Monday, April 21, 2014

New Article Out Now

The spring 2014 edition of The Glacier Park Foundation's Inside Trail magazine is out now and it features my latest article, "An Unusual Friendship: The West Glacier Black Bear". You can also read the piece on this blog at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Help Save Black Bear Cubs

Orphaned black bear cubs Smokey, Bandit, and Tuliaan are currently at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka and they need your help! The Fortress has been given a deadline to complete a new habitat enclosure for the cubs by April 15th or the bears could be subject to euthanization by Alaska Fish and Game. The Fortress has started a fundraiser online to sell 100 new, original T-shirts bearing their logo to help finish the habitats. Shirts are $20.00 apiece plus the option to include a donation if you like at the link below. Please help in any way that you can and spread the word!

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Minnesota DNR Declares War Against Research Bears

Some new and shocking information has come to light in the legal battle between black bear biologist Lynn Rogers and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). If you haven't kept up with the case, Lynn attained worldwide recognition for installing a webcam in a bear's den in 2010 and broadcasting the live birth of a cub all across the internet. A massive following on Facebook and the placement of several more den cams have come about in the years since...including a falling out with the DNR, who seem just a wee bit jealous to me.

The Minnesota DNR's primary concern is that Lynn gains the trust of his bears by feeding them and, with the old mantra that "a fed bear is a dead bear" still alive and well, they fear these animals could become dangerous to people. I'm not going to go too deeply into the subject of feeding since I've already done that extensively on this blog and in my book, but I will recap one very important point: the "fed bear is a dead bear" mantra was coined  by a couple of campground owners and applies more to that situation than it does to wildlife management. Bears who obtain food from campsites or roadside handouts from dozens of people never make a personal association with anyone and thus never develop a sense of respect or kinship with any one person and can become dangerous, whereas a bear fed by a specific individual makes a personal association with that person and typically does not carry that to anyone else. How else could so many people spend so much time (decades in some cases) feeding bears in their backyard without the animals ever posing a threat to them or anyone else? This is a radical notion and one not widely accepted, though it certainly should be, and this lady could benefit from learning a thing or two about it and about a bear's natural sense of curiosity:

Lynn was denied a renewal of his permit and told to stop broadcasting his den cams online (that really sounds like jealousy) and now a court battle has begun to determine if what Lynn is trying to do could create dangerous bears. The primary testimony against him was from the woman in the above article, though her claims don't hold much water in light of this:

It quickly became apparent during the court proceedings that the DNR did not have as strong of a case as they had hoped. None of the department officials had ever even bothered to visit the North American Bear Center or the Wildlife Research Institute to observe firsthand what Lynn was doing, yet they seemed to have so much insight into what was "really" going on at those facilities. When it was revealed that the DNR was exaggerating the number of bear complaints - and attributing them to residents who later testified they had not made those complaints - it seemed to be the lowest point the DNR could possibly stoop to. That is, until this recent, stunning revelation:,11395#comments

Lynn has lost several of his research bears to hunters over the years. Some were accidents and some appear to have been out of spite. Who can forget the eerie comments boasting of bear jerky when Hope (the cub whose online birth made headlines in 2010) was shot and killed, or the bloody radio collar that was placed in the mail after the disappearance of a research bear? But to think the Minnesota DNR is assisting hunters in deliberately targeting and killing Lynn's bears is about as sick as sick gets. The article above states that Lynn lost roughly 30 percent of his study animals this past hunting season (5.5 is the annual average) and Lynn and his assistant Sue Mansfield have found reason to believe that June, the latest radio-collared bear to be lost, was intentionally targeted. Lynn fears that this could mark the end of his research, though the court has not yet made a final ruling.

