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In Grizzly Country
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Map of Grizzlies

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By Douglas H. Chadwick Photographs by Joel Sartore

Rulers of the wilderness, these intelligent and adaptable brown bears face dwindling ranges due to escalating human demands.

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In the mountainous coast of southern British Columbia, autumn salmon are running up the Glendale Creek to spawn. Wading among them is a grizzly bear gold as poplar leaves. Silver fur rings its shoulders and chest. The coat is so unlike the uniform dark brown of most coastal grizzlies that the scientists studying bears here named this yearling male Panda. “If you ask me, he’s spoiled rotten,” says Chris Bright, one of the researchers. “Watch.”

Although Panda is already a 150-pound (68-kilogram) predator, he seldom bothers chasing a fish himself. He waits for his mother to grab one and sidles over to take it from her mouth. He even rubs his plump, itchy, wet butt against her while he eats her catch, then tries to nurse. But mother is busy lifting a thrashing salmon by its belly. As eggs squirt out in a pink arc, Panda mooches that fish too. Finished, he ambles into deeper water, where he suddenly lights into dear old mom with play swipes of his paws.

The pair wrestle across a chest-high pool. They growl and bat at each other and whap the surface. Panda gets so worked up that he breaks into a dance. He flattens his ears and swings his head, shimmy-shakes and shadowboxes. He bites his paws. He dashes and leaps and does pudgy pirouettes.

Panda isn’t really spoiled or goofy; he’s just a young grizz in salmon time. But then grizzlies come in all kinds of moods. Once, my teenage son, Russell, was sitting with his back to the pen of a 750-pound (340-kilogram) male captive bear named Tank, talking to the grizzly while idly chucking gravel at a can. Hearing scraping sounds behind him, he turned to find that Tank had swept together the odd bits of gravel on the pen’s floor and was pushing a small pile out to him under the bottom bar with a paw.

When a tour leader on the Glendale Creek reports hearing a bear bawling upstream, I go investigate with four others, including Barrie Gilbert of Utah State University, an authority on bear behavior. In his 60s, he is ruggedly handsome, with an emphasis on rugged after he ran into a grizzly that rearranged one side of his face. We’re afoot on the floodplain when we hear a bear crashing through water. It must be racing after salmon.

Wrong. The next crashing is of brush, then comes snorting, and I see a broad mound of fur hurtling darkly at us and hear myself yell, “HEY-BEAR-NO!” In a heart squeeze this hulk is 15 yards (14 meters) away, maybe, I don’t know, only that it has paused, chuffing and popping its jaws, and I’m unholstering spray canisters of red pepper deterrent, and Gilbert is looking at me out of his remaining eye, saying we should keep in a tight group. Well, that would be just fine by me. The bear then disappears, which is all we learn about that one.

Grizzlies set off such a range of emotions, from ooh-snoogie-woogums to God-save-us, that it is almost impossible to see these creatures clearly. Yet their future depends largely upon whether we can.

Brown bears, Ursus arctos, are distributed around the northern hemisphere. In North America some scientists distinguish between the big brown bears of Alaska’s Kodiak archipelago, those along the mainland coast, and the more grizzled types found inland. More often than not, people use the name grizzly for all of this continent’s brown bears.

There are only about 58,000 left, more than half in Alaska. As many as twice that number lived in the lower 48 two centuries ago. By 1975 those were reduced to fewer than a thousand and listed as threatened. Numbers in some areas appear to have stabilized and may even be rebounding slightly, bringing the total back up to about 1,100. Meanwhile, Canada’s bears are feeling the effects of liberal hunting quotas, tough policies toward nuisance animals, and backcountry development that has fragmented habitats and isolated populations—the same combination that put lower 48 grizzlies on the imperiled list.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

VIDEO Photographer Joel Sartore talks about getting cautiously close to grizzlies. Click Here

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Peer into the lives of grizzly bears as they fish and frolic in their natural habitat.

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of grizzlies is this month’s Final Edit.

Trained animals perform for our pleasure, but should they? What rights should they have, and what place should they hold among humans? Join the discussion.

This bear is a real standout among autumn leaves and as wallpaper for your desktop.

Extra! Extra!
See more pictures of Brody, this month’s cover bear, with his trainer Jeff Watson, and learn about his educational presentations and silver screen credits!

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did you know that you cannot tell a brown bear from a black bear just by its color? Color is not a clear indicator. Brown bears, or grizzlies, can come in many colors, from blond to brown to black. One of the most distinctive differences between brown and black bears is the prominent hump on the shoulder of a grizzly, which is caused by muscle mass on the upper back used in digging. Other characteristics to keep in mind: A brown bear’s ears are smaller and rounder; the grizzly’s rump is lower than its shoulders whereas a black bear’s is higher; a brown bear’s face is concave or dish-shape when viewed in profile while the black bear’s face has a more convex appearance. In addition, a brown bear has lighter, straighter, longer claws (at least 1 3/4 inches [4 1/2 cm]); if you can see them as the bear walks, it’s probably a grizzly. Keeping these characteristics in mind, visit the following website and take the test to evaluate your identification skills:

—Abigail A. Tipton

Grizzly Bear Recovery
This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website offers links to numerous articles and studies pertaining to grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot and Yellowstone ecosystems.

Grizzly Bears In British Columbia
Sponsored by B.C. Environment, this site contains a lengthy discussion of the habitat, behavior, and management of grizzly bears in British Columbia.

Grizzly Bear Web Links
Visit this page to find an extensive list of links to grizzly bear-related websites.

The Vital Ground Foundation
This nonprofit organization is dedicated to acquiring conservation easements or purchasing land outright for grizzly habitat.


Bauer, Erwin A. Bears: Behavior, Ecology, Conservation. Voyageur Press, 1996.

Busch, Robert H. The Grizzly Almanac. The Lyons Press, 2000.

Schwartz, C.C. and M.A. Haroldson, eds. Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Investigations: Annual Report of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, 1999. United States Geological Survey, 2000.

Stevens, William K. “Debating Nature of Nature in Yellowstone,” New York Times June 23, 1998.

Turbak, Gary. “Food for Thought,” National Wildlife (October/November 2000).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region. Grizzly Bear Recovery: Overview and Update. March 2000.

Whitman, David. “The Return of the Grizzly,” The Atlantic Monthly (September 2000), 26-31.


Clifford, Hal. “Tracking Glacier’s Mighty Grizzlies,” National Geographic Adventure (July/August 2000), 26-28, 30.

Daily, Laura. “A Bear’s Best Buddy,” National Geographic World (March 1997), 8.

Chadwick, Douglas. “‘Grizz’—Of Men and the Great Bear,” National Geographic (February 1986), 182-213.

“The World of the Brown Bear,” National Geographic World (January 1984), 18-23.

Craighead, John. “Studying Grizzly Habitat by Satellite,” National Geographic (July 1976), 148-158.

Egbert, Allan L., and Michael H. Luque. “Might Makes Right Among Alaska’s Brown Bears,” National Geographic (September 1975), 428-442.

Craighead, Frank, Jr., and John. “Trailing Yellowstone’s Grizzlies by Radio,” National Geographic (August 1966), 252-267.

Craighead, Frank, Jr., and John. “Knocking Out Grizzly Bears for Their Own Good,” National Geographic (August 1960), 276-291.

Wendle, Joseph. “Hunting the Grizzly in British Columbia,” National Geographic (September 1907), 612-615.


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