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.


  1. Are you promoting the hunting of bears because on the very rare occasion one might be predatory on humans? Remember, although shy and elusive, they can also be curious, and seemingly friendly. Bears have many personalities Chris.

  2. Indeed they do and that's part of what I'm trying to convey. But even then, their stomachs tend to dictate behavior and attitude.

    I'm not promoting hunting based on the likelihood of predatory attack. In fact, I believe that in some cases hunting can lead to defensive attacks. I'm stating that I initially criticized Shelton's writing only to realize now that it was not for very good reasons. The bears in his part of the world were frequently predatory, not rarely, and it's because the population was allowed to grow out of control. They found, legitimately, that controlled hunting decreased the level of attacks. That would not work in all situations but this one was unique enough that it did. Due to the personality differences and how the available foods differ in both geographic locations, Lynn Rogers can safely walk with black bears in Minnesota but could not with those of northern, interior British Columbia. It's similar to how I've spent time around the well-fed, and thus shy, coastal grizzlies of Alaska but could not safely do the same in the interior or in Yellowstone. All of that comes down to their individuality and how food or lack of it can affect that.

    I use to demonize bears and then I romanticized them. Now I see that it's dangerous to do either one. I'm learning to walk in the middle and take into account all the different facets of the animal rather than picking and choosing as so many are guilty of. What comes out of that can often seem schizophrenic and wishy-washy because bears cannot be pigeon-holed. Thus, all I can do is put those pieces out there and try to present as much information as I can.

  3. Did you get the science behind what Gary is suggesting. How many attacks, and how many deaths were the result of too many bears. Chris, what number is too many bears? Did you ask Gary? What makes the Valley's population mannerism so different then the Coastal Alaskan population? Or is it? How many bears does Gary suggest should be shot every year in the Valley to keep this population down? If it is a percentage of bears that he feel need to be shot to protect the BC community, I ask you...a percentage of what number? Has there ever been a population study of grizzly or black bears in the Bella Coola Valley. I can tell you that there has not Chris.

  4. From the late 70's through the 90's I found records of 22 black bear attacks in B.C. and surrounding provinces with nine attributed to brown/grizzlies for the same time period, and most of those seemed to be over carcasses. What accounts for that? Lack of regular contact with people? If that's the case, why are grizzlies (usually the more aggressive of the two) responsible for the least number of attacks?

    As for the other points, that's not what I was writing about. I'm showing how the study of bears is like the three blind men and the elephant. All of them are right yet they're all wrong when they persist that their conclusion is the only conclusion. I stated above that I do not agree with all of Shelton's points because of his tendency to do that, but I also feel the same about Lynn Rogers and many others. Everyone has a different piece of the puzzle but, like the three blind men, they'd all rather take pot-shots at each other rather than try to see if the pieces fit. That just keeps everyone spinning in a circle rather than getting anywhere.

    You clearly have issues with Shelton's opinion, just as I once did but what I most agree with is his assessment that the victims are not always at fault when attacks occur. The animals are not innocent cuddlies and sometimes they deserve the fault, not the people. I definitely feel that a gun for self-defense in bear country can cause more trouble than it will prevent and is no substitute for brains and bear spray...but both of those have been known to fail. What then?

  5. Hi Chris, I love your post. I just happened to be reading mr sheltons books as we speak. I am a fisheries technician on vancouver island and have had hundreds of encounters with black and grizzly bears. I also teach bear avoidance/defence courses. 90% of the people I meet are in the dark about bears. I hear people say all the time "oh it is just a black bear" this type of mentality will get you killed. I look foward to following your post.

    1. a bit late to the discussion but ready Sheltons BA 11 right now - sheds a total new perspective and for a ';newbie' somewhat scary.
      You mention you teach Bear Avoidance/Defense courses - are there any planned for the island 2014?

    2. a bit late to the discussion but ready Sheltons BA 11 right now - sheds a total new perspective and for a ';newbie' somewhat scary.
      You mention you teach Bear Avoidance/Defense courses - are there any planned for the island 2014?

