The first half of this post was excerpted from the chapter “Bears Show More Restraint than Ursiphobic Elmers” in my book, Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport…
An irrational fear of bears dates back to the earliest days of American history and is customarily accompanied by obtuse thinking and quirky spelling. The most famous inscription (carved into a tree, naturally) attributable to Daniel Boone (that guy who went around with a dead raccoon on his head) bragged how he “…cilled a bar…in the year 1760.” The bears Boone killed (and there were many) in North Carolina and Tennessee were black bears, a uniquely American species that, like coyotes, evolved on the Western Hemisphere.
Greatly fearing the grizzly bears they discovered on their voyage up the Missouri River to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark were among the first frontiersmen responsible for leading them down the path to near-extinction. In a May 5, 1805, entry in their journals, Lewis quilled of the “turrible” grizzly, “It was a most tremendous looking anamal and extreemly hard to kill.” Clark and another member of their party pumped the unarmed bear with ten shots of lead before he finally succumbed.
Between 50,000 and 100,000 grizzlies once inhabited the western continental US before incoming settlers shot, poisoned and trapped them out, quickly snatching up prime valley bottoms (the preferred habitat of grizzly bears) for themselves and their livestock. Thus driven into desolate high country, the rare grizzlies who hold on in the lower 48 are allowed only two percent of their historic domain. The current population of 500 is essentially marooned on islands of insufficient wilderness, cut off from one another by freeways, urban sprawl and a network of barbed wire fences that spell “keep out” to any grizzly who knows what’s good for ‘em.
In the vein of fables handed down for generations, bear tales have been told, embellished upon, amplified and retold by sportsmen wanting to justify hounding, baiting and just plain killing. As Charlie Russell, author of Grizzly Heart: Living without Fear among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka, tells it:
“Hunting guides describe bears as ferocious, unpredictable and savage predators. They tell one horrifying story after another about people being torn apart. The victims are always those who approached the encounter poorly armed. Then the guides move on to recount countless acts of sportsman bravery: tales of real men stopping huge angry bears just short of the barrel of their guns. They keep it up until their clients are shaking in their boots, barely able to muster the courage to face the dreadful foe.”
Slowly but surely, hyperbolic bear tales are being replaced by the honest truth about bears and folks are waking up to the reality that bears aren’t really out to get them, as evidenced in this recent article from the Calgary Herald:
Overcoming fear of grizzlies key to survival of species, says author
Albertans need to stop being afraid of grizzly bears and learn to live with the animals to protect the threatened species in the province, says the former superintendent of Banff National Park.
Kevin Van Tighem, a fourth-generation Calgarian who worked with Parks Canada for three decades, said it’s time to reconsider how bears are managed in the province.
“If we really want bears to have a future, we need to manage them without fear,” he said in an interview with the Herald about his new book, Bears Without Fear. “We are primarily managing around a risk averse, keep-bears-scared-of-people paradigm.
“I don’t support bear hazing, I don’t support the Karelian bear dog program or the long-distance relocations.”
The strategies are all part of Alberta’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan 2008-2013, which was implemented after studies found there were fewer than 700 grizzly bears in the province — a number that led to their status as a threatened species.
All but one of the 15 grizzly bear deaths on provincial land (another two bears were hit and killed by a train in Banff National Park) in 2012 were caused by humans.
In addition, a total of 31 grizzly bears have been relocated by the province after threatening public safety, attacking livestock or damaging property — up from last year’s 24 “problem” bears.
Research shows relocation can triple the mortality of grizzly bears, which has raised concerns among conservationists.
Van Tighem said moving bears out of their habitat is part of the problem, pointing to the relocation of a mother grizzly bear and her three cubs out of Canmore last spring as an example.
“These were totally harmless bears,” he said. “They weren’t scared of people and because they weren’t scared of people, whenever they were surprised by a bicyclist or a dog walker, nothing bad happened. The mother would basically look and say, ‘Well, that’s people. They aren’t scary, so I don’t have to react in a scary way.’
As a result, he said the province took the best possible bears to live around and relocated them because they were worried about what could go wrong.
“We just can’t do that anymore,” said Van Tighem.