Chapter 1: My First Grizzly

I am a Christian, and I am in awe of God and His creation. One of His works that I am particularly in awe of is the grizzly bear. The father of the classification system, Carolus Linnaeus, originally classified it as Ursus arctos in 1758. Many “new” species were identified afterwards, but now all are classified again as Ursus arctos, with two subspecies, the Kodiak bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi and Ursus arctos horribilis, which includes all other grizzly bears.

I saw my first grizzly bear in 1989 in Yellowstone National Park. Fresh from graduating with a B.S. Degree in Aerospace Engineering from The University of Texas, I was taking one last family vacation before fulfilling my responsibilities designing military aircraft at General Dynamics. We were staying at the Yellowstone Hotel on the shores of Lake Yellowstone, and heard rumors that a mother grizzly bear was feeding on spawning cutthroat trout in a stream near the hotel. We went out to inspect, and sure enough, there stood a mother grizzly bear about 100 yards in the distance. A Yellowstone Ranger had the formidable task of keeping about 100 tourists behind an imaginary line he had drawn. With a Nikon N70 35 mm camera and 300 mm zoom, I hoped to grab a few photos of the bear. The light levels were a bit low for my lens, but I did manage to at least capture the bear and one of her two cubs on film.

That first grizzly bear fascinated me, and I have been enthralled by them ever since. I watched in amazement as the mother bear would jump out of sight down into the creek bed, and then suddenly, up would come a cutthroat trout, flying through the air and onto the bank. The cubs would then proceed to pounce on the trout and devour it. I watched this scene repeat itself several times. That first encounter with a wild grizzly bear left a lasting impression on me, and I hoped it would not be my last.

Another lasting impression on that trip to Yellowstone came in the form of the photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen. We were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming one day and visited his art gallery in town. The photograph that became permanently etched in my memory was one of a grizzly bear the split second before it closed its jaws on a leaping sockeye salmon. I would learn later that this photo was not taken at Yellowstone, but at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. The photograph made me realize two things, the importance of salmon to grizzly bears, and the incredible hunting skills these bears possess. To be able to catch a salmon with its teeth while holding its position against a torrent of whitewater seemed like an almost impossible blend of concentration and agility.

One thing I noticed on that first grizzly encounter is there are two kinds of people; those wanting to get closer to grizzly bears, and those wanting to stay as far away as possible. That day, I discovered I am of the former persuasion, much to the dismay of friends, parents, and my lovely wife, Karen. And while I do like to get as close as possible to bears, I don’t want to be a fool, and two things I will always do when in bear country are 1) make every effort not to surprise a bear and 2) Make any bear that shows even the slightest interest in me or my campsite feel very unwelcome.

In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Yellowstone grizzly bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. However, with the combination of good management practices and abundant food, Yellowstone’s grizzlies came off the threatened list in March of 2007. But how did they get on the threatened list to begin with? In 1800, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. By 1975 only 1000 remained.

The massive decline of grizzly bears was primarily a result of ignorance on the part of American settlers combined with a love/hate relationship with grizzlies. Just the mention of the name “grizzly bear” is enough to get an emotional response from the average person. The early settlers loved grizzly bears as a food source, as well as a source of profit through the sale of skins. In California, “Bear grease” was a sought after lubricant for greasing wagon wheels. Bears were also hated, especially by livestock owners. In his 1881 book, Reminiscences of a Ranger, Major Horace Bell recounted that in the 1850’s, “grizzly bears were more plentiful in Southern California than pigs”, and were so numerous in some areas they made cattle ranching nearly impossible.

Worst of all, grizzly bears killed humans. Lewis and Clark, in their famous journey through the American West at the dawn of the 19th century, described how the “Indians [gave] a very formidable account of the strength and ferocity of this animal, which they never dare to attack but in parties of six, eight or ten persons; and are even then frequently defeated with the loss of one or more of their party.” One 1852 report from California stated that “schools were closed because it was unsafe for children to use trails”.

These factors, along with creation of the Sharps rifle in the 1840’s, led to the rapid decimation of the grizzly bear. Meriweather Lewis frequently walked alone in the mornings, but “armed with my rifle and espontoon; thus equipped I feel myself more than an equal match for a brown bear provided I get
him in open woods or near the water.” Although Lewis used a muzzleloader and not a breech-loaded Sharps rifle, he felt quite confident in his rifle. However, it was the spear-like espontoon that saved him in one incident. He had just killed a buffalo with his rifle when he noticed a grizzly stalking him less than 50 yards away. “I thought of
retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing until I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner turned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struck me to get into the water to such depth that I
could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran hastily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defense he suddenly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me.”

