I am listening to a wonderful interview podcast, in two parts, of Charlie Russell on the Grizzly Beat, a blog by Louisa Wilcox. If you haven’t heard of Russell, this is your chance. Russell tells stories of raising cubs in Kamchatka Russia along with sitting on a log in a Canadian forest with a well-viewed female grizzly. I learned more about how to behave around bears by watching Russell’s body language than any book.
Russell candidly talks about how North American wildlife bear management long ago decided the best way to have bears around was to teach people to be afraid of them, and likewise to instill fear in bears of people. But Russell was interested in what bears were really like, and knowing that bears have personalities, he wanted to understand them. Russell spent ten summers in Kamchatka raising bear cubs and living with over 500 bears in the area. He is the only person to have successfully re-introduced cubs into the wild.
Russell’s story is told on these podcasts as well as his video East of Eden. Bears are highly intelligent. If they are treated peacefully, in general they act peacefully towards humans. They know, Russell says, that humans control the habitat that they need. Living with bears is something people can choose to do. It’s not a bear problem, but a people problem Russell say. If a person decides to live in bear country peacefully, the bears will respond in kind. Given that, Russell advices when hiking in bear country to carry bear spray, especially where bears have been taught to fear people. If and when hunting begins in the Northern Rockies, Russell says, this will only exacerbate bears distrust and dislike of people.
Russell’s comment on how bear management today is about fear is something I’ve long thought about. All the available literature on bears, especially grizzly bears, is about bear attacks. The Park requires every backcountry overnight camper to watch a 45 minute video on bears (which is good). The video is all about protecting oneself from bears and what to do in a bear encounter. People management is a good thing (bear spray, food storage, posturing around bears, hiking in groups, making noise, etc), but none of this is about bears, but about fearing bears. We don’t really try to ‘know’ bears. Our present culture is just about separating ourselves from the natural world and fearing bears.
My own closest encounter with a bear took place in 1972. Not a grizzly, but a very large black bear. I was in high school, during summer break, hiking in Waterton-Glacier International Park from the Canadian side. I tell that story here in detail and why I wasn’t afraid. It’s a good lesson in how people and bears can read each other.
Personally, I feel that Russell is one of the few people today that truly understands bears. He is not a scientist, but more of an old fashioned naturalist. Russell owns a ranch next to Waterton Park in Canada that was homesteaded by his grandfather. Long ago he pioneered putting out dead cattle on his side of the Park border in the spring to give hungry bears emerging from dens some much needed protein. Neighboring ranchers feared that the bears would adapt to eating cattle. But instead of this happening, the fed bears moved on and cattle depredation decreased. Soon the wildlife managers were putting road-killed deer and elk carcasses instead.
Please listen to this amazing Bear Whisperer. Enjoy.