From Our Readers... 3
This page of essays contributed by our readers is part of the series initiated by From Our Readers...1, with additional contributions in Parts 2 and 4. The response by those wanting to share their inspired connections with grizzly bears has been overwhelming not only in terms of numbers of contributions, but also in terms of depth of passion and emotion. So, in honor of our readers:
"In the Spirit of John and Frank Craighead"
by Tom Mazzarisi
As a boy growing up in New Jersey in the 70’s and 80’s, I fell in love with grizzlies long before ever setting eyes on one in the wild. My grandfather had a library of publications and books about natural history and the outdoors. Amongst them all I saw my first picture of a grizzly. I knew that there was something special and intangible about North America’s greatest animal.
A common thread through it all were pictures of the two men responsible for jump-starting the conservation of grizzly bears. John and Frank Craighead. Unapologetic, they did everything they could to convince the world that the grizzlies of Yellowstone National Park were in trouble. Politics permeated into the agency responsible for protecting these bruins within the park’s boundaries. They failed to heed the brothers’ scientifically sound recommendations to do right by Ursus arctos horribilis. Thankfully, with the creation of the Endangered Species Act, the sacrifice and hard work of the Craigheads was critical in getting the grizzly bear the protection it deserved.
Fast forward to 1991. It was the summer after my first year of college at the University of Colorado. I got a seasonal job scooping ice cream at the Old Faithful Upper Store within Yellowstone National Park. I had picked up an application when I was only 12 while on vacation to the world’s first national park and vowed to work in Yellowstone someday. And there I was, 7 years later. Grizzly bears were a rare sight 30 years ago in the park. I only got to lay eyes on one that summer, but it was magical, albeit with a bit of trepidation as the encounter unfolded.
Early that summer, while hiking a trail on the east side of Yellowstone Lake, between Cub and Clear creeks, fresh tracks in the dusty trail told the story of a grizzly that had recently passed through, headed in the same direction my friend and I were. The creeks back then were filled, bank to bank, with spawning cutthroat trout, and the bears came by the dozens around the huge lake to fish the creeks and streams that fed into it. It was late afternoon, and we were on our way back to the trailhead when a shadow ahead caught my attention. At first, I thought it was a person and thought it odd someone would be starting a hike this late in the day, but the shadow morphed into a four-legged beast, and it was heading in our direction.
The grizzly was a sub-adult. It stopped and looked at us with a slightly surprised expression, but mostly showed indifference. We on the other hand probably expressed far more surprise and angst. Judging by the way the grizzly was peering beyond us, it was clear it just wanted to get past us. We obliged and side-stepped off the trail. As if on cue, the bear continued down the trail, unabated, while showing no further interest in us.
Words will never be able to describe watching the medium-brown colored grizzly as it ambled past us from what was probably 25 yards away yet felt like mere inches. Nor will words ever describe the feelings that overcame me after the encounter. What can I tell you? The childhood expectations I had as a kid back in New Jersey of someday seeing a grizzly bear along the trail in Yellowstone were exceeded beyond belief. I became a warrior for grizzlies and all wild creatures.
Fast forward to the summer of 2023. I’m back working in Old Faithful, doing my best to protect all that makes Yellowstone special, especially grizzlies. In 1991, there were nearly 3 million visitors that came through the park. Today, it is expected to be close to or even exceed 5 million. Yikes. But because of the passion and efforts of the Craigheads nearly a lifetime ago, park visitors now have a very good chance of seeing a grizzly bear in the wild. This is just one victory in the ongoing battle to protect grizzlies.
Grizzly bear numbers have increased, but not at the exponential rate of visitation and human development within the Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems. Grizzly bears and people are on a collision course again. I fear the great bear will suffer in today’s version of westward expansion. Attitudes towards bears may be far more positive today than they were centuries ago when grizzlies and other native wildlife were persecuted to near extinction. But the newest threat is coming in the form of loving our parks and wildlife to death.
As Yellowstone was the epicenter of grizzly conservation in the late 60’s and early 70’s, it is at the epicenter of the latest threat to grizzlies and wildlife. It’s us. A lot of us. Millions of us crowding into grizzly country every summer. For every bear like the world famous 399 who shows incredible tolerance of us, how many unseen bears are being displaced away from critical food sources due to a lot more of us hiking, camping, backpacking, photographing, trail running, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, or whatever new outdoor-industry fad gets us outside?
More than a half century ago, the Craigheads’ offered a solution that was in the best interest of the grizzly and the safety of park visitors to Yellowstone. It fell on deaf ears and resulted in an increase of injuries to park visitors and a lot of dead bears. The true carnage will never be known, but it most likely pushed the grizzly to the edge of disappearing from Yellowstone. I wonder what the Craigheads would say or do today in 2023. I have a pretty good idea.
Tough decisions and sacrifices will need to be made by all of us. Grizzly country is shrinking, not expanding, even though bears are reclaiming areas they once inhabited 200 years ago. More of us are crowding into the beautiful and wild country that grizzlies and so many other animals depend for their survival. In the spirit of John and Frank Craighead, let’s be fearless and uncompromising in coming up with solutions that ensure a future generation of kids can dream of seeing a wild grizzly.
