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Oct 23, 2019
As a National Geographic photographer I have spent many months in the wilds of northern Wyoming watching and photographing the grizzly bear. This animal is a sight to behold every time you come across it. There is something about the power of this animal that gets your attention quickly. The grizzly bear can evoke fear in a man just as much as it evoked fear in the first explorers who came across this magnificent animal centuries ago. Fear of bears resides deep in the collective conscious of humans because of our past history with this magnificent brown bear.
"When the delicacy of a snowflake kisses your cheek, the brilliant beauty of nature melts peacefully into the river of your soul."~Robbie George
The name grizzly was first coined by Lewis and Clark on their Corps Of Discovery expedition and they described it as “grisley”, which meant horrifying or ghastly. President Theodore Roosevelt was of the opinion that the name “grisly” was more suitable than “grizzly,” which only means grey, or “grizzled.”
Lewis and Clark originally learned from the Indians to call this bear “white bear” as you can read in their early journals. They also called it “yellow bear” and “brown bear.” As time progressed and the more encounters they had with this bear they started to call it “grisley”, which meant horrifying or ghastly.
Lewis wrote in his journal on May 5, 1805, a “most tremendous looking animal, and extremely hard to kill.” Clark had described the grizzly bear as “very large and turrible looking animal.” If you read their journals they feared this bear tremendously and had many encounters with the grizzly bear.
Henry Marie Brackenridge, an American writer, wrote a book in 1814 (the same year the Lewis and Clark journals were released) called “Views of Louisiana” and in this book he helped sensualize the grizzly bear and stoked more fear with his writing. “This animal, is the monarch of the country which he inhabits. The African lion, or the tyger of Bengal, are not more terrible or fierce. He is the enemy of man; and literally thirsts for human blood. So far from shunning, he seldom fails to attack; and even to hunt him.”
George Ord, an American naturalist and ornithologist, formally classified the grizzly bear in 1815 as U. Horribilis, not for its grizzled hair, but for its character. This classification and characterization was probably influenced by both Lewis and Clark as well as Henry Marie Brackenridge’s account of the bear, which is unfortunate.
"Nature is the first chapter in the book of life."~Robbie George
As you can see the grizzly bear has had a storied past. It has a reputation as one of Mother Nature’s most feared and formidable animals. Standing up to 8 feet tall and weighing between 500-1200 pounds it is no wonder that humans have been captivated by this powerful and fearsome animal. The early settlers feared this animal for good reason, but probably didn’t understand the grizzly bear as we know it today. Don’t get me wrong, the grizzly bear needs tremendous respect, but the more we know about this bear the more we understand its behavior.
The grizzly bear that I know today still stokes that same fear, but from observation I know that this bear is not a predator of humans. Yes, humans have been killed by this bear, but mostly because they either didn’t respect the bears environment or surprised the bear in an encounter.
A grizzly bear can be ferocious if it is provoked. For example, if you surprise a grizzly bear with cubs you better be prepared for an aggressive response. These cubs are under constant attack by other male bears as well as predators and it’s her duty to protect them ferociously. However, the overall behavior of a grizzly bear is generally shy and peaceful. It can also be somewhat secretive as well. When we do observe this bear in the wild we begin to understand this peaceful and generally shy behavior. They can also be very playful and inquisitive as you can see with the grizzly playing with a feather in the image below.
"Something about watching a grizzly bear play with a feather makes me want to smile."~Robbie George
The Corps Of Discovery expedition used muskets with lead balls to shoot at the grizzly bear. This can be like throwing rocks at close range with bad accuracy. Muskets take at least a minute to reload and the thickness of the grizzly bear head is hard to penetrate even with a modern day pistol. You can imagine that they wounded many of these magnificent animals by shooting them with muskets and lead balls. I would imagine they upset more than a few bears by wounding them without being provoked.
The Indians mostly left this great animal alone, but when they had to fight the grizzly bear and take it down it was no easy task. On April 13, 1805 Lewis and Clark wrote:
“The Indians give a very formidable account of the strength and ferocity of this anamal, 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. the savages attack this anamal with their bows and arrows and the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance…that they frequently mis their aim and fall a sacrefice to the bear…this animall is said more frequently to attack a man on meeting with him, than to flee from him. When the Indians are about to go in quest of the white bear, previous to their departure, they paint themselves and perform all those superstitious rights commonly observed when they are about to make war uppon a neighbouring nation.”
From previous accounts we can learn that when you go to war with an animal and attack it with inaccurate muskets you are essentially creating a war with an animal that you don’t want to start. Grizzly bears are very smart and they learn from their lessons. A single experience can shape how a bear responds. Many of these magnificent animals were wounded by our early settlers and these bears have not forgotten this lesson and most likely have passed the lesson down from generation to generation.
Take food for example, if a bear finds a source of food they will come back to it until it is gone. A bear can remember sources of food even if it's been a decade since they last visited the area. If a grizzly bear mom is threatened by another male bear, and it attacks her cubs, she will always avoid confrontations with males while she has her cubs. If a grizzly gets caught in a trap it will remember this single experience and avoid any future traps. They are smart animals who learn their lessons from a single experience.
I would imagine this is why the grizzly bear doesn’t necessarily like humans because our history shows that we attacked this animal with no good reason. Fear of humans resides deep in the collective conscious of the grizzly bear because of our past history with this magnificent animal. Just as our fear of bears resides in our collective consciousness. We both fear each other because we have been at war with one another for centuries.
