots of noise but it still manages to get my heart racing. Now, just recently, a 300 pound black bear has been spotted in the area of the cabins and eating huckleberries on the nearby road, exhibiting no fear of people. Plans are to capture and relocate the bear to an area that is isolated from human use, yet rich in available foods. The good news is that the huckleberries seem to be coming out now, so perhaps these encounters will decrease.

Plans are still in place to hike the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet on August 12th. I had originally intended to visit Trout Lake on the 13th but that could happen sooner. While the Highline Trail receives heavy usage, Trout Lake is seldom traversed and is not a place I care to go to alone. More updates soon.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Arizona Attacks and the Face of Bear Management

By now, everyone is no doubt very familiar with the alarming rash of black bear attacks in the mountains of Arizona throughout the month of June. Two of the attacks involved people in tents, another a man in a partially-finished cabin, and the other, most disturbingly, in a condominium parking lot. The offending bears (or what is believed to be the offending bears) were destroyed without prior confirmation that they were responsible for the attacks. This is a shocking number of incidents in such a short period of time and is more similar to the Yellowstone bear attacks of 2010. Those tragedies were caused by the loss of the whitebark pines and the nuts they produce, which are a major source of protein for grizzlies. Could something similar have caused the Arizona attacks?

Jim Paxon, Information Branch Chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, told me in an e-mail that the Southwest has been ravaged by extreme drought and that has resulted in a dearth of natural bear foods. So much so that even the normally shy and reclusive black bears have resorted to such drastic measures as tent raiding and bullying. Fortunately, the attacks did not seem to be predatory and were apparently stopped before reaching that level. But with the bears at these critical stages of desperation (and the Yellowstone grizzlies in a similar boat), it's time to seriously re-evaluate some of our bear management techniques and start seriously enforcing that visitors to bear country take the proper precautions. I feel that it should be mandatory for campers to carry and erect electric fences around their campsite and that recreationists who do not keep a clean and orderly site should be asked to pack up and leave. I also feel that hikers should be required to carry at least two cans of bear spray at all times and that proper training on their usage be given by park rangers. Some may dislike the idea of such rules but with the lack of natural food sources, the lack of proper safety techniques will only lead to more injuries and deaths.

Supplemental feeding must also be considered as a viable option. I forwarded some information on the topic to Mr. Paxon and asked him to consider it in the future. To my surprise and delight, he was intrigued by the idea and said that he would share it for consideration among the other bear managers. The only potential problem is that the execution of a feeding program will likely require more manpower than the department is staffed for. Even so, it's exciting to speak to a government bear manager who's actually receptive to the idea and sees the value in it. We need others with that mindset, because the days of sloppy bear management are going to have to come to an end.

Speaking of bad bear management, I posted several months ago about the night of the grizzlies incident and the strange connection I have long felt to the victims of that tragic night. I will soon have the opportunity to spend some time in Glacier National Park and will be there on the 45th anniversary of the attacks. I plan to visit both sites while there and pay my own respects. I'm told by some who work in the park that a large number of people visit the sites each August for the same reason. Most astonishing is the large number of hits I get on this blog due to internet searches related to the incident and the two girls (sometimes almost a dozen per day), so whatever hold that night has on me, I'm certainly not the only one in its grip. I don't know if being there will make that mystery any clearer, but I know it's something I have to do. That experience will be the subject of future writings: an article, blog updates, and a book that I will be starting on later this year. I've tried getting the book underway several times, but I always get the feeling that I should wait...and now I know it's because this experience must come first. Only afterwards will the words be there.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Condolences to Charlie Russell

Condolences and well-wishes go out to Charlie Russell, one of the greatest pioneers of bear/human co-existence, whose son Anthony died peacefully of cancer the morning of July 4th. Thoughts and prayers go out to Charlie and his family in this difficult time.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams

In the past, we've given special attention to individuals like Doug Seus and Casey Anderson who have successfully raised, tamed, and befriended bears in captivity. In that spirit, it would be remiss of me to not give the famous Grizzly Adams his due for being perhaps the first person to pioneer such a feat. Although his methods of taming were not as kind as Seus's and Anderson's, the end result was no less extraordinary.

