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Grizzlies and their Nasty Image: The Journals of Lewis and Clark

It’s fall, and all I can think about are grizzly bears, so here’s another post.  I’ve written in previous posts about all the bears I’ve seen this season and about delisting issues.  Well, bear sightings continue here in the Upper Clark’s Fork. A few days ago I drove up the dirt road to a drainage called Beem Gulch.  In the spring, I saw tracks of a sow with two cubs of the year, though I never saw the bear. I had a feeling she might be around there now, as bears descend into the lower elevations spring and fall looking for food sources. There were about 4 trailers set up in the drainage, though unoccupied. They were wood cutter’s trailers, working on Forest Service slash pile sales.

I walked up a pretty drainage at road’s end, yet saw no bear sign. I was careful of course. Upon driving back down the pot-holed road, I saw her. The car had spooked them, and she was running with her two young cubs across the sagebrush field. Smart mom, she took them into a gully, mid-way, so they were hidden; then used the arroyo as a corridor.

Grizzly track

Grizzly track

That sighting, I figured, was the 7th grizzly sighting this season, and if you count the number of bears, then that makes 13 grizzly bears I’ve seen.  Normally my tally is zero when hiking or driving around outside of the Park.  All these bears were sighted outside of Yellowstone


On the drive home after seeing these bears, I chatted with the game warden.  He told me there were three boar grizzlies on a dead horse (horse died naturally) up the road, with one bear lying on top of the horse. The warden’s take on grizzlies mirrors the official stance of Wyoming Game and Fish, as well as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team–that is, the ecosystem is full, there’s no where for these bears to go, so we need to manage (read hunt) them.

I’ve stated my views in other posts regarding the official view, so I don’t need to restate it here.  But I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Paul Schullery called Lewis and Clark Among the GrizzliesSchullery is a careful historian.  He dissects each and every mention and encounter that the Corps had with bears, trying to discern which were black bears and which were grizzlies. He notes that for over 150 years, Lewis & Clark’s journals, along with subsequent articles that sensationalized these encounters, shaped our views of grizzly bears as killers, monsters, Ursus arctos horribilis (note the horribilis that was added). Schullery pauses frequently to ponder how this might have occurred. Wisely, he notes that

  • The expedition was charged with a lot of tasks, though their main one was to find the route to the Pacific. Observing grizzly bears and their habits was not high on their list.
  • Every bear the expedition saw, they shot or tried to shoot. This kind of scenario does not make for observing the natural disposition of grizzly bears.
  • Neither Lewis nor Clark observed the customs Indians had relative to grizzlies, nor did they record any myths. Their only observations were of tribes wearing necklaces of grizzly claws.
  • Depending on how you break it down, the Corps saw between 37 and 62 grizzly bears on their entire journey.  Schullery used the larger number, being very generous in his interpretation. Remember that the Corps were unclear how to note the difference between black and grizzly bears, sometimes referring to grizzlies as ‘white’, ‘brown’, or even ‘variegated’.
  • Schullery notes that these bears were seen in a very narrow corridor that was traveled, and that the Corps killed only two females.  Therefore, most of the bears they saw and killed were males, representing only a tiny portion of the population.  Females with cubs were therefore very cautious.

Great Falls 1880

The most damning excerpt from the L&C journals that has helped create the myth of the ferocious blood-thirsty grizzly, was the Corps encounters during their portage at Great Falls. During that long portage of 18 miles whick took weeks, the Corps killed 6 bears and shot at several others. Lewis himself had an encounter that is the most famous, and widely quoted, of all their grizzly stories. Schullery dissects the Great Falls Bear Crisis.  There were dead bison in the stream below the falls; it was bear mating season; people had been using the Falls area for thousands of years. Perhaps the bears associated humans with carrion, piles of butchered bison at the bison jump described by Lewis on May 29

Great Falls today. When I visited last June, there was virtually no water in the run-off portion as all was diverted into the new generating station to the right.

