Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 1)
“In late September 1967, Rocky and Lenora Wilson had packed up to Fisher Basin, one of their favorite places, for the ‘high hunt.’ During twilight hours, a large bear came down to the creek close by camp. Rocky lifted his old rifle and got off a good shot. While he knew it was ‘a big’un,’ he didn’t see that it had a shoulder hump and frosted coat until he got to the kill. This was the last known grizzly bear to be taken in the Cascades. A year later, the North Cascades National Park bill was signed, prohibiting hunting in that place and throughout the newly established National Park.”
— Jim Harris, “My Place in the Mountains”
I was on day two of a five-day backpacking trip in the most densely populated grizzly area in the lower 48 states, Glacier National Park. My itinerary, which had been printed and given to me by the backcountry wilderness office, showed that I had 11 miles to my next camp that evening, which included a 2500 ascent up Stony Indian Pass. After hiking the first 5 miles I forded a waist-deep river, where on the other bank I saw a trail sign which read, “Stony Indian Pass 10.5 miles.” How could I have already hiked 5 miles and have another 10 until the pass when my entire trail mileage for the day was only 11? A sinking feeling descended from my throat to the bottom of my gut as the realization set in that the wilderness office had given me the wrong mileage on my itinerary. Here on this rainy July day it was already late morning and I still had 18 miles to hike with a 45-pound pack on my back, up and over a steep pass.
With nothing else to do I put my pack back on and started swiftly hiking toward the pass. Clouds engulfed the high peaks and the rain made seasonal creeks swell and difficult to cross. By mid-afternoon I had reached the pass and saw the clear blue sky and the awe-inspiring mountains to the northwest. I began my descent through overgrown thimbleberry, which made the trail all but invisible. Down, down, down I hiked, every five minutes or so shouting, “Hey Bear.” At 5:00 p.m. I reached a junction that divided the trail to the north and south. Only two more miles and I would be at camp for the night.
After descending such a steep trail the flat ground felt wonderful on my legs and despite walking 20 miles already that day I felt energetic and alert. About a half mile from the trail junction I saw a big, brown animal with a hump on its back and it’s head down coming straight towards me. I instantly knew this was a grizzly bear and shouted, “Hey Bear!” at the top of my lungs as my hands reached toward my hip belt, where my bear spray was strapped. The bear stopped, looked at me, put its head down, and continued walking toward me. I yelled again, “BEAR, STOP!” It once again stopped, this time about ten yards from me. It sat down on its haunches and put its snout in the air and started sniffing. The instant it got a whiff of my scent it sat up, turned, and walked off the trail, giving me the right of way. In Glacier National Park, which is famous for it’s population of more than 300 grizzly bears, I had had an authentic encounter with a bruin itself. It didn’t charge me, it didn’t attack me, and it simply wanted nothing to do with me as it went on its way.
People have been hiking in Glacier National Park, with its heavy grizzly population, for over a century. Every day during the summer months, hikers encounter grizzlies or walk by them unaware of their nearby presence. Glacier is a highly sought-out destination and right of passage for backpackers. The one million-square-acre park is home to more than 300 grizzlies and according to backpacker magazine, sees 30,684 backpackers a year. With such a large population of grizzlies and so many backcountry users one can’t help but wonder how many deaths in Glacier National Park grizzlies have caused? The answer might be a bit surprising. Since the creation of the park in 1910 there have only been 10 deaths associated with grizzly bears. In fact, in the entire United States there have been only 13 deaths in the wilderness associated with grizzly bears in the last ten years. This is much less than the 25 deaths caused by illnesses associated with tick bites and very near to the 12 deaths caused by black bears.
The truth is that grizzlies harm very few people who hike in heavily populated bear areas, and very few people even encounter grizzlies. According to The National Park Service (NPS), “From 1980-2011, over 90 million people visited Yellowstone National Park. During the same 32-year period, bears in the park injured 43 people. For all park visitors combined, the chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million” (NPS, 2011).
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service plan to reestablish a population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) here in Washington, the public needs to receive accurate information about the grizzly bear, and places like Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks are great places to use as examples in going forth with this project. The recovery efforts of the grizzly in the North Cascades will bring about many questions from the public, a population of which has never had to live in close proximity to grizzlies before. Most of what the general public knows about the grizzly bear comes from the mass media and the perception created by the American culture. We have all seen movies where a ferocious bear is out to eat people or a nature documentaries seen where grizzlies in Alaska search for salmon in the fall. We have also been told tales when we were children where the bear is almost always the antagonists of the story. Fear and danger is what we associate with the grizzly bear. Here in the lower 48 the story of the grizzly is much different than the all-too-common notion painted by the media and cultural perceptions. This series of blog posts is dedicated to addressing the general public about the natural history of the grizzly in the Pacific Northwest and to the education associated with grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades. It is my hope that through these posts the public will start to see that we can coexist with grizzlies here in Washington and will begin to acknowledge it as a valued member of the ecosystem.
Read Mike’s series on wolves at chattermarks.ncascades.org/tag/howling-to-be-heard.