John Adams (aka James Capen Adams) was born near Boston, Massachusetts in 1812 but ultimately landed in California after being taken west by the Gold Rush. In those days, before the mass extermination of the large majority of the West's wildlife, California was home to thousands of grizzlies and Adams set himself up as a hunter and trapper. In 1853, he set out on an expedition to western Montana where he captured a yearling female grizzly which he named Lady Washington. At first, the little cub proved to be a violent and angry force to be reckoned with but, after rewarding her ferocity and ill-temper with a healthy dose of his own, she seemed to learn her place and, in Adams's words, "followed me like a dog." Over time, he trained her to carry packs on her back and pull a loaded sled. She even allowed him to ride her like a horse, shared his meals, and accompanied him on hunting expeditions in which she would cuddle with him to keep him warm on cold nights. Adams would later state, after she had stood defensively by his side during an encounter with a wild grizzly, that she was his closest companion and that "I felt for her an affection which I have seldom given any human being." Perhaps most remarkable was an incident in which Lady Washington began an "affair" with a wild grizzly that had been entering Adams's camp under cover of darkness. Adams disapproved of the meetings and the Lady apparently picked up on this, for she ultimately refused to leave behind her domesticated world in favor of the wild one, though she did ultimately give birth to a cub that Adams named General Fremont in honor of the American military officer.

In 1854, Adams captured a two-week old male grizzly cub from a den near Yosemite Valley. He named the little bear Ben Franklin (pictured with Adams in the illustration above) and set about on the same training and taming regimen he had prepared for Lady Washington. In 1855, Ben saved Adams's life by viciously attacking and fighting off a sow grizzly after it mauled the man. Both Adams and Ben suffered severe wounds in the encounter, including a head wound that would claim Adams's life in 1860. On several other occasions, both Lady Washington and Ben Franklin would fight valiantly to protect Adams from fierce grizzlies on hunting expeditions.

Other bears eventually came into Adams's life, including Samson, a monster weighing in at 1,500 pounds. Adams gave up hunting and began traveling with his animals as a type of living museum. He could often be seen walking the streets of San Francisco with Lady Washington and Ben Franklin loyally following behind, completely unrestrained. Ben Franklin died of an incurable illness on January 17, 1858 and The San Francisco Evening Bulletin ran his obituary under the heading "Death of a Distinguished Native Californian." Adams later relocated his animals to New York City and joined with P.T. Barnum. He died of illness in 1860.

Personally, I find these accounts extraordinary and, in light of what's been accomplished by Doug Seus, Casey Anderson, and others, I can't believe that it's just a fluke. There clearly seems to be something more complex than just base wild instinct inside the mind of the bear and these events more than speak to its existence. Could the fact that bears are closely related to dogs mean that they have many of the same attributes? I have been told of a study conducted by a biologist showing how grizzlies may have been the next species domesticated had they not been mostly exterminated, but I haven't been able to track down a copy. Honestly, I can't say that I'm the least bit surprised to hear someone make that claim. Having been face to face with grizzlies, I can clearly see those qualities in them...particularly in the right situation.


In other news, I've written a photo and info book on Fortress of the Bear and it's available to read online. I was going to try selling some copies, but they're printing prices are so high and their bulk prices so outrageous that I would lose more money than I would make. It is, however, available to read at the following link:

The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California by Theodore H. Hittell, 1860.
The Beast That Walks Like Man by Harold McCracken, 1955
Grizzlies and Grizzled Old Men by Mike Lapinski, 2006

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Polar Bear Jail, a Revolution in Bear Management?

By now, some of you may have already heard of Manitoba, Canada's "polar bear jail", which is used to temporarily house bears that become a nuisance.