I don't think this is simply about misguided fear of bears. While it's true that old dogmas about feeding bears are still being thrown around, I think this has more to do with simple spite. The department has never been on equal footing with Lynn and they've finally taken it too far. At this link, you can find all the contact information for the Minnesota DNR:  Write to them and let them know exactly what you think about this. Show them there is no evidence indicating that Lynn's bears pose a threat to anyone and that, in fact, the opposite should be true. Probably their minds are already made up, but that doesn't mean we have to be silent about it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska

One generally expects to hear ignorant assumptions about bears in places where bears do not actually exist, but I was surprised to find those assumptions are just as alive and well in bear-heavy states, such as Montana and Alaska. Even there, the stalking beast of lore has found its way into the human consciousness.

Sherry Simpson, a freelance writer and regular contributor to Alaska magazine, spent years traveling across the Great Land, interviewing bear people and anti-bear people, hunters, photographers, state officials, game officials, biologists, authors, and independent researchers. The result is this stunning and excellently written treatise on the state of bear issues in the Last Frontier. Seldom have I seen a book juggle so many points of view and do it so successfully, without losing focus.

Sherry is without question an advocate for the bears and this book represents a plea for them, a begging for a change of perspective before it's too late, and a grim look at the force new ideas are pushing up against. Larry Kaniut, author of the well-known and over-exaggerated Alaska Bear Tales blood and guts series, declares in 2009 that Anchorage is too soft on bears and that if he were calling the shots, any bear that came within the city limits would be mercilessly destroyed. In newspaper letters all across the state, locals bemoan and lament bear sightings in their backyard and frequent calls to eliminate all ursine residents of the state - particularly grizzlies - are put to the Fish and Game department, citing the need for safer hiking trails. It is these very people that baffle me; if the idea of a bear in your backyard is so frightening, then move to the city with the gangs and crack addicts that you may like better. Sherry concludes that people want the mystique of living in the Last Frontier but they don't want the "frontier" aspect that must necessarily come with it...and that for me would be the primary reason for living in Alaska.

For every demand to cull bears completely, Sherry shows the tremendous revenue the state takes in from people who often come from thousand of miles - and who often spend thousands of dollars - to walk free and unseparated with the giant brown bears of the Katmai coast as they fish for salmon. For every garbage can-raiding black bear, we are shown the incredible interactions between human visitors and habituated bears at McNeil River and Brooks Falls. For every dark cloud that threatens, Sherry still manages to show us the rays of sun that struggle to peek through.

But sometimes the darkness prevails. The book culminates with a look inside the inner workings of Alaska's predator control operation, the Sarah Palin-esque "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" politics that are driving it, and the horrendous damage it's done. This chapter is troubling and angering and clearly outlines what the future consequences could be.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough and it may be evident that I've struggled for words to describe it throughout this review. The writing is absolutely top form and, while the chapters are lengthy, I could never once tear my attention from them once I started. Check this one out! Odds are you won't find it on the shelves of many Alaskan retailers though. Too many copies of Alaska Bear Tales to sell.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Fortress of the Bear: A Volunteer's Experience

Debi Terry, a friend and volunteer at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka and an amazing photographer, has just published a photo/info book about her adventures working there. She relates her experiences with the bears and observations she's gathered on their behavior along with full color photos. Oh, and I'm in it! Check it out.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Grizzlies Should Stay on Endangered Species List, Scientists Say"

More and more good news as people are standing up against the delisting efforts that are underway. It's nice to see this article pointing out the flaws in the belief that whitebark pine loss is not having an adverse affect on Yellowstone grizzlies. The political motivations for the delisting and the intended establishment of sport hunting regulations are all laid bare in this excellent piece.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review - Out on a Limb

Sensationalism sells. It seems everywhere I go in Alaska and Montana, the only bear books on the shelves are compilations of attack stories like Alaska Bear Tales or Killer Bears or Mark of the Grizzly while insightful, educational works like this are relegated solely to online distributors. In truth, a book of bear attack stories probably would not even be published today and gems such as Benjamin Kilham's Out on a Limb are part of the reason why.