Just recently the Cody Enterprise published an opinion piece stating grizzly bears will be a problem and threat to humans until they are hunted and can learn from dying. In order to understand this still-persistent view on grizzly bears, I highly recommend this book. This twisted attitude reflects stories citizens were told through re-interpretations of the journals.  Remember, people in the U.S. had never seen nor heard about grizzlies (only black bears lived in the east) till the journals became public. And even today we see how sensationalism, not science, sells!

Scullery ends the book with a beautiful reflection:

Today’s grizzly bears live in a tiny, pathetically restricted fragment of the habitat they occupied when Lewis and Clark met them. When we travel the Lewis and Clark trail we visit a former grizzly bear kingdom now lost under cities, ranches, and the very civilized landscapes that the captains and their president could only dream of…We stand along the Missouri River and where there are now dams and roads and cities we feel a vague longing to see what Lewis and Clark saw. Sometimes we can still see much of what they saw, and we strain to imagine the rest.

Grizzly bears are gone from almost every mlle of the routes traveled by Lewis and Clark. The bears survive only in isolated enclaves—a few mountain sanctuaries–places that at best the captains may have viewed from a hazy distance. The bears were gone long before we were born, but in some achingly vague, intergenerational way, we seem to recall them, and even miss them. In their absence these bears have become even more powerful symbols of the landscape than they were when they still roamed it so confidently. They are symbols not only of something lost, but of something we might decide to have again. Perhaps some day, we wonder, it might be possible to travel at least a few stretches of this immense, generous river and again have the chance Lewis and Clark had–to encounter this terrible, beautiful, unforgettable animal. What a discovery that would be.


Grizzly sow with cubs. Yellowstone

The Wild Excellence. A Review

Here is the review of The Wild Excellence:  Notes from Untamed America, in this month’s latest issue of High Country News. There is also a link to the review online on the top sidebar of this blog.  The print version has a nice photo.

August 31, 2015 issue of High Country News Magazine

August 31, 2015 issue of High Country News Magazine

An Incredible Bear Story–Addendum to Previous Post

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) of Cody sponsored a hike today in the Francs Peak area.  The Shoshone National Forest Bear Biologist, Andy Pils, led the hike.

I had an opportunity to speak extensively with Andy about various bear subjects; but the most incredulous thing happened when I told Andy about my sighting last Sunday of a Grizzly mom and her three cubs of the year at Sawtooth lake.  Andy told me that those bears got a huge food reward, unfortunately, and this is what happened.

Grizzly mom and cubs

If you read that post, you’ll find that I walked the rocky road to Sawtooth Lake, approximately three miles.  At 1/4 mile from the lake, the road descends sharply and becomes even more treacherous to drive.  Parked on that rise was a Toyota 4-runner with Montana plates.  I wondered why they drove their vehicle on such a boulder-stricken road.

At the lake, I heard gunshots.  The Montana fellows were target shooting from a beach at the lake’s input, about 200 yards east around the lake front. I was traveling west to little Sparhawk Lake so I ignored them. Around 12:30 I began the hike back to my car.  I passed their 4-runner and entered a small meadow. That’s where I heard, then saw, the grizzly sow and her three cubs. The sow was running, heading directly to the lake.  I considered the fellows down there, thought maybe I might head back and let them know a grizzly was around, but then felt not only would the bear get there before me, but also they were way out on the east end at a beach, not near where the bear would enter.

Grizzly cub

This is where the story gets quite strange. Andy Pils tells me that just about the time the bear was approaching the lake, these guys were walking around the lake back to the road.  They’d just approached the road’s end at the lakefront when they saw the bear and her cubs, although they reported seeing only two cubs. When they saw the sow, they completely freaked out, dropped their packs, fishing tackle and rods, plus left their cooler full of food and ran back to their car.  Once at the car, they raced back to their home in Billings, MT.

By the next day I suppose they started to think about their encounter, and they had the “brilliant” thought that people finding their stuff strewn around might believe the bear ate them.  So they called the Forest Service to report they were still alive and told Andy what happened.