The town of Churchill is often referred to as the "polar bear capital of the world", playing host to a population of about 1,000. When the ice melts in spring and summer, the bears are cut off from the seals that make up their normal diet and they descend upon Churchill looking for a supplement.

When these bears get into trouble, they are captured and transferred to an abandoned aircraft hanger containing 28 individual cells, each about six square feet wide. Snow is pushed through the bars to supply them with water but they are given no food (polar bears typically fast on stored fat reserves during the summer just as black and grizzly bears do in the winter) and have no contact with their human captors. After serving a sentence that is often dictated by the severity of the "crime", the bears are released and usually take enough away from the experience to stay out of trouble from then on.

I think this is a great idea and I wonder why something like this hasn't been implemented in Alaska. It's certainly better and more humane than bullets and the best part is that with no direct human contact, the bears will not develop a heightened aggression towards people. Instead they would learn valuable, life-saving lessons. I think this could be a revolutionary idea in bear management and I would hope that wildlife organizations around the world will take the idea into consideration. How can we help promote this concept and persuade people to put down their guns and make more of an effort to save bears lives? If the polar bear jail continues to be an effective deterrent, maybe someone will start to listen.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Word of Caution...

It's sad that this has to be said, but apparently it does.

I've been noticing a very disturbing trend among animal rights activists. I think this trend has always existed in some from or another but I've noticed an alarmingly consistent increase just in the past two years. That trend is extremism and it's getting out of control.

I first started noticing this last August when a young man was killed by a polar bear in Norway. His family and friends created a memorial page on Facebook where they could reminisce and share memories, but a group of bear advocates (led by a bear keeper and author whom I once had a tremendous amount of respect for) invaded the page and began tearing down the kid's memory, saying that he had no business being out there and "deserved to die" for "invading the bear's space." Those mourners who tried to be civil and explain that it was inappropriate to say things like that on a tribute site were viciously and venomously attacked. Fortunately, this wasn't tolerated and the offenders were reported and banned from the site. Needless to say, my respect for the person who instigated this has since turned to disgust.

Another account that irks me: in British Columbia some years back, a young boy was stalked, killed, and eaten by a black bear while playing in his front yard. The boy's mother was contacted by an organization claiming to be Greenpeace, who tried to bully her into telling the press that her son was at fault for intruding on the bear's space and that he provoked the attack. When she refused, they tried to get her to confess that she was careless with her garbage and that attracted the animal. She refused again (a later investigation reported that trash was properly disposed of and that there were no attractants) and the phone calls became threatening. Later, Greenpeace denied making the calls and it's suspected that smaller B.C.-based environmental groups were responsible. Having heard that, I now wonder how many bear attack stories have been distorted by such influences.

Thinking about this, part of me can hardly believe it. Could people so devoted to such a worthy cause be so spiteful and heartless? I'm not sure that I ever really believed that to be true until very recently.

In 2010, a young schoolteacher was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves in Alaska. DNA testing confirmed that wolves were responsible and they were later found to be non-rabid and in good health. Some evidence seems to suggest that the pack even surrounded her and cut off her escape before attacking. As you can imagine, the animal rights movement erupted. People struggled vainly to explain it away and even began calling it a propaganda conspiracy against wolves (seriously, what?). Even now, mentioning the girl's name to certain people and in certain places will get a load of profanity-laced venom spewed at you, as if she's committed some unforgivable sin. My efforts to debate some of these people on this incident and their weak, profanity-laced responses have finally brought this reality home to me and there have been a few occasions in which my own passion for bears has almost been soured because of it. Fortunately, I'm too deeply immersed in that work now to turn my back on it, but it has given me a more jaded perspective, as evidenced by the darker tone of some of my more recent posts. That's where my view still stands, even if only to ensure that I don't end up going down the same path. Romanticizing large predators is just as dangerous as demonizing them and there are a few people who need to realize this. Bears in general do not see people as prey, so those few who do have gone to a very dark place and do need to be removed as quickly as possible.