  6. Thanks for reading, Phil! I think there are certainly places in the country where that attitude about black bears is more accurate. I live at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and there are a number of black bears in the area. You never hear about them, though, and they're rarely seen. The species in your neck of the wood seems to be a different story.

  7. Hi Chris,
    On this subject "Defending Gary Shelton", the "issue" I have with Shelton's information is his LACK OF SCIENCE prior to encouraging the community members to kill annually 25 percent of the grizzly bears in the Bella Coola Valley. This includes both bores and sows. As I said in an earlier post, "25 percent of what number"? There has never been a population study in this Valley. Grizzly bears are the slowest reproducing land mammal in North America; professionals (including the government biologists) have said that killing them in this Valley is unsustainable.

    What is happening slowly in this Valley, and will continue, is people are getting "tools' together to live with these animals cooperatively…in other words co-exist. Things have recently changed in Bella Coola, as Bear Viewing is a growing industry in this Valley now, and community members do not support the carnage as it has existed in the past. Interesting facts you should consider... FN's support the protection of bears and the majority of the community members support their protection.

    Chris, it is NOT without risk to walk in any forest, as of course a bear may react to our presence by defending his\her cache or cubs. But is it our job to wipe these animals out ("controlled" or out of control kills) just in case this might happen or do we accept the risks of our choice to be there in the first place? I wonder Chris, if they react, how could we consider the outcome the "fault" of this bear? Humans are for likely there by choice however.

    Fyi, In recorded history, there has never been a human killed by a bear in the Bella Coola Valley (one of the highest concentration of bears in B.C.)yet this particular Valley has the highest recorded incidents of human\bear conflict in B.C. (in other words, more bears are shot there than almost any where else in B.C.)

    Communication IS important to bring people together, and I appreciate your efforts here but that does not mean you have to compromise your ethical truths. Stay strong when speaking up for these animals, they need all the help they can get, and so does the community that cares for them. Keep the communications going, but may I suggest you talk to Charlie Russell about the bear issues in this area? He is familiar with its struggles. Take care.

  8. Hi Lesley,
    Thanks so much for the very kind comments left on SIBOL.
    Please use whatever you like. I think that's a really good idea.
    Love Suex

  9. Hi Chris;

    I admire your personal courage to come out and say "I am re-evaluating my previous position" (my way of saying it).

    I have spent most of my 48 years of life in the woods of Central British Columbia. Over the past 20 years, I have seen a change in Black Bear behaviour. I, and 2 of my friends were stalked in a predatory manner by a Black Bear for some 45 minutes; and believe that the only reason we were not attacked, was because there were 3 of us.

    Having read all of Mr. Sheltons books, with an open mind, I completely feel that the message that he is trying desperately to convey to outdoor enthusiasts, is awareness and preparedness. Definately he says, that his survival strategies are designed to tip the scales in favour of saving human lives.

    Unfortunately, in the past, workers that had to do work out in remote area's, were not allowed to carry any type of defence system, and many were killed as a result.

    I can tell you with complete confidence and honesty, that far more Black Bears have been killed by the Conservation Officers, for showing up around town, than are killed by workers who are now trained and equipped to deal with Bear Attacks; and the reason these people are now able to defend themselves, is because Mr. Shelton worked very hard for many years, to get the Workers Compensation Board (Now Worksafe B.C.) to allow them to protect themselves.

    I love Bears and I love spending time in the outdoors doing photography, but if a choice has to be made between a bear dying, and a human dying, I'm sorry, but I'm choosing the bear.

    Unfortunately, most of the folks that are always screaming for preservation (at least the ones I have known) couldn't tell the difference between a Black Bear and a Grizzly Bear, if they were standing in front of them; nor have they spent 4 decades in the wilderness, to understand how nature truley works.