When Andy Pils heard they left their cooler there, he told them that was a huge mistake.  Their response “But it was a 1000 pound grizzly!” They of course had no bear spray.  Andy went to the lake to clean things up.  He found that the bears had demolished the cooler and ate all the food, throwing all the trash around. But the fishing tackle and backpacks were intact.  The Montana fellows told Andy they wanted their stuff back (“There’s about $1000 worth of stuff there”.  “No way” says Andy, just a cooler and some backpacks), but they said getting to Cody would take some time because they broke their car axle leaving Sawtooth Lake.

There are so many parts to this story that are incredulous, and downright full of stupidity.  Let me break it down:

  1. Not one of these guys had bear spray
  2. Greater Yellowstone Bears do not weigh 1000 pounds.  Being a sow she probably weighed about 300-400 pounds.
  3. They did everything wrong when they saw this bear, and who knows how far away she was when they even spotted her.  They should have talked to the bear and slowly walked to their car.  More than likely she would have taken her cubs away from the area.
  4. They ran.  Number one NO NO rule.
  5. They gave her an incredible food reward.  Now those cubs will never forget and will associate humans with food.  Maybe not this year or next, but at three years old when they are out on their own, they might become nuisance bears.  Fed bears are dead bears, period.
  6. That bear and her cubs were bothering no one.  I do not know for certain why she was running along the trees when I saw her.  I postulate that she smelled me and was taking her cubs away.  Therefore, she would have done the same with these guys if given a chance.

This story made me so angry.  The only thing they did right was not shoot those bears.  (As an aside, I was pretty shaken up when I got to the lake and heard gunshots.  I only hoped they had enough sense not to shoot across the lake. Having hiked into a beautiful pristine area, the last thing I wanted to hear was gunshots going off when it was not hunting season.)

If people are going to recreate in bear country, they need to know at least the most basic simple rules and take precautions.  I asked Andy about those young twin grizzlies that were moved which I wrote about here.  He said lots of cars stopped on the Beartooth Highway to watch them and he was certain a motorist had given them a food reward. Once that happened, they became nuisance bears and were moved to a remote section of the south Shoshone.

Bears are having a difficult season, with a poor berry crop, few nuts and a bad moth year, bears are being seen more than ever in the low country because they are very hungry. I worry how hunting season will go this year.

On a lighter note, here are some photos of our hike today:

Wood River Peaks

Wood River

Gray Jay

Gray Jay


Lunch at the summit

Lunch at the summit

Sparhawk Lake, Beartooths; ATV’s and Grizzly Bears

An old-timer told me about a forest service cabin down at Sparhawk Lake which J.K. Rollinson had stayed in.  “His cowboy boots are still sitting there.”

That I doubted.

J.K. Rollinson is well-known in our little valley.  He was one of the first rangers in Sunlight and wrote a book that included his time here in the early 1900s.  His book, Pony Trails of Wyoming, describes trips to this Beartooth cabin, peppered with stories about dangerous lightening storms in the high country and leading scientists to collect grasshoppers in Grasshopper Glacier.

I wanted to see if the cabin still existed so I drove to the dirt pullout to Sawtooth Lake across from the Island Lake turnout.  The road is excellent for the first 1.5 miles, then turns to a rocky mess.  I parked and walked the final 2.5 miles to Sawtooth Lake.

Sawtooth Lake, Beartooths

Sawtooth Lake, Beartooths

It just so happened that the Northwest Wyoming ORV club had arranged an outing with the Shoshone Forest Service last Thursday to look at a possible loop trail extension from Sawtooth over to the Morrison Jeep Trail.  The Forest Service, in their 20 year plan, has promised three new ATV loop trails. I couldn’t go on that trip and I wanted to see the road conditions for myself, so I included it in my walk-through. The Forest Service and ORVer’s had driven the road (of course).  I feel you can see much more if you are on foot.

The day was lovely and there was no one on the road–not one ATV or hiker. As I approached Sawtooth, I saw a parked car above the lake.  At the lake I heard gunshots. People were target practicing on a beach at the lake.  I hoped they weren’t shooting in my direction.  I headed opposite from them, in the direction of the adjacent Sparhawk Lake.

The road ends at Sawtooth in a large turnout, but I found an illegal ATV use trail that was headed around the lake perimeter towards my destination.  I followed it until the thick trees around Sparhawk prevented the ATVer from going further.