I know that most people reading this probably wouldn't be thoughtless enough to ridicule the memory of an attack victim in front of that person's family and friends (or in front of anyone), but I feel compelled to offer this as a warning all the same. It is the right of any human being to venture out into the wilds and enjoy what it has to offer. Sure, certain risks come with that and sometimes no amount of preparation is enough but no one deserves to be eaten by a wild animal and to say such a thing in front of that person's loved ones is not only morally reprehensible but also immature. It is behavior like that that turns people against environmentalists and makes conservation efforts even more difficult, just as extreme fundamentalists turn people away from religion. Be smart and use your head before you use your mouth, otherwise you're just going to dig yourself - and the bears - into an even deeper hole. Extremism is not the answer, unless your goal is to alienate as many people to your cause as possible.

I had hoped I wouldn't have to get on this soapbox - and I'll no doubt be criticized for doing so - but I can't remain silent on this issue anymore. Defending a creature that has no voice with which to defend itself is a high calling and one worth pursuing, but not worth abandoning one's moral and ethical standards (and respect) for human life over. Once we've done that - once we've given one form of life total value over another - then I think we've truly lost ourselves.

Edit: In a recent email from Charlie Russell, he had this to say about this scenario: "I love people who are passionate about things, but it is hard to be level headed about the things that you are passionate about. As you found out with the researchers bickering and bear lovers smearing etc, how does one work towards any kind of useful agreement that is helpful for the bear? People become zealots around wildlife issues and can get caught up in their ideologies which are usually a collection of dogmas that are distanced from the real world and for some reason being a scientist does not really help the situation. Even they splinter into different camps and then sub-sects because zealots themselves have difficulty coming to agreement over dogmas. We are in a big mess."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Charlie Vandergaw - The Man Who Lives With Bears

Browsing the web today, I found a great documentary about Charlie Vandergaw, who spent over twenty years living with wild black and grizzly bears at his remote Alaskan cabin - "The Man Who Lives With Bears". I really enjoyed the few insights into how he interacts and communicates with them rather than just showing us that he does. My only complaint is that's what I wanted more of.

I've spent all day trying unsuccessfully to download this, both to my hard drive and Real Player, so if anyone has any info on where I can get a hard copy (and where I can find "Stranger Among Bears", a mini-series about Charlie) please let me know. I would love to have this one!

You can watch it here:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Defending James Gary Shelton

With my hopes of visiting Glacier National Park this summer, I feel that it's potentially in my best interests to broaden my perspective on bears to the greatest extent that I can manage. I've written extensively about the individual personalities of bears and Glacier Park is one place where that is most evident, considering the lower food rations in Montana compared to the abundance of Southeast Alaska. To prepare, I'm absorbing enough information to reach the level of unofficial PhD and that requires me to re-evaluate sources of information that I previously rejected.

Chief among those are the books of James Gary Shelton, one of the most militant and opinionated bear researchers out there, and one of the most vilified by conservationists. I myself contributed to that with a scathing review of his book Bear Attacks: The Deadly Truth (Thursday January 28, 2010), which merely reflected my own point of view at the time. Now that I've learned so much more, and in keeping with the picture I've been piecing together in my recent posts, I've taken a more informed look at his work and found two surprising things: (1.) That I'm in agreement with many (though not all) of his points, and (2.) That thinking about his writing has answered a major question that I posed almost a year ago. Before we get into that, though, let's begin with some background.

Shelton started out as a hunting guide in Bella Coola, British Columbia in the 1960s, then, concerned that grizzly bear populations were threatened by overhunting, he became chairman of the Central Coast Grizzly Management Committee, a group devoted to bear conservation. Among other things, they put a number of restrictions on hunting laws that allowed bear populations to skyrocket in the late 1970's and throughout the 80's. In fact, the numbers became so high that they exceeded the local habitat's carrying capacity and the inevitable result occurred: predatory attacks on livestock that were soon re-directed towards people.

