Let’s hear it for the bear. Not some mythical beast, but Ursus arctos horribilis. Americans love the grizzly bear to death and are terrified of it; they revere the animal and think it a horrifying monster. It’s fair to say misconceptions are as commonplace as superlatives, making attitudes about grizzlies—as one expert puts it—bipolar.
Human contradictions are a dime a dozen. Lots of Americans, for example, claim to live in “the fastest growing city in the nation.” Just ask residents of Austin, Atlanta, Fort Myers, Orlando. Or Boise, Phoenix, Seattle, Las Vegas. Each is the fastest growing city. Well …. “OK then,” residents might amend on second thought, “we’re the fastest growing city for its size,” never pausing to think no two cities are exactly the same size, thus every city is the fastest growing city for its size. And every one is the slowest growing for its size as well.
Just so, with what some have called the greatest omnivore. No two grizzly bears are the same, but some folks imagine they are the largest mammal in North America. Indeed, they can grow to enormous size, but what’s the measure here? No bear holds the record for weight or height. The American bison can exceed 2,000 pounds, and an Alaska–Yukon moose standing on all four hoofs is 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weighs more than 1,600 pounds. North American grizzlies of the mainland interior, sometimes called the silvertip bear owing to grizzled or grayish hair ends, are smaller than a mid-size buffalo. According to the National Wildlife Federation, grizzlies can range in color from almost white to dark brown and weigh about 800 pounds, with males consistently heavier than females. The animals can grow to 9 feet long and stand 8 feet tall when upright on hind legs. An estimated 1,500 such bears, or only 3 percent of the original population of 50,000 prior to white exploration and settlement, remain south of Canada, primarily in the Yellowstone and Glacier National Park regions.
Grizzlies have been known to attack and dispatch ants and automobiles, solid-wood walls and doors, ladybugs and forbs, berries and bison, good-size trees and moose, and almost everything else within their territory. People are on the list. Another way to say it is that grizzlies are located at the top of the food chain if guns are removed from the equation. World Health Organization data suggest a mosquito carrying malaria or West Nile virus or dengue fever is a million times more likely to do a person in than a griz, so when a someone judges the dish-faced bear as a crazy-scary threat, what the individual likely has in mind is a face-to-face showdown, while in the woods and unarmed, with what is a truly fearsome and shudder-inducing predator because of the combination of size, strength, fearless temperament, and an inclination to mass destruction.
Still, most of us want to see a really big griz up close and in person, but not too close. What’s big enough? What’s close enough or too close? I once invited a Yellowstone wildlife researcher, while lecturing my students during field study in the nation’s first National Park, to relate his most memorable bear tale. Without hesitation, he described a woman who had stopped her car on the road near a grizzly, exited the vehicle and instructed her child to scoot over to the driver’s seat, handed the kid a sandwich, and opened the passenger door to entice the bear inside. She thought it would be thrilling to get a picture of her child behind the wheel with the bear cozied up. Mother Nature and all that.
Unlike folks who boast about their fastest-growing city or behave bear-unwisely, my brother and I built a cabin on mountain property chosen for its backwoods location, where widely scattered residents are bear-smart and pleased by the prospect of zero or negative human growth in the region. The place has only a few miles of paved roads for 50 miles in any direction, no telephone wires or electric lines or cable service, no sewer or city water or streetlights, no billboards or Internet or cell phone reception. A round-trip for supplies takes the better part of one day. It is so remote that for many years it has served as the region into which “problem bears” from bear country are helicoptered in or transported inside steel cages and released. What’s a problem grizzly? One that approaches human structures and grows bolder over time, one that repeatedly breaks into cabins or other structures to ransack for food, one that has no fear of or threatens human beings.
The front claws on an adult grizzly can grow to four inches, or as long as your finger. The large shoulder hump is a massive muscle that helps the animal pass the hours indulging in favorite activities. Digging. Tearing apart old logs. Shredding tree trunks. Swatting animals dead with a blow. All for the purpose of eating, which means consuming lots and lots of stuff. How much is lots? Up to 90 pounds of food a day, where almost anything around, alive or dead is food, including grass, grubs, shrubs, berries, moths, meat, and even sandwiches. The problem with a sandwich of course, is one is never enough, as the lecturing park naturalist advised photo-mommy in Yellowstone Park. And once a bear associates people with food, well, you can probably guess the next step.
Grizzlies can hibernate for up to 7 months, during which time they do not eat at all. A better term for the winter nap is “estivation” because the animals can rouse intermittently, especially if bothered by something. In springtime, bears wake with a ravenous appetite.
Back in the days when my kinfolk and I were building the mountain cabin, we remained a tad naïve about what constitutes nourishment to a grizzly bear. We were warned by neighbors (living way down the road) and wildlife experts (a few in the area doing research) never to leave any kind of food outside. Don’t leave anything unattended that might be eaten by a bear, they insisted. Including garbage. ANYTHING! For a fed bear is a dead bear, as all hominids with a prefrontal lobe living in the area had been told. So what is not bear food? One of my family members left two cans of motor oil outside one night (before oil came in plastic containers), and we woke the next morning to find the cans punctured and ripped open, both drained and licked clean of contents. That’s right: motor oil. What honest bear can eat just one?