This is an illegal ATV road that follows the northwest boundary of the lake

This is an illegal ATV road that follows the northwest boundary of the lake

Heading through the trees, I quickly came to the cabin, at least what remained of it. And the Forest Service had placed a nice plaque there. No cowboy boots though.

Sparhawk Forest Service Cabin built in 1908

Sparhawk Forest Service Cabin built in 1908

Another view of the cabin

Another view of the cabin

Plaque on rock

Plaque on rock

Close up of plaque

Close up of plaque

I wondered why they didn’t build the cabin at the adjacent, and very large, Sawtooth Lake.  Here’s a photo of pretty little Sparhawk Lake.

Sparhawk Lake

Sparhawk Lake

I made my way back to Sawtooth and began the return walk.  Less than 1/4 mile from the lake, by a small meadow surrounded by trees, I heard a very strange sound.  A deep and sonorous honking was repeatedly coming from the forest. I stopped, hoping to glimpse what was making these strange noises.  Suddenly a big grizzly was running along the forest edge followed by a cub of the year. Seconds later another cub, and after a minute another cub!  Something had spooked them to run down towards the lake.  I was far enough away, with the wind in my face, that I wasn’t worried. Here’s a link to a black bear cub making a similar noise. Hearing this, I assumed the sound I heard was from the last little cub who became separated from mom.

This area where the ORV club wants a loop trail is in the PCA (Protected Conservation Area for grizzly bears) and with my sighting, it’s obviously a critical area for these bears. What’s proven is that traffic, especially these loud machines, is very disruptive for bears. A loop trail will bring more traffic here. As of now, people are camping right next to the lake creating fire rings. There are no bear boxes to store food in, and car/ATV campers invariably bring more trash in and tend to not pack it all out (or throw it in their campfire rings).

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

This year we’ve already had several bears destroyed because they were food adapted. There have been stories of restaurants next to, or even in the Park, dumping their grease outside. Bears that find any food rewards graduate to problem bears which become dead bears.

I’m not necessarily against this area looping with the Morrison Jeep road.  By Sawtooth Lake, it’s only less than 1/4 mile to loop the two roads.  But as ATV’s become more prevalent, their riders need to take responsibility for self-policing illegal off-shoots and keeping a clean camp.  The intense noise factor needs to be considered.  In addition, taking your vehicle into the back country and shooting off guns should be made illegal unless it’s hunting season.

Koda’s Blog

This is to let you know that Koda will now be posting to his own blog site.  I’ve encouraged him to post his stories, which have been so popular on my own site.  He says he will, but first he just had to advertise the book he is writing for other dogs.  So his first post is just that–a preview of his book by a dog for dogs. Here is the link to Koda’s blog.


Grizzly Bears in the News

Grizzly bears have been in the news a lot.  On August 13 a seasonal employee, Lance Crosby, was hiking a short loop trail by Lake in Yellowstone National Park when he was attacked, killed, and partially consumed by a female grizzly with two cubs.  Although Crosby was 1. off-trail and 2. not carrying bear spray, there is absolutely no need to blame the hiker.  Possibly even with bear spray Crosby might not have survived or prevented an attack, especially if he came upon the bear at extremely close range.

A grizzly bear was recently rummaging around trash for food just five miles north of Cody. Since the bear had been moved for breaking into trash before, this bear was euthanized. People were talking about how close to town the bear was.

Heart Mountain, a prominent feature outside the Cody area, has been seeing more bears than ever this year–something like 5 grizzlies have been spotted on the mountain. Heart Mountain was part of grizzly bears native original habitat and where one of the last bears was killed in the early 1900s.

A recent headline in the Billings Gazette states that more livestock was killed by bears in Montana than in 2014.

Grizzly Bear

All this news comes on the heels of the USF&W preparing to announce whether they are going to delist the bear this year.  These kinds of headlines puts bears in the crosshairs.  But let’s take a breath and consider the whole picture.