Last year I put together a post entitled The Great Bear Conundrum (Sunday March 6, 2011) which questioned the reasons for abnormally aggressive black bear behavior in northern British Columbia and interior Canada. Unlike many of their lower 48 cousins, these black bears not only defend their young as fiercely as grizzlies do, but they have also been responsible for some of the most chilling attacks ever recorded. Who can forget the attack at Liard Hot Springs, when one lone black bear killed two people and injured two others in one assault before being shot? Or, even more chilling, the three young men who were killed one at a time in Algonquin Provincial Park, their bodies stored as a food cache?

I was initially critical of Shelton's writing because it portrays bears in exactly this mercilessly savage light, but now I find it funny that it took me this long to realize that he lives in the heart of this highly volatile bear population and has written his books from that perspective. Knowing that, I'm writing this partly to make up for my earlier bashing of his work and partly to help people realize that he's only doing what almost every other bear researcher does: presenting his information as a reflection of the animals he knows rather than the species as a whole. I think what finally earned my respect was his acknowledgment of these differences. Commenting on Lynn Rogers and his work with the black bears of Minnesota, Shelton says that he has no doubt that Rogers is perfectly safe. He says those bears subsist on grasses, berries, and insects and that the habitat can sustain enough of these natural foods to keep them satiated, just as the coastal grizzlies of Alaska differ in temperament from their interior cousins because of the abundance of berries and salmon available to them. The black bears of northern British Columbia, however, must endure short, cool summers and harsh winters that don't allow for the growth of such prime vegetation. The result is an animal that must rely more on meat and that has become more carnivore than omnivore.

What irks some environmentalists the most about Shelton is his solution to the problem. First, Shelton controversially challenges the opinion that bear attacks are always the fault of the victims. He contends that sometimes it is the fault of the bear, because that is what opportunistic predators often do. I've come to agree with this thinking 100% (sure, the night of the grizzlies and my feelings on that probably have something to do with it), but it causes literal mouth-foaming from those who want to keep a perpetual halo over the animal's heads. Shelton believes that there are not always clear explanations or reasons for bear attacks and that safety advice is alarmingly incomplete and untrustworthy, though he does promote many of Stephen Herrero's (author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, THE top bear safety guide ever written) views. Shelton carries bear spray but advocates firearms and controlled hunting to promote fear of humans in the bear population. In fact, he has helped put hunting regulations in place that have not only brought the bear population down to a more workable level but that have brought down the staggering number of attacks as well.

So how does that fit with all of my previous assertions that hunting can actually make bears more dangerous to people? Can both be true? I've thought a lot about that and here's my theory: I think that bears that are normally shy and timid around people could certainly be made more aggressive by it, particularly in close encounters, while bears that are already aggressive - especially in the predatory sense - can only be made less so. After all, they've clearly learned that people are easy to hunt and easy to kill, so "striking back" will no doubt teach them to re-evaluate that assessment and, in Sheldon's case at least, it seems to have worked extremely well.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about holding two contradictory thoughts in your mind at one time. The study of bears seems to contain more contradictory thoughts than any other field I'm aware of. Bears are killers, bears are not killers; hunting makes bears more aggressive, hunting makes bears more respectful. All of these are true. The further I go, the more I realize what a thin line this is and how careful you have to be to not veer too far to either side. But I'm also realizing that that's a good thing, that a diversity of information, thoughts, and opinions can be useful if I'm walking through the mountains of Montana, or anywhere in bear country. Only then can I be most adequately prepared for any and all possibilities. The way I see it, I can only benefit from walking through those woods believing that nothing out there wants to kill me, yet knowing that somewhere out there in the dark woods...there may be something that does.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

All's Quiet On The Ursine Front...