"The more you clean the windows of your soul, the more fearless and free you become."~Robbie George
Two centuries ago, during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the population of grizzly bears was projected to be around 50,000 to a 100,000 animals in the wilderness of the west. That population was dwindled down to only 150 grizzly bears before it was put on the endangered species list in the 1970’s. They faced endangerment because their habitat was destroyed by mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, land development and human-caused mortality among other things.
It has been a slow recovery because grizzly bears reproduce slowly. Females generally don’t have their first cubs until they are six years old. They also cannot always keep their cubs alive because of other predators and human-caused habitat destruction. Human-caused mortality and lack of wilderness areas is keeping this bear from recovering. They seem to only recover in the most remote and rugged areas where human-caused habitat destruction is at a minimum. The grizzly population today is only around 1,200 to 1,400 in the western United States.
Global warming is also causing a slow recovery. The grizzly bear is denning later in the fall and this keeps them at risk from human-caused mortality. Autumn happens to be deer and elk hunting season and these bears are opportunistic and are finding themselves in conflict with hunters when they come across a freshly killed carcass. Mortality rate goes up in the fall due to hunter self-defense and lack of resources for the bears. They are also trying to put on as much weight as possible before winter hits and find themselves in closer contact with human populations.
Global warming is also causing food resources for the grizzly bear to decline. For example, the Whitebark pine tree in Yellowstone is on the decline due to several stressors. The Whitebark pine seed is a source of food for grizzly bears. If this seed is unavailable at remote and higher elevations then grizzlies will migrate down towards more populated areas where human-conflict can occur. The grizzly is not well suited for developed areas and prefers remote wilderness in order to thrive.
"Nature has a spiritual presence that must be honored, not mastered."~Robbie George
ARE GRIZZLY BEARS ENDANGERED?
Another potential detriment for the grizzly bear is if it’s de-listed as an endangered species by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If this happens then the grizzly bear could be hunted again. The Fish and Wildlife Service tried to de-list the grizzly bear in Yellowstone recently and thankfully United States District Judge Dana Christensen stopped the de-listing. He ruled in favor of the Crow Indian Tribe and environmental groups who argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service had erred on their status of the grizzly bear.
The Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider how the de-listing would affect other populations of protected grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Judge Christensen also said the agency’s analysis of threats to the animal was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Andrea Santarsiere a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity said “people around the world will applaud the decision to again protect Yellowstone’s beloved grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act.” She also said, “Facing ongoing threats and occupying a fraction of their historical range, grizzly bears are nowhere near recovery. These beautiful and beleaguered animals certainly shouldn’t be shot for cheap thrills or a bearskin rug.” I couldn’t agree more with her and I too applaud the decision to stop the grizzly hunt.
Native American tribes also applauded the judges decision with a statement saying, “As we have said repeatedly, the grizzly bear is fundamental to our religious and spiritual practices.” Unfortunately the Fish and Wildlife Service still believes that the grizzly bear population has fully recovered and will continue to fight to get the grizzly bear de-listed from the endangered species act. I personally think this is the wrong decision due to the fact that the recovery of this beautiful animal has taken nearly 50 years to get just over a 1,000 animals in the lower 48 states. This bear is no where near recovered from being endangered.
"A grizzly bear cubs eyes have the power to speak a glorious language."~Robbie George
I also don’t think it is a smart decision to allow any sort of hunting of this animal. This will do more damage to the collective conscious of the grizzly bear and will create even more human-created conflict in the future. If you wage a war against this beautiful and powerful animal for no apparent good reason, then we all should be prepared to fear this bear again because they will remember this experience with humans and will get into more human-induced conflict with us.
Like I said before, the grizzly bear is not a predator of humans, but if we start hunting this animal again for cheap thrills and a bearskin rugs then we should expect this animal to fight back like it did centuries ago when our first settlers shot lead balls at this magnificent animal. These settlers didn’t know what we know today of this great animal. They feared it because they were encroaching on it’s territory and knew nothing about this animal. We should take these lessons and learn that the grizzly bear was here first and it needs vast wilderness areas to survive. Look at Canada for example, the population of grizzly bears north of the lower 48 is more stable because of the vast wilderness areas. Even with its vast wilderness areas, British Columbia has recently banned trophy hunting of the grizzly bear due to the change of public opinion.
"Keep your spirit wild and look deep into nature's heart."~Robbie George
As you can see the grizzly bear needs vast wilderness areas to survive. With global warming and other human-caused factors it has been a slow recovery for this magnificent animal. We as humans need to understand that we were the reason that the population of this animal declined to begin with. Witnessing a grizzly in the wild is one of the most memorable experiences a person can have. I am humbled and happy to have had the opportunity to study and photograph this bear in the wild. I hope someday you do too!
If you are looking for grizzly bear pictures visit my Wildlife Photo Gallery at Robbie George Photography. Most of my nature pictures can be printed very large on fine art paper and makes wonderful nature wall art. You will be happy to know that I work with a sustainable ZERO-WASTE company to fulfill my orders. This means that nothing that goes into creating your order will end up in the landfill. Ever!
When ordering from Robbie George Photography, together we can make Mother Nature proud by seeking new and better ways to create harmony with the earth. Thank you for doing your own responsible sustainability by purchasing your nature pictures from Robbie George Photography!
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