Bear in the Soul-The Delicate Relation Between Grizzlies and Natural Wildlife Habitat


Editor of Bears and Other Top Predators

Carter Mackley, Editor of Bears and Other Top Predators Magazine


Bears and Other Top Predators comes to you from the high desert of the Snake River plain. Now noted for its potato fields and nuclear test reactors, this country, like most of the plains west of the Missouri River, was grizzly habitat when the mountain men first arrived.

In 1834, tenderfoot trapper Osborne Russell left the confines of the Fort Hall trading post he had just helped erect. In his journal he reports he had explored about six miles from the post when he experienced his first grizzly encounter. If he wandered upstream when he left the fort, he might have been where my front doorstep is now. The incident ended typically for the period, the bear dead, the human with the peawaddins scared out of him. After he recovered from the thirty-minute “ague fit” induced by the experience, Russell prudently determined that he would never again go after a wounded grizzly in a thicket.

To look out my office window and envision that grizzlies once rambled there engenders ambivalent feelings. Part of me appreciates the connection to a bygone era of adventure. On an evening stroll along the river bottoms, it gives distinct pleasure to imagine that the very ground one walks could be where Russell turned and fired his un-aimed, desperation round at the charging boar.

But the grizzly in the window also judges me, announces my hypocrisy. We lovers of bears and other wild creatures harp at the incessant loss of habitat, but each of us embodies the problem, since virtually anywhere we live was at one time good wildlife habitat. Though the heat of the battle now lies at the periphery–over new roads, subdivisions and other incursions into habitat–the busiest concrete jungles were good bear habitat at one time. Man has completely claimed most of the best habitat along the rivers and in the lowlands.

Osborne Russell worked the greater Yellowstone ecosystem for eight years, trapping beaver for income and hunting everything else, including bear, for food. After seven years of ranging, he took stock of this part of the Snake River plain in his journal:

In the year 1836 large bands of Buffalo could be seen in almost every Valley on the small branches of this Stream at this time the only traces which could be seen of them were the scattered bones of those that had been killed. Their trails which had been made in former years deeply indented were overgrown with grass and weeds The Trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these plains that it was time for the White man to leave the mountains as Beaver and game had nearly disappeared. A day or two later Russell killed another grizzly for food. The next summer he left the mountains and the life of a trapper for good.

The process of displacement that began with the mountain men continues to this day, the bears being restricted to smaller and smaller islands of habitat. Today, Russell would have to ride four or five days from Fort Hall to encounter a grizzly.

Grizzly in natural habitatWith the listing of the grizzly under the Endangered Species Act, the complete eradication of Ursus arctos horribilis has been forestalled in the lower forty-eight states, but the long-term survival of the grizzly is far from assured, not just because there is a push to delist the grizzly, but because habitat continues to be eroded interstitially. And even through the population may be self-sustaining for the present (200 to 450 bears, depending on who you ask), biologists fear there are not enough bears to withstand the ecological shocks that are sure to hit any species in the long run.

Two years ago, nine bears, of which four were sows, were killed in greater yellowstone ecosystem by hunters in self-defense–an alarmingly high number given that less than a third of the population are reproducing females. Education and increased vigilance may have helped reduce the number killed to one last year. Meanwhile, private property owners on this side of Yellowstone park experienced an unusually high number of “management conflicts” last year as bears pushed the edge of their range, probably due to the poor berry crop last spring. One rancher, whose horse was attacked in its corral by a grizzly, complained that the grizzlies are expanding their range and he was prevented from doing anything to protect his animals. He was wrong that he had no preventive options, but right in the general assertion that he and others on the edge of the grizzly’s range pay a higher share of the price to keep the bear.

For all the love of their lifestyle, the mountain men of Yellowstone region worked themselves out of a job in barely more than a decade. The rapid decline would have been predicted by modern economists. It’s a classic result when individuals maximize their use of a common resource in the short-term. The short life of the fur trade is a paradigm of the shrinking habitat problem that faces our generation.

By the aggregate of our individual life decisions, we humans have made a collective choice, if only by default, to push the grizzly to the nether regions. Though we cannot restore the ranging wilderness that Russell experienced, there is still much good and beautiful space left. We have an ever diminishing opportunity to act individually and collectively to make space for the bear and the species protected by its umbrella. If we ignore the evidence available to us, if we continue to consume and displace without considering the long-term consequences, our descendants will judge us. On the other hand, if we summon the gumption to gentle our methods, to curtail our incursions into bear habitat, and to share the burden of those on the periphery, the children of our grandchildren may look back and, having been left with more than images in the window, appreciate that we had a thought for what futue generations might value.

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