With all the bears away in hibernation, not much is going on in their world so I'm passing the time (and my own winter hibernation) by taking some of my writings here and adapting them into article form. I've already submitted one to Vital Ground for use in their newsletter, but that probably won't appear until next spring. Since then I've gotten a letter published in Alaska magazine and have sent them a query regarding an article that I want to write. That prospect is exciting and unnerving, as it will be a monumental task to accomplish with no lacking of pressure. I'm also thinking of a travel piece for Alaska Airlines magazine, a bear safety article for some hiking/outdoors magazine that I have yet to select, and - provided my trip to Glacier pans out this summer - an article about that for either Backpacker or Montana magazine. I may branch out into writing about other topics as well, but for now I'll stick with what I know.

Meanwhile, I'm re-reading each and every bear book in my library to keep it all fresh in my mind. This is my third read-through and is a daunting task considering the large number of books that I have on the subject, but I find that my knowledge deepens each time, particularly as my own thoughts and theories change. I've also expanded the collection, even reading controversial books that I once swore off, such as the works of James Gary Shelton, who is very opinionated but, I think, very right in some of his assumptions. There will be more on that later once I've finished everything. I'm now finding myself wishing that I had two copies of each book; one to keep neat and clean and one to fill with highlights, notes, and cross references. As it is, I don't have the heart to mark them up. Maybe on my next read-through, I'll keep a notebook on hand and do it that way.

So that's the gist of what's happening. Things are moving slowly with no clear sign of what's coming next, so hang in there and let's take the time to kick back and breathe while we can.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ruminations on the Dark Side

After posting the link to the Night of the Grizzlies documentary, I had an online conversation with someone who did not believe that two bears were responsible for both of the deaths in Glacier that night. It is their opinion that the Trout Lake bear, which exhibited some signs of possible mental illness, traversed the distance from Trout Lake to Granite Park Chalet and then back to the lake, killing both girls. Truth be told, this is not completely out of the question. The distance from one site to the other is roughly nine miles and, considering that bears can travel great distances in short time periods, the four hours between attacks actually fits that theory nicely, but I don't believe it to be true for several reasons.

WARNING: The following contains graphic descriptions of the attacks that are unfortunately necessary to put this puzzle together.

First, the attack on Julie Helgeson at Granite Park Chalet seemed to fit the pattern of defensive behavior. Julie was severely wounded but left alive. The fact that the bear did not return for her in the two hours before she was found indicates that the attack was not predatory. While the bear may have had that idea at one point, it clearly lost interest and broke off the attack, either because Julie lost consciousness or played dead after being drug from the camp. The death of Michele Koons at Trout Lake was mercifully swift and her body was partially consumed, indicating clear predatory intention. It doesn't make sense to me that the bear would attack one girl, leave her, and traverse nine miles to kill and eat another. On top of that, the Trout Lake bear seemed to stay in the immediate vicinity of Trout and McDonald Lakes, harassing whomever he could find, and a bear matching the same description and aggressiveness as that one entered the campsite earlier in the night, as Michele and her friends were going to bed, and took some food.

That said, the fact that the bear responsible for Julie's death was never conclusively identified is still a mystery. A sow with cubs was shot and believed to be the killer, though there is no clear evidence proving it. Personally, I think this bear is the more likely culprit. Considering the defensive nature of the attack, the presence of cubs would be a clear instigator. It's strange, though, that the bear saw a threat in this situation. Julie and her boyfriend were in a designated camping area that people often frequent and were lying still and quiet when the bear entered camp, doing nothing to provoke it. After the sow was killed, it was found that a pad on one of her paws was partially cut off and hanging by a flap of skin, an injury that would have caused tremendous pain, provoking not only a bad attitude but possibly a mental derangement of its own. The presence of cubs coupled with the short-fuse mentality of a mother bear, egged on by dull, enraging pain could have easily created a very unstable animal. The fact that no human remains were found in the bear's stomach is not proof of the bear's innocence, just that it never fully switched over to predatory mode.

