[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Online Extra
July 2001

<< Back to Feature Page


By Douglas H. Chadwick
On 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 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 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 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.

Beyond not being killed, the bears' main requirements are lots of room and lots of food. What do they eat? Whatever they must to live on stored fat up to half the year while hibernating in a den. Whatever they learn is possible. And when you combine pile driver strength and four-inch claws with a talent for finagling, the possibilities stretch from elk to hornet larvae, from the roots and bulbs cached in pocket gopher burrows to the pocket gophers themselves, from a horse to the grain pellets put out for it, from clams to another grizzly.

Along a spur of Wyoming's Absaroka Range in the 9,500-square-mile greater Yellowstone ecosystem, I pitch camp at 8,000 feet with an ecologist, Hillary Robison, and her two assistants, Jason Hicks and Chris McQueary. The next day we climb toward a 12,000-foot summit. On a talus slope below it the team sets up a trap for army cutworm moths, strong fliers with abdomens the size of jelly beans.

After hiding in crevices among the stones by day, the moths wing out each night to sip the nectar of alpine wildflowers. The rest of their life cycle takes place on prairies, possibly as far away as Nebraska. By analyzing DNA from specimens, Robison hopes to pinpoint those locales, for reasons I soon learn. She hands me what looks like a chunk of glazed pottery found near the trap. Consisting of countless hard little legs compressed with shiny wing parts, it is—thanks very much—grizzly dung.

"When the moths arrive in the high country during late June or early July, about 40 percent of their body weight is fat," she says. "By late August that has increased to 72 percent. They become the richest food in the ecosystem, with more calories per gram than elk or deer meat." The insects congregate at dozens of lofty Yellowstone sites, where grizzlies roll the rock rubble to get at them. Similar moth assemblies occur high in Montana and possibly Canada.

Over the winter a large bear can lose 150 pounds, which needs to be replaced. Size and body fat affect how many cubs a female produces. For males, getting big means competing more successfully for mates. Observers have calculated that a silvertip can eat 2,500 moths an hour and 40,000 a day. A month of such steady feasting could fulfill nearly half the bear's energy requirements for the year. Not every area is that loaded with winged nougats, but the hot spots resemble a salmon stream, with as many as 23 grizzlies foraging together.

Before Hicks and McQueary joined Robison, they were stringing lengths of barbed wire along streams flowing into Yellowstone Lake. More than 60 serve as cutthroat trout spawning areas. DNA from hairs snagged by the barbs has told of at least 80 grizzlies homing in on the fish. This is important to know because some lunkhead, who presumably wanted bigger fish to fry, dumped non-native trout into the lake. They keep to the open water, out of grizzly reach, and are gobbling up the cutthroats. When people set out to conserve grizzlies, how many imagined it would mean worrying about the chemicals sprayed on moth larvae in distant prairies, netting exotic fish, and talking with rural homeowners?

HALFWAY BETWEEN Yellowstone National Park and Cody, Wyoming, Curt Bales invites me into the main house at the ranch he manages, points to the low ceiling, and says, "The former owner wasn't a very tall guy." That would be William F. Cody, the hunter nicknamed Buffalo Bill. "Five years ago we had a grizzly out at our cow camp, breaking in," Bales recalls. "It got flour and sugar. Got into a whiskey bottle too. And right beside that was an empty aspirin bottle. Makes you wonder."

With grizzlies, you have to. A hunting guide in Alaska told of watching a male strip bark off willow shrubs, which the bears aren't known to eat. After a client shot the animal, the guide noticed that it had a busted tooth. The abscessed area was packed with willow bark, a source of salicylic acid, better known as aspirin.

"Got a grizzly on the place now," Bales says. "About 250 pounds. Been here two weeks and keeps to the river brush. I see it pretty near daily." It was one of 15 roaming the South Fork of the Shoshone River countryside last spring. Right after picking up one of his children from fishing, Bales spotted a female with two cubs among willows the child had passed through. "That was the last time my kids went out and did anything by themselves," he says. "It definitely changed our way of living out here."

