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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

Grizzly

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.

COY

Grizzly sow with cubs. Yellowstone

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