What this person I was conversing with could not accept was that two separate bears turned killer in the same night, an event that is beyond improbable. I think of the story of Mary Pat Mahoney, a 22 year-old girl killed and preyed upon by two grizzlies working together in Glacier Park in 1976. These same two predators had been raiding campsites and behaving very aggressively towards people for some time. If the night of the grizzlies was improbable, this one is off the charts. All of this led me to ponder the attitude that many bear advocates have about the dark side of the animal they love. With the increase in Yellowstone bear attacks, I've heard many of them respond with confusion and denial. Some have been quick to put all the blame on the victims while others believe that bear attacks are somehow all "propaganda". Truthfully, I understand where a lot of them are coming from. I remember the days when I was a bear attack apologist, when human lives were nothing more than statistics on a piece of paper, but those days are long in the past. After reading four dozen books, talking to almost as many people, and following this path for so long, the dark side of the bear has been unavoidable. To me, authors like Doug Peacock paint the most accurate picture of the bear and its mentality. It's a picture of an animal that's much like human beings: complex, intelligent, emotional, shaped by their sum total of life experiences, a creature entrenched firmly in a very gray area with some individuals leaning more towards the light gray and some leaning more towards the dark gray.

That's ultimately what fascinates me the most about grizzlies more than any other bear. At the moment, a whole new way of thinking about the black bear is sweeping the country but the grizzly remains a puzzling enigma. To me, the idea of peaceful co-existence with black bears is not that revolutionary. All one has to do is compare the number of black bears remaining in the lower 48 states of North America with the number of grizzlies to see which of the two is more docile and easier to get along with. The grizzly is a very volatile animal and - even though danger of attacks is exaggerated to an excessive degree - is partly responsible for giving itself the bad reputation its been stuck with. Here is an animal that has left a big question mark in the wake of almost all attempts that have been made to get along with it, a challenging animal that demands your respect and still makes no guarantees, a rogue that, in its arrogance and pride, refuses to conform to any whims our society seeks to place on it. That, to me, is the best thing about the grizzly. They make us look a little closer and work a little harder. They let us know that they're willing to get along but that they hold the cards and they will make the final call on their own fate. They are undeniably the ultimate symbol of true wilderness.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alaska Legalizes Aerial Hunting of Bears

As part of a series of increasingly aggressive predator control methods, the Alaska Board of Game has authorized the aerial hunting and shooting of bears by wildlife officials, a move that has even met with criticism from big game hunters and that allows for the killing of not only mothers with cubs but bears lying defenseless in winter dens. The board is also debating a ruling that will allow for snaring of both black and grizzly bears at various locations. The reason for this? Significant losses of moose and caribou numbers along the Dalton Highway in the Gates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Many hunters are arguing that there is no sense of fair play in these methods and the National Park Service is attempting to make a case that trapping and snaring are inhumane and often unsuccessful. So far, all please have fallen on deaf ears.

I'd actually be curious to know how they were able to come to the conclusion that bears and wolves are so heavily responsible for these losses. That would require a lot of man hours of observation and a large number of people on the ground to keep tabs on all of these animals in order to empirically determine that. I don't know, maybe they actually do have a fool-proof method. What I do know is that it's been a very harsh winter in Alaska and that has to contribute to the smaller numbers. I also know from spending time in Fairbanks that vehicle collisions are the number one cause of moose casualties in that area. Did whoever come up with these decreasing numbers factor that data into their equations? Again, I don't know. Maybe they did. Considering that Sarah Palin fought hard to put predator control methods like this into practice, I'm not too inclined to outright buy their reasoning for it. Right now the public outcry in Alaska against this is very high so we'll have to wait and see what effect that has.

Here are a couple of articles containing more information. First, further details on the new hunting expansion:

And finally an article by biologist Stephen Stringham refuting this new practice:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Glacier Park's Night of the Grizzlies

Iowa Public Television has uploaded Montana PBS' documentary Glacier Park's Night of the Grizzlies to their website and I highly recommend that everyone watch this! It is a stirring, emotional look at the inexplicable incident that claimed the lives of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons in 1967.

