Photo by Edward Curtiss 1909
I have had my share of close encounters with free-ranging fully-autonomous grizzly bears. I emphasize free-ranging and autonomous to differentiate these run-ins from instances where people who trap bears are up close and intrusively personal with a subjugated, immobilized, sedated, anesthetized grizzly.
I have never been much interested in drugging a grizzly as preface to sticking my hand in its mouth, extracting a tooth, tattooing the lip, then pulling out hair, drawing blood, perhaps attaching electrodes, applying an electric current, fitting a bulky radio-collar, affixing a large plastic ear tag, and posing for the concluding dramatic trophy shot—positioned well back so as to magnify the size of the ferocious (under other circumstances) bear in front. But there is no apparent shortage of people who want to run their fingers through the fur of an otherwise powerful animal totally at their mercy—which I suspect is an act of domination short only of killing the beast at a safe distance using a scope and high-powered large-caliber firearm.
Growing up in South Dakota and living in the Intermountain West my whole life has given me frequent cause to wonder whether I am a freak for being so disinterested in dominating wild animals, even plants…or, better yet, killing them. My gardens inevitably end up out of control because I am loathe to pull up the many volunteers seeded in from last year’s crops.
I perhaps exhibited my tender sensibilities as a youth when I lost interest in hunting because I had seen too many guys barreling down forest roads drunk, with guns hanging out the windows, or trespassing on our ranch; or seen too many deer gut shot or stuck with broad-head arrows by poachers and licensed hunters, then left to die a miserable death. A softy I guess. Although, come to think of it, a lifetime observing hunters has only confirmed my early impressions despite the many apologias of the many apologists.
But I digress.
Of my many encounters with grizzlies, the most attention-getting occurred during day two of a 3-day series of run-ins. On day one, my partner and I were surprised at close quarters by an inattentive grizzly casually digging roots 50 yards away. Shortly after that we surprised two adolescent bears that then ran towards us—out of curiosity—only to turn and flee after my back-peddling partner alarmed them by tripping backwards over some sagebrush. On day two I jumped a female with two cubs at close range in a small depression of a windswept ridgetop. She came after me intent on severe chastisement, head down, ears back, fast, only to come to a screeching halt within a few feet, reverse direction, and head back to her temporarily abandoned cubs. All because my partner happened to appear behind me at the moment of crisis, and probably not because I had raised a clipboard over my head yelling “Get back you son-of-a-bitch.” Not my smartest move. The third day we stumbled across a large grizzly on an elk it had recently killed along a noisy stream. After a moment of indecision, it ran away.
I suspect that the tally would be 5 dead grizzlies plus 2 orphaned cubs if the clueless wimps that pass for hunters these days had been the ones involved in these encounters—armed to the teeth, scared to death, and waiting for the opportunity to, as one benighted gun slinger put it, “sling lead.” Over 70 grizzlies have been killed by such hunters during the last four years in the Yellowstone ecosystem—roughly 18 per year. I suspect that few of these deaths were meted out in genuine defense of life and limb, and were more likely spawned by fear, over-active adrenals, and an urgent need to use the firearms that had been carted around in anticipation of “slinging lead.”
I have never carried a gun. I never wanted to carry a gun. I never felt the need to carry a gun—even mixing it up on a frequent basis with grizzlies and, later, mountain lions. I was among the first who carried pepper spray, back in 1984. My compadres and I thought of it as a novelty item. I never used it, although one workmate—Doug—successfully deployed it to save his life when attacked by a large boar grizzly that he and some others had deliberately approached as part of a stupid study I was part of in Yellowstone Park during 1984 and 1985. We were fliply called the Suicide Squad by other National Park Service employees because the study design required that we approach grizzlies in the backcountry until either we elicited a response, or our nerve failed. But none of us carried guns. Nor did I ever see pepper spray as a figurative silver bullet—a burning mist as likely to be blown sideways or back in my face as at a charging bear. Although, as in Doug’s case, when a bear is about to eviscerate you, it can be highly effective.
After a number of years and lots of encounters with grizzly bears I’ve concluded that common sense, alertness, and a settled feeling in my gut are more important than firepower. Nor, as one friend put it, is pepper spray “brains in a can.” There is no substitute for attunement to smells, sounds, and sights, as well as a working seasonal knowledge of how bears use a landscape. If out hunting elk, you would be foolish to think that bears were not working the same area for gut piles. Avoidance is the first line of defense.
But if the inevitable close encounter happens, there is also no substitute for staying calm and responding appropriately to the unfolding situation. As with people, an encounter with a grizzly entails lots of non-verbal communication that mediates moment-by-moment negotiations. If you are scared, if you are walking around outside of yourself, you will probably radiate your fear to the bear while doing something stupid. If you are walking around settled in your gut, in the center of your body, you will probably do the right thing, which will vary from one encounter to another. There is no pat formula for emerging unscathed.
Inevitably, though, people get hurt. Some get mauled by grizzlies. Some get killed. Given the enormous strength of a grizzly bear and the thin-skinned feebleness of humans, even an attack intended as no more than chastisement can turn out badly for the involved person. Grizzlies in areas such as Yellowstone are strongly inclined to assert themselves to protect their space, their offspring, or their food, primarily because aggressive self-defense was the only option for an animal such as a grizzly bear trying to survive in the wide-open tundra of ancestral Asian haunts. And sometimes “their” food is food we lay claim to as well—like an elk we recently killed, or dog food we left on the porch. Allowing for the existence of psychopathic grizzlies, I tend to honor the motives of aggressive bears, especially if the involved people have been inattentive, ignorant, or stupid.
More than that, I like having animals around that can tear my head off. I love having mountain lions killing deer within a few yards of our house, and black bears wandering through the yard stripping fruit off the branches of our chokecherry, hawthorn, and crab apple bushes…or wolves giving my dog the hairy eyeball when we encounter them during our morning walks. I look forward to the day when the grizzlies a few miles up-drainage from us make their way down to check out our yard.
Bears are special for me, more so than wolves or lions. An ambling bear concentrates the space around it into something essential. It’s easy for me to imagine, as the ancients did, that a bear is a shape-shifting shaman wrapped in a pelt; that bears and people once married and had offspring who carried messages between the human and animal worlds. Bears, especially grizzlies, create a sort of magic. They contest the pathological obsession we humans seem to have with dominating everything, of turning the wild into some pliant extension of our will—a passive dumb cow, or an obsequious slavish dog, or rows of corn as far as the eye can see.
I guess there are certain people in the world, perhaps people who aren’t as terrified of death, who like the idea of ending up as bear shit rather than an embalmed corpse churned out by the medical industry on the lee side of a drawn-out battle with some sort of degenerative disease. Count me among those aspiring to be bear shit.