True Grizz: Glimpses of Fernie, Stahr, Easy, Dakota, and Other Real Bears in the Modern World

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2004:

True Grizz:
Glimpses of Fernie, Stahr, Easy, Dakota,
and Other Real Bears in the Modern World
by Douglas H. Chadwick
Sierra Club Books (85 2nd St.,
San Francisco, CA 94105), 2003.
176 pages, hardcover. $24.95

Meet the bears: Fernie with her two cubs swim the Hungry
Horse Reservoir looking for food. Stahr opens a door to a screen
porch and, surrounded by 50-pound bags of dog food, naps on the
couch. Dakota hangs out on a street corner in Whitefish, Montana so
often she is named for it.
A few years ago these grizzlies would have been killed. No
questions. No second chances. Douglas Chadwick in True Grizz tells
how Montana is now trying to save the bears with creative and
innovative new methods.
Long gone is the era when grizzlies roamed from Kansas to the
California coast, finding plenty to eat on the way: elk, bison,
mule deer. Males may have weighed close to 1,000 pounds and females
By l975 an estimated 99% percent of the grizzlies in the
Lower 48 had been killed. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the
remaining bears would barely have covered a used car lot. Because
the public demanded that these fabled giants should survive,
grizzlies were among the first species added to the U.S. endangered
list. There were then 750 to 1,000 bears left in the U.S. outside of
Alaska. Today there are 1,000 to 1,300.

With bears and humans sharing the same land, how do you keep
a grizzly from walking into a house, lazing in someone’s yard, or
strolling through town?
Today, in Whitefish, the Montana Bear Team tutors grizzlies
and people to live together. Tim Manley of the Montana Fish,
Wildlife and Parks Department, biologists including author Douglas
Chadwick, and Carrie Hunt with her Kerelan dogs, bred to fight
bears, patrol the streets at night in an old pickup truck looking
for trouble.
This night a call comes in about a bear unknown to the team
hanging around someone’s yard. A bear without a name means it
hasn’t been in enough trouble to have one. This is an ideal bear to
And there in the dark shadows of a house a grizzly hunkers over a
bird feeder. Humans and dogs leap out of the pickup. “Hey bear!”
The dogs bark. Someone shoots the bear with a rubber bullet.
“Cracker” shells explode near the target.
They hope the bear will decide the attraction is not worth
the commotion and run off to resume life in the wild. If not, the
team will attach the dogs’ leashes to their belts and the dogs will
charge ahead, pulling and snarling.
Grizzlies, with their cousins the polar bears, are the
strongest land predators in the New World. They can accelerate from
zero to 30 miles per hour faster than a sports car, knock over an
elk, and drag a 1,000-pound steer into the woods for a snack. Why
do they want birdseed? Bears take advantage of the most nourishing
food available, whether it is moose, ox, lily bulb, snail, crab,
mushroom, hornet’s nest or rotten carcass. They need to gain two to
three pounds daily for months to give them enough energy to see them
through denning, which like snow can last half a year. Over winter
a big male will lose 150 pounds of body weight.
Historically grizzlies lived in the foothills and floors of
Montana, but as industry grew, real estate was developed, and
recreation areas spread, grizzlies were pushed further back into the
mountains. Now bears eat whatever they can find in the highlands.
Huckleberries are a favorite and in good years they eat 70,000 a day.
But grizzly bears cannot reach their historical prime weight by
eating berries. Today females weigh 300 pounds, males 500.
In l998 the mountains once lush with huckleberry bushes were
dry. The bears descended from the mountains to seek chockberries,
service berries, and hawthorne fruits, which were also scarce. And
down the bears went for starchy roots, wild grasses and mice, until
they reached the bottom. Here shrub lands had been replaced by rural
lots. And people. Humans and grizzly bears were now living on the
same land.
Here was an open feast for grizzlies. Apple and plum trees
hung heavy with fruit and livestock trotted in fenced pastures. To
hungry grizzlies it all smelled savory, along with the feed stored
in barns and on porches for horses, chickens, goats, and even
llamas. Bears liked rabbit chow, dog nuggets and kitty kibble.
Household garbage was a favorite treat.
The team would tell the bears, “No you can’t be here.”
Then the next human would say, “How about a little garbage?
Interested in a little grain?”
Young bears would look to Mom and she’d say, “It’s O. K. Here I’ll
show you how to open it.”
The greatest difficulty the team had in reeducating the bears
was teaching humans to stop leaving food out.
The Bear Team also knew it was hard to train a grizzly to
stay away from human habitat when it had no other options for food.
One idea was to take grizzlies far into the back country where they
could live in solitude. But today the back country is a
two-or-three-day walk for a human. For a bear it is a jaunt.
What most people know about grizzlies is what they see on the
cover of a wildlife magazine: a bear looming over a cowering human
who is trying to defend himself. They don’t think of a human
attacking a bear first with bullets and the bear defending itself the
only way it knows how.
Bears are motivated by a desire to not be harmed. It is
difficult for many people to realize that a 400-pound bear can be
afraid of being hurt. Grizzly attacks are rarely predatory, but are
rather part of their repertoire of behavior intended to keep them
Much that people believe is lore. Some bear legends can be
traced back to Lewis and Clark. Among the stories from the Louisiana
Purchase expedition was the “grizzled” or pieback bears who could not
be felled with one bullet or at times with even three or four. The
legend grew and to the public the grizzly became the hairy New World
Newspapers continue the saga with headlines: “Hiker mauled
in Glacier Park.” What is more astounding is that 100,000-plus
hikers with varying levels of skill and intelligence bumble through
Glacier’s grizzly country unscathed.
A resident of Whitefish was wending his way home late one
evening after a night on the town. He met a grizzly on the street
who, the man said, came after him for several blocks. The man
thanked his luck that he’d been able to keep ahead of the bear.
But an average bear can outsprint a race horse. The bear
clearly had no interest in catching the man, and may have followed
him just for amusement.
Bears have a remarkable capacity for play, including–at
times–interactive play with humans. For example, one afternoon a
pair of grizzly cubs were given the run of the large yard and pond at
the Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife Center, whose owners train
bears for movies. If people in the yard paid too much attention to
the pair, the 750-pound movie star griz Tank, looking out from his
pen, became restless. It was the job of author Chadwick’s son to
pay attention to Tank. Once, while the boy sat with his back to the
pen, talking with the bear and idly tossing gravel at a can, he
heard scratching sounds behind him. He turned and saw that Tank had
scraped together odd bits of gravel on the pen’s floor and was
pushing the pile out to him with a paw.
Stahr and her cubs couldn’t learn to stay away from human
habitat and were sent to Washington State University at Pullman for
captive use in studies of bear nutrition and psychology. Fernie was
shot by a hunter who mistook her for a black bear. Dakota and her
cubs went into the Whitefish Range and denned near the headwaters of
a creek that joins the North Fork River. Dakota was a true success
“Grizzlies strengthen the spirit. They create wonder. They
humble. They temper. They clarify and awaken. They do me a world
of good,” Chadwick ends.
–Suzanne Morrow

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