This was one of the first bear attacks I ever read about and I immediately felt a strong connection to both Julie and Michele, almost as if I knew them (Julie in particular - so much so that I named two characters in a recent short story of mine after them), and I've been researching it ever since. There are no easy answers about what happened that night and personally I'm not interested in asking those questions. The strong, almost spiritual, connection that I feel towards the victims (and I've heard a few other people admit to feeling the same) is what piques my curiosity about this event and it's what's compelled me to try to visit Glacier National Park this August for the anniversary.

Every day I check the stats on this blog. There I can see how many views I've received, what websites are sending traffic my way, and what search queries lead people to the blog. Every week I see at least a dozen or more search results relating to the night of the grizzlies and the names of the two girls so there is certainly a great interest in the incident and in the victims. If anyone reads this who feels the same or who knew Julie or Michele, please feel free to comment and let me know. I would love to hear from you.

Below is the link to watch the film online. While it's not quite as in-depth as Jack Olsen's book, it's still an informative and heart-wrenching piece that never fails to choke me up every time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2012: The Year Ahead

Chaik eating deer scraps in the snow at Fortress of the Bear - November, 2011.

So 2012 has arrived, marking the two-year anniversary of this blog's creation and the twists and turns of the incredible journey that I unknowingly set myself on. The unlikeliness of everything that's happened the past two years has not escaped me and I'm still amazed by it all. If it doesn't show what can be accomplished through simple marketing, then I don't know what does. But now the time has come to look forward to the year ahead and the various possibilities that await there.

I've been corresponding with biologist Stephen Stringham, who is working on what I think will be the most important series of books on bears ever written, and who is one of the few biologists working today who sees the great value captive bears offer in our understanding of their wild cousins. He has proposed doing a study at Fortress of the Bear to supplement work he has done with wild bears and asked me to assist him in the project. Despite my interest in bears being mostly "unscientific", the prospects of this are a big deal for all involved. It will help bring more attention and prestige to the Fortress and having my name attached to an official research project and (possibly) published paper will be quite beneficial for me as well. The Fortress is interested in participating and Steve is doing the application work for the grant money.

Speaking of bringing more attention and prestige to the Fortress, Les and Evy Kinnear, owners of the facility, proposed getting me back and having me work on their marketing/educational/fundraising projects. These would include pamphlets, educational materials for schools and visitors, community fundraisers, etc. My head is already swirling with a million ideas and I've dug up contact info for big-name people who could be in a position to offer, or help procure, donations. This will likely depend upon available income during the tourist season this summer and would be something that would have to start small and gradually build itself up, so I'm trying not to let my ideas get too far ahead of me. I have put together a rough draft 2012 calendar of the Fortress but I'm waiting to get a printed copy before I decide if I'm happy with the results or not. Digital pictures to prints can be iffy.

In the midst of all this, I hope to be able to make a personal trip to Glacier National Park in August for the anniversary of the Night of the Grizzlies. It's up in the air if I can work that one in or not but I certainly want to try. There's nothing critical to be gained from it, aside from the opportunity to see a place that's had some kind of strange meaning to me for a very long time, but being there at that specific time feels like a spiritual matter and I need to resolve it.

I've also long toyed with the idea of adapting this blog into book form. I doubt it would be anything really major or involved but the market for bear books is high and it's a critical time, so I want to throw my voice into the mix in a bigger way. I've been on the verge of slapping something together the last couple of months but now I'm inclined to wait in case the research project and the trip to Glacier pan out. Both of those, especially the latter, would be valuable to the text.

As for the blog, I have some book reviews coming soon, as I've recently added to my bear book library, and I've been trying to give some direction and substance to a post of late-night ramblings and musings that I slapped together. Maybe that one will be coming soon.

All in all, 2012 could be an exciting year and may take things to a much higher level than before. As always, anything new and interesting will be posted here. Until then, have a safe and happy new year!