Mark Bruscino, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's bear management officer, has stopped by to check the situation. On his rounds through Cody's new suburbs and out to the larger spreads, Bruscino urges patience until the high country greens up and elk have their calves. Most grizzlies start heading back to the mountainsides then. Reminding folks to store their refuse and animal feed out of reach, he promises that any bear acting overly bold will be trapped and relocated.

This kind of public relations patrolling calms nervous trigger fingers. Not that Bruscino won't get an earful about bear bureaucrats when chicken coops do get smashed. And when he disposes of an incorrigible bear? "My mom gives me a hard time," he says. "You know the most dangerous animal in the Yellowstone region, don't you? It kills, maims, kicks half to death, rolls on, and bites more people around here than anything else." The horse, of course.

Each year during the 1990s grizzlies injured an average of only seven humans and killed two. Still, no bigger, tougher, more storied predator ever roamed the American West, and here it is—fussed over even in cowboy territory. This would plumb befuddle Buffalo Bill. Silvertips are being seen out past Cody, snuffling next to prairie dogs in the sagebrush hills past Meeteetse, taking up new lives in Grand Teton National Park to the south, and probing beyond. "What are we going to do if grizzlies colonize the Wyoming Range with 40,000 sheep on public land grazing allotments?" Bruscino asks. "It's going to be chaos. It's going to be political torture on a daily basis for game managers."

Everybody seems a little confused about just what to do next, because no generation ever allowed even a modest upswing in grizzlies before. Some states are already developing management plans for the time when Yellowstone bears will have recovered enough to be taken off the endangered species list. Defining recovery is trickiest where people are also increasing, and the population of the greater Yellowstone region is projected to double within two or three decades.

Ask anyone in the West where the boundaries for grizzly protection ought to be drawn, and you get opinions about predators, property rights, public lands, resource development, environmental laws, guns, and man's rightful place on the planet. Within a year or two the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to reintroduce grizzlies to a wilderness area within the 25,000-square-mile Bitterroot ecosystem. Sprawling from Montana's western edge into central Idaho, one of the largest blocks of remote U.S. backcountry outside Alaska last saw silvertips in the 1940s. Re-grizzlied, it should not only increase numbers but foster vital connections between other populations.

But opening a local newspaper, I find a letter to the editor warning that if grizzlies are reintroduced, "Deaths will occur! . .  disfigurements, dismemberings. . . . I don't want grizzlies in my backyard any more than they [bear advocates] would want convicted, child-molesting repeat sex offenders in theirs."

In January Idaho's governor sued to stop the federal plan cold.

CLIMBING an October mountainside in Montana's Glacier National Park, I notice a grizzly about the same time it notices me. Easing away, I circle far above. Now the backdrop is of ice fields and limestone ramparts with lakes cupped at their base and clouds surging over their top, driving 50-mile-an-hour gusts before them. They clout me around and start hurling rain. It turns to snow that races bands of storm light from crag to crag. The scene is so immense I am hardly aware that the bear has been zigzagging uphill my way as it feeds.

It begins eyeing me—a sidelong check now and then. It's enough to make me suddenly remember how many of my footsteps to get here landed in craters. Digging for roots nonstop as den-up time nears, this creature has torn half the face off a mountain. One more glance from the bear, with the wind and my pulse roaring louder in my ears, and I veer down toward timberline, on bear-raked soil all the way.

Grizzlies are the main animal earthmovers in Glacier's high country and across many a lower meadow and floodplain. Where their claws recontour the ground, they plant seeds and release scarce nitrogen from lower soil levels. Vegetation such as glacier lilies grows better and produces more seeds in swaths dug by bears, which can also eat and spread seeds from as many as 70,000 berries a day. You could view grizzlies as heavyweight gardeners, ecosystem accelerators—the epitome of a keystone species. Or, like Karl Rappold, who ranches on the Rocky Mountain Front southeast of Glacier, you could pay more attention to the warm-blooded things they gnaw.