My family and I were not complete fools though. We’d stocked up on bear spray and knew how to use it. For practice, my brother thought he’d test the potency of year-old deterrent one breezeless afternoon. Just to see what it smelled like (the active ingredient in pepper spray is typically 0.2 to 1.3% of a powerful capsaicinoid), bro headed down the driveway for a test tree located a safe distance from the cabin. He held the can out straight and aimed it at the tree, as if it were a bear. He pulled the trigger, and nonlethal capsaicin hissed out. He stepped forward a pace for a whiff. Then after crawling back indoors, he advised us with tears in his eyes that sniffing bear spray “just to see” is a really bad idea.
When we return to the cabin each summer, it is not unusual to see trees damaged by animals. Some obvious injuries include woodpecker holes and sawdust (boring dust) at the base of trees or pitch tubes on the surface of bark. Pitch tubes are small masses of resin oozing from conifers attacked by the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), which can kill most native or introduced pines throughout the central and northern Rockies. Other kinds of damage are bear claw marks on tree trunks or debarking that can “girdle” or completely surround a tree and destroy it. Grizzlies are often observed rubbing their backs against trees, which scientists believe is a way to mark a tree with scent—rather than to scratch an itch—thus identifying a male in the area and reducing fights over females.
At the risk of redundancy, I’m no fool. I’ve taught college classes in comparative psychology, which means animal behavior despite the fancy label. I’ve organized field trips into the wilderness, sponsored by two Ford Foundation Venture Grants. Courtesy of such funding and miles from civilization, I’ve led college kids into wild places to chart the behavior of mountain goats and listen to naturalists describing their work on some of the big mammals and raptors native to the northern Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Knowing what I know, I never leave the cabin, even for a short walk, without taking along a can of bear spray. My brother, three nephews, in-laws, and houseguests from the city know what to do when going outside. Heading out to chop a tree for firewood? Take the bear spray. Hunting mushrooms, riding a bicycle or ATV, picking berries? Bear spray. Well, except this one time when I ventured outdoors to check the mailbox (the Post Office delivers twice weekly in decent weather). Our receptacle is located 1000 feet from the cabin door, and I was halfway down the driveway, humming to myself and paying more attention to my feet than thinking about bear spray, when I got the inkling of movement somewhere out there in the forest. I glanced up and saw a grizzly bear about 100 feet from where I stood. A big one. Now hold that thought for just a moment.
Decades ago while exploring backcountry alone, south of the Grand Tetons, I found myself on a trail that led into a box canyon. Picture in your mind’s eye aspen quaking in autumn sunshine and framing some rock ledges at trail’s end on one of those magical Wyoming afternoons when all seems right with the world. All was indeed quite right until I heard the sound. A scream I will never forget coming from halfway up the stone ledge—a bloodcurdling cry sounding something like RREEYaaarrrrrrrh!—and originating from the gaping mouth of a mountain lion. I froze. I mentally pictured the big cat taking one leap from the ledge above me, then a couple of pounces and onto my flesh, should I turn and high-tale it out of there. Even more chilling was the unmistakable message carried in the animal’s vocalization. I am willing to be accused of anthropomorphic intimation when I say that the scream was a clear as a human yelling, “Get out of here!” Was the cat protecting young in its den? Possibly, but the point is that, in such a moment, there is only one thing to do: back away slowly—very slowly—and this, I did. Obviously, I lived.
The image of that cougar came to mind on my trek down the driveway to the mailbox, with no bear spray in hand. At about the same instant I spotted the grizzly—a healthy, large, light-brown one—the bear saw me too. I looked at it, and the bear looked at me, evidently startled. I backed away slowly. The bear turned and fled, as bears do ninety-nine-ish percent of the time when detecting a person. Almost always they run from people, unless they do not run.
The “ish” part of the math is more than a trifle worrisome. Why the big bears usually flee and sometimes don’t remains a mystery. The unpredictability was captured in disturbing detail in “Night of the Grizzlies” (Jack Olsen, 1969) and in recent TV documentaries describing how two young women were attacked and killed separately, 50 years ago as I write these words, by two adult grizzlies one August night in 1967 in Glacier National Park. The 19-year-old females were the first human fatalities from bears in the park since it opened to the public in 1910, according to park records.
Theories abounded then and still do as to causation, from the possible smell of blood from menstruation to an unusually dry summer. One old bear shot after the attack and found to have glass lodged in its mouth—glass abundant in garbage but not in nature—plus human hair in its stomach matching one of the victims, was assessed as suffering from starvation. At the time, some park bears were routinely fed garbage and had almost certainly formed the connection between humans and meals. Food-habituated bears had likely lost fear of humans, some more and some less, and the two separate groups of hikers that night might simply have picked the wrong places to camp at the wrong time. Still, two presumably independent and unprovoked bear-related deaths in a single night: coincidence?