    Thanks for the Sounding Board; Allan

  10. Interesting reading. I will say that I have read and re read Gary's 3 books as well as many by other authors including Herraro's. The difference I find in Gary's books are they are real on the ground research, not a study done in a UBC library with the odd field trip to the woods thrown in.
    I am an outdoors person who hikes, hunts, camps and fishes in bear country.
    I have had some bear encounters of my own over the years. Many of these were when I was younger. Having now read Mr Sheltons work I have been able to catagorize some of my own encounters and even labeled a couple of them as the bear acting in a predatory manner. I have never had to use my bear spray or shoot a bear but have twice had to use warning shots to scare off a predatory bear. Both of these times I feel would have ended with the bear making contact if I had not been armed.Both times it was a black bear..
    On a side note It bothers me how the preservationists have "hijacked" the term conservationist as their own. Hunters are the original conservationists. We understand that there needs to be a ballance in nature and the role that hunting plays in this management. Conservation means keeping a ballance where we can take some animals for our own use as well as ensure that enough are left to ensre the survival of the species.
    My advise for anyone that is going to spend time in bear country weather for work or play is to forget university studies and read Gary's books. It could save your life.

  11. good comment Gary.........there is a whole genre of naivete when it comes to bears. Simply put...most have had little if any real contact with these awesome animals. I have and Shelton's experience supplies some of the most accurate of all....and I've studied and hunted them for many years. I'm not interested in 90% of what I see where bears are concerned because most of it has been written from a 'preservationist viewpoint' which is more about fear and self-portrait than factual. Bears, when one strips away a 'Disney mentality'..are a mighty predator among all predators....and to see ourselves as non-predatory is naive foolishness at the best.....downright stupid at its worst. Every species on earth feeds off another whether animal, mineral, or vegetable.

  12. Rocky Latham

    I totally agree with Gary.

    I took the course in Wyoming to teach Hunter Safety Classes. The head of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department back then in the 1980s and I had a disagreement in philosophy. He said if you killed a grizzly "you better have claw marks on you" I felt that was a ridiculous standard and told him so. When I hunted in grizzly areas for elk I carried a .375 H&H because I hunted blow down timber where any encounter would be very close and I would get only one chance to make a meaningful impression on a grizzly bent on mayhem. It's like I told the Wyoming head of the Game and Fish; I wanted no problems with a grizzly! If I wanted to hunt a grizzly I would go to where it was legal to hunt them but I had no intention to let one kill me if I could help it. When he made that snide comment about the claw marks I replied "don't worry, I will have". He did not like that reply he said and I told him I did not like his his attitude. It is like I explained to him;. I would do everything in my power to avoid a confrontation but sometimes a confrontation happens that you never saw coming. Being and old Eagle Scout, I believe in being prepared for the worse case scenario.

    Bears unless hunted lose their fear of humans and are then dangerous to humans; especially black bears. Now sows will defend cubs with their lives as they should and I am not talking about such bears. Neither am I talking about grizzly or brown bears defending kills as they are subject to doing. I am only interested in predatory attacks. Those can be minimized by keeping the bears adverse to human bear contact via legal hunting in such a way to maintain a balance between the bear population and the safety of the human population.

    I became acquainted with Gary after a friend on my family was killed by a black bear and fed on for two days before being found (he was not a hunter or even familiar with firearms). He worked keeping hiking trails open for the tourists in Colorado. Because other people could not be bothered to obey the Laws on handling and securing garbage a black bear became garbage addicted as well as associated humans with food. While our friend was cooking his evening meal the evidence showed the bear tore his trailers door open, killed him inside, and fed on him fro two days before he was found.

    Another friend of the family was attacked by a black bear male while he was hunting squirrels in southern Arkansas when I was a young boy. Fortunately he was able to kill the bear with a shotgun blast directly into the the bears open mouth at point blank range; when the bear stood up growing at him.

    Bears are totally unpredictable.

    Fatal Black Bear Attacks on the Rise

    Fatal Attacks by American Black Bear on People:1900–2009

    A marked increase in fatal attacks by black bears in North America since 1960 is likely linked to growing human populations.

    The vast majority of the attacks -- 92 percent -- were carried out by lone male bears. If you play dead during a black bear attack you will not be playing dead for long!

  13. Pleasure to read your post. I have had the pleasure of listening to Gary Shelton talk about bear behaviour. Five foot nothing and 120lbs I have avoided many bear encounters because of his words and advice. I still remember many of his bear stories he told us.