"I watched one picking up the remains of a cow carcass and slamming it down on the ground like a professional wrestler," he says. "I couldn't figure it out until I saw it was breaking bones to get at the marrow." Yet since 1969 these predators have taken precisely one animal from his herds. The cow being body slammed was a victim of lightning, disease, or old age. On average fewer than 50 cattle killings by grizzlies are recorded in the lower 48 each year, and the culprits usually wind up relocated or put down. Bears that include pasturelands in their range without conflict—and Rappold has grizzlies that use his mineral lick side by side with the cows—can take advantage of a richer array of foods than they could if confined to the higher elevations of mountain terrain. Improved nutrition would explain why Rappold sees females with three and even four cubs on the Front, whereas the average litter size for grizzlies is closer to two.

Together with Glacier Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, neighboring national forests, and tribal and state lands, the Front is part of the 9,600-square-mile northern Continental Divide ecosystem, which contains an estimated 400 to 500 grizzlies. Although biologists have a hunch that the population is growing, they are reluctant to declare an increase without more complete surveys. That the bears are roaming all kinds of new acreage, none would deny. "When one rancher called about a problem bear, and I went to set a foot snare," says Dan Carney, of the Blackfeet Tribal Fish and Wildlife Department, "I was so far out on the plains I couldn't find a tree anywhere to anchor the cable to."

A SNARED grizzly waits among hemlock trees in the Selkirk Mountains of far northern Idaho. It has turned them to matchsticks. The place looks like a bomb went off, and this is only a two-year-old. A much scarier force, its mother, is nearby. I'm to pinpoint the radio signal from the collar she wears, while Greg Johnson, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer, and his assistant, Josh Stanley, sedate the young bear to give it a radio collar of its own.

Tracking this third enclave of lower 48 grizzlies reveals that they, too, are exploring a little farther out from the mountains' core all the time. But, says Idaho Fish and Game's grizzly researcher Wayne Wakkinen,"While we feel the population is increasing slowly, this is a group of only 40 to 60 animals." And at any given time, half are likely to be in the British Columbia portion of the Selkirk range. The 1,200-square-mile grizzly ecosystem on the U.S. side is mostly national forest. Decades of logging have left it crosshatched with roads. After silvertips were listed as threatened, poachers and mistaken black bear hunters continued to take an insupportable toll. That dropped off after the Forest Service began limiting some road access with gates for part of the year.

"I'm convinced that saving bears is not a biological problem; we could grow them out our ears," Johnson says, removing his coat from under the reviving two-year-old's head. "It's a human perception problem. You have people who think bloodthirsty grizzlies wait behind every bush to jump out and eat them. Then you have ones who associate the bears with everything they don't like about regulations. If we can pull off grizzly recovery in the Selkirks, it will mean we can do it anywhere."

How about in the last two of the five lower 48 enclaves? East of the Selkirks, the grizzlies of Idaho and Montana's 2,600-square-mile Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, laid low by past hunting and roadbuilding for timber, have dwindled to perhaps 30 animals. Washington's 10,000-square-mile North Cascades ecosystem may hold five to ten. Such figures might not be critical if Canada were the boundless supply house of the wild and woolly that many Americans imagine. In reality, southernmost B.C. and Alberta are changing fast. As Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, "The ultimate worry is that the whole lower 48 grizzly population will become isolated"—making it less resilient to disruptions and vulnerable to inbreeding.

Traveling through the heart of Banff National Park in Alberta, watching ice-honed escarpments take over the sky, I have the same impression most visitors do of an ultimate Rocky Mountain stronghold. Yet it has less than a quarter as many grizzlies as Yellowstone National Park, despite being nearly as big. All that soaring grandeur may feed the spirit but won't fatten a bear. The average female grizzly in Banff weighs 200 to 250 pounds—not even up to pro-football lineman standards—and produces cubs four years apart, compared with every three years for a female on prime range.