We know much more these days about bear management, which translates mostly into human management, that is, appreciating how to comport ourselves wisely in bear country. A previous (late-1960s) Glacier National Park policy of “Shoot the problem bears” has evolved over the decades into “Pack it in; pack it out,” stressing the wisdom of never feeding animals, among many other rules, so the link between people and food is not formed. Understanding that bears are smart and capable of what psychologists call one-trial learning is an important advance. Another thing we know these days is that a mama grizzly with cubs is a dangerous and potentially lethal combination for any person that might get in the middle of a roaming family. Park officials close trails and sometimes entire regions these days to prevent such confrontations.
How often do we encounter moms and cubs on or around our cabin property? The recent answer has been several times every year for the past few years. How often have bears been a problem for seasonal or year-round residents in that remote territory over the years since delinquent bears have been dropped practically on our doorstep? Only once, when a trouble-making adult male broke into approximately a dozen unoccupied cabins and showed no signs of stopping. Unfortunately for this bear, breaking and entering amounted to a capital offense, but the outcome for both man and beast also reinforces how much we have learned about how to respond to creatures that are top predators in their natural environment and fear very little.
A couple of years ago, my brother and I were sitting at the breakfast table one late spring morning when a mother grizzly (sow) sauntered by outside, a few feet beyond the double windows facing south. Her coat was brown draped from shoulder to chest with a golden shawl. Within seconds, a cub about the size of a lamb and with mom’s coloration caught up with her, and a second one scrambled up a small Lodgepole pine tree apparently just for fun. Cubs are born blind and helpless while the mother hibernates, and they can weigh as little as 12 ounces at first, but they put on weight rapidly. We watched and took pictures, never expecting to see the trio again, but later that autumn, the same combo strolled into and though our front yard. The two cubs had tripled in size over a few months, and the mother bear paid us no attention as she headed toward a pile of western larch shavings we’d created while stripping a couple of logs. She walked onto the shavings, sniffed a few times, and proceeded to roll around on her back. The cubs mimicked her behavior, enjoying the game and providing anecdotal evidence that young bears are quick to pick up on cues from an adult animal. Moms attentively care for their cubs, which are often twins, and typically separate from the young when they are 2.5 years old and the female enters a breeding condition, attracting males who can threaten cubs. The animals have terrific olfactory acuity with chemoreception estimated to be hundreds of times more sensitive than our human sense of smell.
Our encounters, especially with cubs, are fun when we are near or inside the cabin, and they provide opportunities for posting unique Facebook photos that amaze some friends and intimidate others. They also bode well for the future success of one particular sow that is wise enough to keep going when in the vicinity of human habitation, as she did that first year and the next, still with two healthy cubs under her watchful guardianship that had matured to about three-quarters her size and were learning the ways of the modern world from mom.
According the National Park Service, human injuries caused by grizzly bears in Yellowstone peaked at about 4 per year during the 1960s and then decreased drastically over the most recent 46 years for which data are available, to approximately 1 every 18 years. Over the entire history of the park, the likelihood of being killed by a bear (8 human fatalities) is only slightly greater than death from a falling tree (6 incidents). The 1960s were an era when bears were lured by garbage to popular tourist spots.
Data from Glacier National Park confirm a total of 10 bear-related human fatalities since 1967. The park now provides bear-proof trash containers; a robust program of ranger-led hikes; and abundant literature, signage, and cautions regarding ways to lessen the likelihood of adverse interactions with bears. Still, on June 29, 2016, a former park ranger and law-enforcement officer was killed by a bear, presumed to be a grizzly, after reportedly colliding with the animal at something like 25 mph on a mountain bike just east of Glacier. Horrible, certainly. Unlikely? Yes, and responses following the incident ranged from reasoned reaction to venom. One Internet responder suggested, in effect: “They’re BEARS. They’re monsters. Kill ‘em all.” But then people post about anything on the Internet.
The reality is that as grizzly populations and human ventures into backcountry both increase in the northern Rockies, human–bear encounters, though rare, will continue to happen. The infamous night of the grizzlies changed our perspective in fundamental ways on what amounts to prevention and appropriate or inappropriate conduct around potentially dangerous predators. In addition to eliciting grief along with disbelief bordering on shock, that infamous night triggered a generation of scientific research aimed at separating fact from myth about a creature that has inspired wonder and trepidation in nonnative Americans since the expedition by led Lewis and Clark. Modern DNA analysis hints that genetic data do not support identifying the grizzly bear as a separate and independent subspecies of brown bear, but like much else in science, more research is required for confirmation. By whatever name or taxonomy, in the case of Ursus horribilis, superlatives really do apply. They are the stuff of nightmares and absolutely thrilling to see, no matter how rarely or often.
So where is this cabin of mine, and how can you get there to land a terrific bear picture or two? I’m not telling for a variety of reasons. Some details are better left to the imagination, and certain wild places are better just as they are. Perhaps it is a comfort to know that a few spots endure where wolves howl and the Greatest Omnivore On Earth is left pretty much to its own devices.
Robert D. Kirvel is a Pushcart Prize (twice) and Best of the Net nominee for fiction. Awards include the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize for the Short Story, and a 2015 ArtPrize for creative nonfiction. He has published in England, Ireland, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in several dozen U.S. literary journals. Most of his literary works are linked at https://twitter.com/Rkirvel.