Tom Mazzarisi spent part of his life working as a National Park Service Ranger but currently focuses on planning and leading Safaris in Africa.
"Grizz Tracks" by Pat O'Herren
Winnie the Poo would have termed it a blustery October day back in the early 70’s. Heaven’s Peak was encircled with snow bearing clouds, but blue sky occasionally appeared behind the mountains to the west. The wind was gusting in the 20-mph range as John, Jim, Nancy and I hiked toward Granite Park Chalet from the Loop in Glacier National Park. Jim and John were visiting Nancy and me who had moved a couple of years earlier to go to graduate school at UM. We were in a hurry to get to the Chalet, enjoy the view and then retreat back to the campground at Apgar.
The wind was constantly pushing us as some 50 yards ahead of the other two, John and I rounded a lateral ridge cloaked in the fall remnants of alder vegetation. We stopped to wait, the wind died, we heard a low growling above us. My initial thought was that some idiot brought a dog on this backcountry trail. But looking upslope, the alder thicket was shaking as if it were being torn apart. A grizzly broke through the vegetation. My first vision is of her front paws off the ground leaping downslope directly at the two of us. I remember thinking “Oh shit” as I looked at John and fell to the ground on the trail in the proverbial fetal position. My next recollection is of a pounding on my Kelty backpack which was still attached by my shoulder straps. I was being moved toward the downhill edge of the trail and a very cold snout, or maybe it was a very hot snout, was then pressed between my pack and the back of my neck, much like my dog Sunshine used to do to me when we were playing on the floor.
“The snout” pushed me the remainder of the way off the trail and I slipped downslope a few yards. I knew I was going to die.
There is more to the story – I’m certain my heart was not beating when I saw the bear walking on the trail back toward me, head swinging in a classic bear pose, drool much like my Newfoundland dogs produce hanging from both sides of her “greasy mouth”, or as the Blackfoot People call the Grizzly, “Pa’ksíkoyi “. Then the wind pummeled the mountain once more, the bear ambled past, and later I managed to slowly pick myself up off the dusty earth. John, Nancy, Jim and I had much to discuss that night at Apgar.
This bear had every right to take my life, to maul me, to neutralize me, to end what had been a lark in her territory. But she did not. And I owe that bear for every year I have lived since one spectacular blustery day in Glacier National Park. With a very close friend, we later formed a non-profit to benefit the bear and worked for many years with tribal, state, federal and private entities to protect each and every grizzly bear, to give each and every grizzly bear one more day of life. I owed her at least that much. And I still do.
Patrick O’Herren retired as the Chief Planning Officer for Missoula County, Montana and currently sits on that county’s Open Lands Citizen Advisory Committee as well as the board of Advisors for Swan Valley Connections.
"Grizz Tracks" by Gary Macfarlane
The lightning had splintered the top of a lodgepole pine fifty yards in front of us with such force, six- inch-long pieces of wood were driven into the ground a few inches. We beat a quick retreat from the meadow opening to a stand of shorter and younger lodgepole pines. The wind screamed like a jet taking off and our copse of two-inch diameter pines whipped around us, for an eternity it seemed. We heard numerous larger trees in the distance snap and fall. We were soaked but safe from the falling trees and lightning. It was the summer of 1987, along the Yellowstone River, in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. A couple weeks later we read in the papers it was a high elevation tornado or a not-so-micro burst that blew down large swaths of trees, the largest around Enos Lake in the contiguous Teton Wilderness.
My youngest sister and I were backpacking from the mouth of Eagle Creek where it dumps into the North Fork of the Shoshone River to Turpin Meadows along the Buffalo River, a tributary to the Snake. The going was tough in the aftermath of the storm. Along the trail there were numerous broken trees, the plurality snapped off about ten feet high. We camped at the edge of the giant Yellowstone Meadows. The sun peaked through as it was setting and revealed a moose to our south, a few hundred years away. We looked west and saw two lumps, a larger one and a smaller one, moving away from us at a long distance, maybe a 1,000 yards away. While my sister disputes those lumps were definitively a mom and grizzly cub, I threw on the tele converter and telephoto lens on my camera and got a better look than she did. They sure looked like grizzlies to me.
What was indisputable bear sign occurred two days later. We had forded the Thoroughfare River, grown high and muddy from the storm, and seen three sandhill cranes, two adults and a juvenile, take flight and chase two coyotes, which were running so fast they didn’t take notice of us, passing a few feet in front of where we were. We crossed the Yellowstone, went over Two Ocean Plateau, and were heading into the North Fork of the Buffalo when that powerful and distinct smell hit us as we crossed a willow-lined creek. Bear, big bear. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, an immediate and involuntary reaction to the smell. My sister's eyes were big. Not wanting to look down, for fear of missing the danger signs and possibly seeing tracks, we made more noise and nervously scanned for motion in the willows as we hurried on. After we had that encounter, every mark in the trail became a grizzly track. We spent a near sleepless night in the tent. I was convinced the vague large shape rustling and pushing on the lower wall of the tent in the twilight was a grizzly paw. The flashlight showed it was a boreal toad on a night foray.
Gary Macfarlane was Executive Director of Friends of the Clearwater and champion of wildlife and wildlands for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2021.