The reserve's richest habitats are down in its central drainage, the Bow Valley. But that is where the park's lodges, golf courses, and ski complexes are concentrated—and where, during the summer, an average of 21,000 vehicles a day race along Highway 1, the main Trans-Canada route.

"Bears are a full range of personalities, from Mary Poppins to Charles Manson," observes Mike Gibeau, a Banff-area biologist. "Some won't go anywhere near the valley. Others are quite willing to live with people." But park managers move them out.

Only a few Banff females have been recorded crossing the Trans-Canada four-lane. "You have a long, thin peninsula of bears coming down from the north into the U.S.," Mike continues. "In Alberta it starts to narrow 200 miles north of the border. This is a pinch point. The next place you'll see grizzlies go on the brink is near the U.S. line. We look south and wish we had as good a grizzly population as you do."

The 20th century pared grizzlies in the vast province of Alberta from 6,000 to around 700, and while British Columbia officials claim to have 10,000 to 13,000, skeptics say the true figure might be more like 5,000. Since 1975 biologists have radio collared more than 385 grizzlies from northern Montana to Alberta's Jasper National Park, north of Banff. More than a hundred were adult males, and of the 24 that died, all were killed by hunters, poachers, wildlife managers getting rid of problem bears, or some other human cause. This is partly the price of having immense home ranges. Where a female grizzly in the Rockies typically occupies 50 to 300 square miles, a male will cover 200 to 500 and occasionally 1,000. This increases its odds of bumping into trouble, especially where grizzlies are legal game.

AT KNIGHT INLET, in the heart of B.C.'s coastal grizzly range, I meet a big, boisterous bear of a tourist-lodge owner named Dean Wyatt, who says, "I bring in 1,600 people a year. This single bear-watching operation generates as much revenue as all the grizzly hunting in the province. Yet in ten days, there'll be a guide here with someone trying to shoot bears."

If B.C.'s estimates of grizzly numbers are too high, the annual harvest is too heavy—perhaps 10 percent of the population. The government recently announced a three-year hunting ban to get a definitive count. Until the count is complete, no one has a very clear idea of how many grizzlies inhabit the province, particularly the salmon-rich coastal forests. But there is suddenly more interest in the possible effects of disturbances on the coastal bears since scientists became aware of what some call salmon trees. As the fish run upstream, transporting tons of nutrients harvested from the seas, grizzlies carry that bounty on across the forest floor in the form of urine, feces, and leftover carcasses. Nitrogen, crucial for growth, is limited in northern forests. The bears deposit 10 to 25 percent of the total available to plants that are within a quarter of a mile of salmon stream banks, and some trees grow more than 60 percent faster. Over the centuries grizzlies, in another keystone role, help fashion temperate rain forests with their giant conifers and their ability to produce more biomass per acre than tropical rain forests.

In Alaska sportsmen annually take between 1,000 and 1,600 of the state's estimated 32,000 brown bears—5 percent or less. This is considered sustainable by game biologists, though the long-term genetic consequences of taking the biggest trophy specimens are unclear. About half to two-thirds fall to out-of-state and foreign shooters.

I'm leaning on an African lion next to several stuffed bears in Knight's Taxidermy studio in Anchorage while Fred Cook, a guide specializing in bear hunts, describes the job.

"Forget the head shot; I've seen bullets bounce right off the skull," he says. "Not the heart, either; it's a fibrous muscle and still 50 percent effective with a hole in it. You want to break bone in the legs or spine; anchor the bear right there. Otherwise, once he's wounded and jumping around, and you're excited too, that's when things go to hell in a hurry. I tell my clients, 'Don't quit shooting until I tell you. Pay the insurance, because no one shot kills.'"

Cook takes pride in getting hunters close to their quarry. "I want to be where the bear has a chance to hit back," he says. "The idea is to purposefully place one's self in harm's way. Find out what's in a man."

Saturated with spawning salmon, parts of the Alaska Peninsula, where Cook hunts, can support 1,500 bears in 1,000 square miles. An area the same size on Alaska's North Slope might hold four or five bears. Driving the pipeline road that direction, Dick Shideler, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, admits, "Frankly, the home ranges of some males up here are so huge, I can't even pin them down."

