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