A resident of Lyme, New Hampshire, Kilham knew he was different from everyone else when he flunked out of kindergarten. Battling dyslexia - and an educational system that does not cater to the fact that different individuals learn in different ways - Kilham was almost 40 years old before he fully understood how dyslexia works, how it was hindering him, and how he could use it to his advantage. With a family history of animal research, beginning with his ornithologist father, Kilham's disability barred him from obtaining an academic degree so he obtained a license as a wildlife rehabilitator and into his hands came a set of black bear cubs.

Throughout his 2002 book Among the Bears, Kilham recounts his experiences raising several sets of orphaned black bear cubs and teaching them how to function as wild animals before re-releasing them. Being an independent researcher who sees the world in pictures rather than scientific jargon, Kilham was captivated by the behaviors he witnessed. He found black bears to be largely social rather than loners as believed by the scientific community (even today many still hold onto the belief that bears are not social despite all the evidence to the contrary) and saw that they seemed to exhibit altruism, a quality believed to be found only in humans; and not just altruism towards each other but to other creatures. Kilham even performed self-awareness tests using only the cubs, their toys, and a mirror. The cubs reacted at the sight of their reflection by first checking for a scent, then searching around and around the mirror for another bear, and then finally settling in with their toys in front of the mirror and very pointedly observing themselves at play.

Kilham spent thousands of hours with his bears, documenting their behaviors, and taking copious notes about what he was witnessing. He was the subject of documentaries on both the Discovery Channel and National Geographic and even discovered a previously unknown sensory organ located in the roof of a bear's mouth that allows the animal to taste something without having to eat it (now called the Kilham Organ). But unfortunately most of the scientific community does not put much stock in observation and dismissed his work on the grounds that he did not perform controlled experiments and that he did not publish his findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, even though no one else could have reviewed his work because no one has his unique insight. More open-minded scientists embraced his observations, though, and believed that he may be on the verge of fully opening on the mystery of bear society. Now, with the publication of his new book, he's finally done that.

While Among the Bears recounted Kilham's experiences raising the orphaned cubs, his 2013 book Out on a Limb pulls it all together and is strictly about presenting his findings. Having read so many books about bears, I'm thrilled to find that I can still be surprised by one and some of the observations here are so stunning and yet so simple and obvious that I had to walk away from the book several times just to let it sink in.

According to Kilham's research, bears are not only social animals but they exist within a societal structure. They cooperate with one another, deceive and manipulate to get what they want, lay down rules and boundaries for each other, and punish those who break those rules. Kilham found himself taking the brunt of some of this punishment during the early days while still learning about bear behavior and body language. If he overstepped his bounds or broke an established rule he had missed, he would find himself being bluff-charged, swatted, or with his arm in a bear's mouth (with no pressure applied or teeth used) to remind him of his place, with each followed by soft moans and affection, a reconciliation from the bear and an assurance that the bond is still intact.  Kilham postulates that this system of boundaries and punishments could explain some unprovoked attacks on humans and why some bears react defensively or aggressively to a human presence.

Kilham concludes by offering some practical advice on the bear-human relationship. He tackles the common issue of "nuisance" or "problem" bears and shows it for what it really is: an unspoken agreement between human and bear. When someone feeds a bear, a type of contract is established, a sharing of surplus foods. The same bear will return to the same place or person time and again seeking more because a bond has been established and the bear views the feeder as an ally. This puts quite a stumbling block in the belief that feeding a bear will turn it into a potential man-eater and deepens the story of Jack and Patti Becklund who fed and befriended wild black bears from their home in Minnesota for years without suffering property damage or injury; nor did their bears ever approach other people looking for food. Feeding a bear and then stopping, however, could be setting yourself up for injury or property damage as punishment for breaking the contract.

I don't think I've been this blown away by a book since Charlie Russell's Grizzly Heart and I'm left with the same feeling that we're just scratching the surface of something big and I'm hungry for more! Since the publication of these findings, Kilham has been awarded a PhD with the information in this book being presented as his doctoral thesis. Hopefully now science will start to develop a more open mind and realize that sometimes common sense observation can hold the greatest answers.