The first bear we find is a dark-footed, gilded one nosing among the tundra hummocks like a wolverine. It is after bird nests and small rodents, and it bounces up and down on its forelegs to flush out hiders. "Our key bear food here," Shideler says, "is arctic ground squirrels." They grow roly-poly on tundra herbs, and grizzlies convert that fat to their own.

As we reach the town of Deadhorse under a midnight sun, Mary appears. This bear is four years old, weighs 375 pounds, and is coming rump-first out of a trash bin, a blue ear tag tucked like a plastic flower into slightly frowsy, blond hair. Strolling to some plywood stacked between metal Quonset huts, she breaks a few sheets, rolls pipes from a pile—you never know what might scurry out—then dives into a "bearproof" bin left open behind a store.

A bear named Annie used to climb three stories up a building's fire escape to snooze, away from the mosquitoes. When Shideler tranquilized Annie as a yearling at the Prudhoe Bay landfill to radio tag her, her brother, Toby, edged over and dragged his sister away from the biologist, then sat at her side as if on guard.

No guns are allowed in the oil field area, mainly for security reasons. Besides, watching the local bears is a favorite entertainment. So human-grizzly relations remain fairly congenial. Nevertheless, Shideler worked hard with oil company and local officials to wean the bears from garbage by bearproofing more garbage bins and fencing off the dump.

The issue is safety, and not just for people. Associating humans with food can doom grizzlies. On average roughly three-fourths of cubs survive under natural conditions. Inside the oil patch the rate is higher, but it plunges toward zero once bears head out on their own and are drawn to camps, hunters' bivouacs, and native villages.

Whether at the far, frozen end of the continent or in a Wyoming subdivision, grizzlies are going to tell us where the food calories are concentrated. In 1998, when the berries failed on northwest Montana's mountainsides, the bears headed for town. Tim Manley, from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Carrie Hunt, of the Wind River Bear Institute; and her Karelian bear dogs, bred to hunt brown bears, were roaring from crisis to crisis, trying, in Hunt's words, "to make it easy for a grizzly to do the right thing and uncomfortable for it to do the wrong thing. We use the bears' learning abilities to teach them about how to behave near people."

Joining the chase, I found people learning different behavior as well. When a soft-spoken Montana cowboy and a petite woman with a pack of muscular dogs knock at the door to say, "There's a mother grizzly in your neighborhood, and we thought we'd let you know what we're doing," folks listen up. Many learned that some of the best bear food that hungry fall was the stuff in their bird feeders.

No one ever said that coexisting with grizz would be easy. But in following bears through backyards, I met one homeowner after another who wanted to know how the bears were doing. This level of tolerance, almost unheard of before grizzlies were listed, might just lift them off the list and keep them off.

Stepping across boundaries, grizzlies lead us to do the same. Much as their wide-ranging ways forced managers to look beyond Yellowstone National Park's borders and focus on the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a still larger view of grizzly needs helped frame the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. This joint effort by more than 200 U.S. and Canadian organizations aims to secure habitats for all species by keeping core wildlands up and down the Rockies connected. Nearly 20 million acres in northern B.C. have recently been protected as part of the Y2Y vision. On the U.S. side, where grizzly range is more fragmented, possibilities for linking remaining wildlands are being explored with satellite imagery and computer analysis in a merging of high-tech data beamed from space with the old, untamable, earthen muscle of the great bear.

At the Grizzly Discovery Center, a tourist attraction in West Yellowstone, I find four captive bears. Orphaned subadults that would have been destroyed if not given a home somewhere, they are playing mightily, juggling logs and romping in and out of a pool. A family nearby watches the scene together, rapt. "When I grow up, I'd like to be a grizzly bear," announces the youngest boy.

"Why is that, honey?"

"Because then I could do anything I want." If only.


E-mail this page to a friend.

© 1996-2006 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe