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May 2003

Touched By A Grizzly

Can anyone really know what lurks in the heart of a grizzly? In the wilds of Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, Charlie Russell believes he is beginning to find out.

Bears and humans have a long, ugly history. In the 1800s, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed the Lower 48 from California to the Great Plains. Since that time, we’ve shot, poisoned, trapped, and uprooted bears until fewer than 1,200 remain isolated in small pockets of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. For their part, bears typically kill two or three people per year in North America, a low number considering the thousands of human-bear encounters. In fact, you are 12 times more likely to die from a bee sting than a bear attack. Still, many campers lie wide-eyed and wrapped in mortal fear every night.

That cloak of fear has shaped the way we see the backcountry. Some people avoid bear country altogether, others try to sweep it clean. Grizzlies are being driven off prime habitat in conflicts with rangers, homeowners, and national park visitors. These conflicts invariably lead to the destruction of “problem” bears in “management actions,” a trend that could spell the doom of an already threatened species. In short, it is a war with no winners.

Charlie Russell would like to change all that. This unlikely peacemaker is a soft-spoken 61-year-old with unruly silver hair, large glasses, and a toothy overbite that causes him to lisp. With just a twelfth-grade education, no university affiliation, and no backing from any government wildlife agency, he’s an anomaly in the bureaucratic, doctorate-laden world of bear research.

Born on a ranch in Alberta, Russell has spent most of his life around bears. He’s known grizzlies that lived for years undetected under the noses of summer home dwellers. For years, he questioned the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to bear management. He longed for an opportunity to prove that grizzlies and humans could coexist without bloodshed. Then, one day in 1994, deep in the rainforest of British Columbia, that chance came walking right up to him.

Guiding a wildlife-watching trip in the Khutzeymateen Reserve, Russell was resting when a dark female grizzly began stepping across the log he was sitting on. He’d seen the bear before, even close up, but this time something was different. “I had the feeling that if I didn’t move,” Russell once wrote, “she would just keep coming.” She did.

The bear moved closer, 2 feet, a foot, then inches away. She edged so close Russell could hear her breathe, feel her warmth. Closer. Russell knew he was experiencing something that could change his life forever, if only he could muster the courage to stay frozen. He did. For long moments, the man and the bear stared at each other, inches apart.

Then, the grizzly did something unexpected: She reached out her paw and touched him.

That extraordinary encounter did indeed shift the course of Russell’s life. “It proved to me that bears are not the blood-thirsty killers they are too often made out to be,” he says. He knew that radical thought had the potential to alter the entire relationship between bears and humans–if only he could prove it.

The challenge led Russell first to Canada’s Princess Royal Island and a study of rare white-colored black bears, work he chronicled in his book Spirit Bears. But to prove to the skeptics that bears and humans could live together without fear, he had to go further: He had to live among the grizzlies.

Russell’s work has focused on the control of fear and its role in the survival of bears. He thinks our behavior–our fear–is robbing bears of critical habitat. “The first time a bear gets ‘too friendly’ with people, even if it doesn’t mean any harm and is just curious–Boom! It gets blasted by rubber bullets or clanging pots or pepper spray,” Russell says. Even worse, he says, people have built ranches, summer homes, and condos in river valleys and meadows long used by bears, and then driven the animals out. “The only places we say it’s okay for bears to be is in the high country,” he says. “But they can’t survive there.”

The grizzly will endure only if we can overcome our fear, Russell believes. “Think of it,” he says, “if we can alter our behavior even a little bit, fewer bears would get killed for raiding campgrounds, people could enjoy the backcountry without lying awake at night, bears could come down out of the high country and share the more productive areas with humans. “If this whole mutual-fear policy of bear management were working, I’d button my lip and do something else,” Russell says. “But it isn’t. So it seems it’s time to try something different.”

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