The states have been putting a lot of pressure on the feds for quite a while to delist. There will be a lot of money in tags for grizzly bear hunts and the states, already experiencing declining revenue with decreased hunters, are itching for those dollars.  One writer writes in the Enterprise “Grizzly Bear attacks will continue as long as species remain protected”.  But what does that mean?  Dead bears are taught a lesson?  Grizzly bears are normally solitary animals except for moms with cubs.  Unlike wolves who might see pack members killed by hunters, bears will just be dead without bear company to learn from.  Black bears are hunted and I still see them.  In fact, in Wyoming, black bear baiting is legal in most areas.  Does baiting bears mean live bears will no longer seek human garbage?  Of course not.

If grizzlies are delisted, we’ll see images such as this one

This article in the Cody Enterprise sums up the arguments for and against delisting pretty well.  Pro delisting: bears are above the delisting quota of 550 (officially the present count is 756 but it seems that the numbers being thrown around liberally are 1000 bears.  Bears are hard to count because they are solitary) and it’s time. Although Whitebark pines are 90% dead in the ecosystem, bears are creative and can find other food sources.  Con delisting: Those numbers are not accurate because bears are moving farther out looking for other food sources as their primary fall fattening-up food, pine nuts, is diminished.  Climate change is unpredictable as to what will be happening with the ecosystem’s food sources, and so bears need to be able to have connective corridors to roam north–for food and for genetic connectivity. The delisting plan does not account for connectivity but confines grizzlies to a virtual zoo in the GYE PCA.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

I have several thoughts here:

Just looking at this year’s fall foods for bears, we’ve had strange weather.  Lots of spring rains instead of snows made for good grass for ungulates, but a poor berry crop. My chokecherries are having the worst crop since I’ve been living here for 10 years and I’ve noticed the huckleberry, buffalo berries and raspberry crops are very poor.  In addition, there are almost no cones on my limber pines, an alternative crop when Whitebark crops are poor. The transects done this year on the Whitebark pine crop indicates a poor year according to Dustin Lasseter, who spoke with me at a Landowner’s meeting in early August.  He’d accompanied the IGBT checking a transect.  The 2015 report will be available here when published.

According to Doug Peacock, around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the most important fat-containing foods for bears in the fall are moths and whitebark pine nuts.  Boar bears will eat more meat than females, as they are able to displace females and younger bears.  Fat is essential for hibernation.  Without whitebark, or the limber pine nut to substitute (Limber pine nuts are smaller, but nutritious and high in fat.  They are stolen from squirrel middens just as the whitebark nuts are), where are these bears going to get enough fall fat?

Grizzly mom and cubsChris Servheen, the biologist who helped bring the bear back from the brink says ““Bears will tend to move around more, looking for alternative foods, and movement usually increases conflicts”.  But Servheen goes on to say:

Even with a poor berry crop, however, Servheen said grizzly diets can include hundreds of different foods, so the bears still have plenty of options available. While huckleberries can provide an easy source of calories as the bears begin to fatten up for their winter sleep, they will also find roots, tubers, moths, ants, hornet nests and a variety of other berries such as those from hawthorn and mountain ash.

According to Peacock, none of these can substitute for fat-rich pine nuts in the GYE.

But whitebark pine in the Yellowstone park area is nearly gone: No amount of science or management will bring the trees back in our lifetime. With whitebark pine nuts eliminated from grizzly bear diets — and this seems to be the case — grizzlies in this island ecosystem will be severely stressed. The bears could be on their way out.

Grizzly bear

Second, as Peacock says in the linked article above, bears will need room to roam to connect with alternative food sources as well as linkage to other bears.  This one issue addressed may save, in the long run, the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Third, people and bears can co-exist and it is up to us humans to make that effort.  In short, that means protecting food sources such as chickens, grain, and human garbage.  The bear that had to be killed near Cody was trash adapted.  Maybe those residences never expected a bear that close, but it’s time we all did. Take for instance the black bears of the California Sierras. They have completely changed their habits because backpackers are now required to use a bear canister.  If you don’t, then a ticket is issued.  Bear canisters can even be rented for next to nothing from the Park or Forest Service in the Sierras.