The rifle gave men a sense of strength they never had before, and I think in many cases they failed to realize just how well it was working. Technology has a way of instantly replacing skills that used to take months, if not years, to acquire. Digital cameras are a great example. Excellent photos used to take great skill, with bulky and expensive equipment. Now however, someone with almost no experience can pick up a digital SLR and start shooting fantastic photos. This is a good example of technology, because it allows more people to capture beautiful images, but it also forces professional photographers to take their game to a higher level in order to offer something truly unique and original.

Guns are another good use of technology, unless of course they are put in the hands of a fool. For someone looking to defend his household, feed his family, or protect his country, guns are a useful weapon. However, put in the hands of a fool, a gun can be a dangerous tool. I feel sorry for people who live in countries that do not give their people a right to bear arms, but I am also glad I live in a country that doesn’t allow fools to carry guns.

And just like a digital SLR in the hands of a novice, the Sharps rifle allowed instant access to skills that used to involve much greater danger and more time to develop. Instead of building skill and knowledge about grizzlies first, many ignorant people used technology as an excuse for pragmatism, thoughtlessly and needlessly killing many grizzlies. I think the same thing happens today, and we have all been guilty of replacing skill and knowledge with ease of use, whether its overharvesting a fishery with no thought of maintaining a balance, or a young person overusing a calculator without first memorizing their basic math facts. Technology is a gift from God, and we need to use it to improve our abilities to rule His kingdom, not to destroy it and ourselves.

The removal of grizzly bears from the lower 48 states followed the Westward expansion; the last grizzly bear in Texas was killed in 1900, the last in California in 1922. Although currently extirpated, the grizzly bear is still California’s state animal and adorns their flag.

Trophy hunters also took their fair share of grizzlies during the late 1800s and early 1900s. I am not a hunter, but I am a fisherman, and while I do enjoy catching a large fish, my main goal when fishing is not to go on a “trophy quest”, but rather to enjoy God’s creation and bring home some good tasting fish for dinner. While there are a few trophy hunters that have self-esteem issues and have a need to conquer something more powerful than themselves using an extremely unfair advantage, I think most of them are simply in awe of the animals they pursue, and they want to put the animal to some use after killing it, whether that use be food or decoration. But no matter what the use, the main issue is that it is a limited resource, and unless someone has a reasonable estimate of how many animals are alive, it is impossible to know how many can be hunted while maintaining the population.

Some people have a hard time with the idea of “limited resource”. I have noticed this mostly with the boys on my adventure camps. In their immaturity and naivety, I think boys tend to believe that they are “the only ones” who have walked the land and rafted the rivers we are on, and therefore, they are free to take as much as they want. Unless we are short on food, I follow the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game regulations, and in some instances go above and beyond their expectations. I do not believe in wasting the resource, and we do not keep the allowed number of salmon “just because we can”. We only keep enough for the campers to eat in one night. I also encourage the use of barbless hooks even when it is not required. Most of the fish we catch on a trip are going to be released, and this is fun to be able to do, but it is extremely detrimental to the fish when it gets hooked in a way that the barb does considerable damage. You lose a few more fish with barbless hooks, but the damage to the ecosystem is considerably less.

In hunting though, the goal is to kill the animal, and there is no “catch and release” like there is in sport fishing. This makes it even more important for somebody or some group to have a population estimate of the species being hunted. To understand the importance of population estimates, consider for example a certain small pond, small enough to throw a stone across. If no one knew how many people were fishing and how much they were catching, it would be easy to catch all of the fish in a short amount of time. This is basically what happened in North America with the near extinction of the grizzly bear. No one had a good estimate of how many bears there were, and no one knew how many bears were being killed each year. There were some famous bear hunters such as Ramon Ortega from California, who reportedly killed 200 grizzlies in his career and 15 in one day. For the most part though, few records were kept, and it was the love of hunting grizzlies, combined with the ranchers’ and other humans’ hatred that led to their demise in the lower 48.

I am also a proponent of using the plants and animals God created for our purposes. This is what God intended, but he also told us to “rule over” His creation. We can be good rulers or bad rulers. People have a hard time being good rulers, especially when it comes to something like grizzly bears. While grizzly bears have many opponents, there are those who want them for their parts as well. For example, the bile from a bear’s gall bladder has been used for medicinal purposes in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years. I do not know much about the use of bear bile in medicine, but if it is truly helping human beings, then I think hunting bears for this purpose should be allowed as long as it doesn’t destroy the bear population. Many places currently permit the sale of gall bladders taken from hunted bears, including Nova Scotia and Maine. If more places permitted the sale of bear parts, it may actually curve the tide of poaching and black market trade that occurs. Also, it may help to eliminate the cruel “bear farms” that exist in some Asian countries, where bile is extracted directly from live, caged bears. Taking bile from a bear is NOT the same thing as taking milk from a cow or eggs from a chicken, and is a very cruel and painful process for the bear. Other parts of the bears can also be sold.