Cattle and sheep that are on Forest Service allotments in sensitive bear corridors of the GYE, such as the Green River basin, should be reduced in herd size or eliminated, and a range rider needs to be with them.  Those animals lost to bears are already being compensated at 3 times market value.

Lastly, we need new stories about bears, not just horror stories.  We need to re-imagine what it’s like living with this awesome creature and realize we are blessed to live in the last remaining place in the lower 48 where these bears still exist–less than 2% of their former range.  We can give them at least that little bit.  We’ve spent the last forty years restoring their population–from 125 bears to around 750 bears.  Delisting the bear at this critical juncture is too premature, as we are just starting to feel and understand the forces of climate change.  Once delisted, hunting will take place. Hunting an animal as smart as the Great Apes just for trophy is close to a crime. The world was up in arms over trophy hunting a lion named Cecil in Africa.  Why would this magnificent animal be so different?

Young grizzly bear

Young grizzly bear

Techno danger for Yellowstone Wildlife

I’ve become aware of a new concern for Yellowstone Ecosystem wildlife.  A few weeks ago a friend visited and told me this story.  He’s been coming to YNP for over 40 years and is a responsible person who knows how to handle himself properly around wildlife in the park.

In January we were driving through Lamar Valley when we encountered some bison crossing the road.  We stopped the car and turned off the engine to let them pass.  I usually never film with my phone, but for some reason I began filming these bison.  Suddenly one large male turned on us and attacked the car, causing $2000 worth of damage.  All recorded on my phone.  I sent the movie to some friends, then posted it on Youtube.  Overnight it went viral. A few months later I received a call from a company in England that wanted to buy the video and pay me royalties. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this would happen.  Apparently these companies purchase videos and sell them as ‘stock’ clips.

My friend wasn’t looking for fame or money, and his behavior around these bison was completely appropriate.  Yet his story clued me into why we might be seeing so many crazy, careless, and inappropriate behavior around YNP wildlife.

Bison close to car

Take this video of a young grizzly bear ‘attacking’ a car on the Beartooth highway.


It just so happens that I saw this same bear a few weeks ago and wrote about it here.


Young bear

Young bear

This same bear was frequenting the Beartooth Butte campground.  He and his young sister were captured and moved.  The WG&F Bear biologist told me that he’d never seen bear behavior like this before and that obviously these bears had been fed.  Just this week I noticed a note from a Forest Service ranger left on a parked truck at Beartooth Butte trailhead. It said they’d had to confiscate food left in the bed of the truck which might attract bears.

But my point is not that people are feeding bears.  When I saw this video I asked myself  “Why didn’t these people honk their horn, or just drive away?”

My answer came yesterday when I saw a piece of the same video again, but this time on ABC news online.  So did these people keep filming that bear, instead of doing the intelligent thing of honking their horn and scaring it off, just to have a ‘viral‘ video, and maybe make some money selling it?

This year there have been 5 bison attacks on people who came too close.  One women was taking a selfie of herself and her daughter with a bison in the background.  She was mauled by the bison, yet lucky for her not injured badly. Of course, this was simply a stupid act, but several days later I saw her interviewed on ABC.  Did she receive money for this?  From the attached link, you can see her selfie is owned by ABC.  Even if she didn’t receive money and just had her moment of TV fame, doesn’t this media attention only encourage more stupid acts that harm wildlife?

Here’s a story of a man attempting to touch a bison’s nose in Yellowstone Park last week.  

He had someone photograph him doing it.  Will he now sell his photo?

Whether these acts are for money, or just to say “we did it”, they are endangering wildlife.  Feeding bears or encouraging them to keep looking for food inside a car is a death sentence for that bear.  Those people should have used bear spray on that young bear. Then they would have taught that bear a lesson he’ll never forget.

Taking selfies with bison or other stupid acts with bison compromises years of hard work on a new Park bison plan which would allow these animals to migrate outside the Park boundary in winter months.

Our techno media-centric society needs to be educated in how these acts are a great disservice not to the public, but to our wildlife.

Keep our wilderness wild!

Keep our wilderness wild!




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