I am all for using plants and animals to cure ailments, but if humans can find a less destructive method, then we should do that. Since the Japanese synthesized bear bile in 1955, it seems like killing bears just for their gall bladder is not a worthwhile pursuit. Current estimates of prices for bear gall bladders vary anywhere from US $30 to $3,000, and not being a bear gall bladder expert, it is difficult to say which price is more realistic.

Ironically to some, hunters were probably the reason grizzlies did not become completely extinct in North America. Although often stereotyped as bloodthirsty savages, more often than not hunters are some of the best conservationists around. One of the best hunter/conservationists was America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an avid hunter of many animals, including grizzly bears. But he also loved bears and wanted to make sure future generations would enjoy them too. He set aside more land for national parks and preserves than all of his predecessors combined, 194 million acres (785,000 km²). Roosevelt explained, “There is an intimate relation between our streams and the development and conservation of all the other great permanent sources of wealth.” During his presidency, Roosevelt promoted the nascent conservation movement in essays for Outdoor Life magazine. Roosevelt believed we should find a balance between use and conservation of our natural resources. A Christian man, Roosevelet understood the meaning of taking dominion, and realized that America’s future depended on it. But he also understood there was a proper way to do this, one that included the Christian principle of unity and diversity. The Trinity, and the “body of Christ” are two of many examples of unity and diversity in God’s kingdom. The concept can be applied to many situations, including resource management. One place, like a forest for example, should have a diversity of uses, and we should learn how to properly care for and use such places. God did not give us His creation to plunder and destroy, but rather to manage and enhance. Roosevelet saw forests as places to protect, but he also saw the benefit it would provide if timber were harvested. Instead of making large tracts off limits, Roosevelt encouraged the efficient use of the resources.

I think Roosevelt would be appalled at the current state of affairs regarding oil and gas production in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and other places. This is a perfect place to show that man and animals can coexist. Although we have failed miserably in the past with destructive mishaps and polluting practices, man has also learned a great deal about how to properly mine for oil and gas. One amazing fact is that even though there were hundreds of oil and gas platforms in the path of Hurricane Katrina, there was no significant loss of oil from that storm. No beaches were soaked with crude oil, no oil soaked birds to clean, no fish kills from oil. Even the recent BP Macondo disaster was not as bad as predicted, and was stopped in 1/3 the time of the Ixtoc spill of 1979, even though the BP spill was over a mile deep, while the Ixtoc spill was only 160 ft. down. This is really quite amazing, and is a testimony to just how far we have come regarding oil spill prevention.

Nevertheless, thanks to Roosevelt and others, the grizzly bear did not go extinct, and its numbers are currently increasing in the lower 48 states. In March 2007, the grizzly was removed from “threatened status” in Yellowstone National park, and now over 500 live in the park. Established in 1872 under Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone was the first national park in America’s, and the world. Setting aside tracts of land as parks “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was not a new concept, but no park had ever been created of such a vast size that also had the purpose of providing “for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition” as stated in the 1872 Act establishing the park. Yellowstone has been a huge success, and millions of visitors flock there annually to see not only bears, but wolves, bison, elk, and countless other natural wonders.

Grizzly bear populations are on the rise in other places as well. While only receiving about 20,000 visitors annually compared to Yellowstone’s millions, Alaska’s Katmai National Park is home to more grizzlies than any of America’s national parks. More than double the size of Yellowstone, the current grizzly population is around 2,500. Alaska has the most grizzlies of any state (32,000) and more than all of Canada (22,000). Russia, however, takes the prize for most grizzlies, with current estimates around 70,000 to 80,000 bears, and most of these living in the eastern half of Russia, an area roughly the same size as the United States.

Poaching and other illegal hunting activities still affect bear populations worldwide, but overall their numbers are on the increase. And with human populations also on the increase, the number of grizzly/human encounters is only going to go up. So will we start killing bears off again? I don’t think so. I think the attitude towards bears and most wildlife is different than it was in the 1800s. We have lost some animals, such as the passenger pigeon, that people loved dearly, and we almost lost many other great animals, such as the bald eagle, whooping crane, and bison. These have been humbling experiences, and people are more concerned now than ever to have wild places for animals to run free.

So how do we deal with more bear/human encounters? How do we better manage bear populations? Well, probably the best way is through education, and that is part of the goal of this book. Through the setting of a rafting/camping adventure in Katmai National Park, you will learn what it means to humans to have wild places, and you will learn a lot about survival in the wild and what it is like to live in close contact with hundreds of grizzly bears. You will experience some of the raw beauty of Katmai National Park and other parts of Alaska, and you will learn the importance of taking dominion of His creation. With that said, let the adventure begin!

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One Comment on “Chapter 1: My First Grizzly”

  1. Chapter 1: My First Grizzly « Studying His Word and His Works…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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