Once-Protected Grizzly Bears Booted Back to “Big Game”
Article posted by C.A.S.H. Committee To Abolish Sport Hunting


Article and Photography by Jim Robertson, author, ethical photographer, President of C.A.S.H.

Bear and Wolf
As with wolves, grizzly bears have now lost their ESA protections and been reduced in status to “big game.” Fortunately, these two were safe within Yellowstone National Park, though only a short distance from the park boundary.

Like fables handed down through the generations, bear tales have been told, embellished upon, amplified and retold by people wanting to justify hounding, baiting and just plain killing. But, while instances of people being attacked by bears are so rare you could count them on one hand, tens of thousands of bears are killed by humans each year and no one can keep track of how many are wounded, only to crawl off and die slowly without hospital care to pamper them back to health. Thirty thousand black bears are murdered during legal hunting seasons in the U.S. alone. Possibly another 30,000 fall prey each year to ethically impotent poachers seeking bear gall bladders to sell on the Chinese black market. Victims of that vile trade are eviscerated and left to rot, since bear meat has never been considered a taste-treat or even a popular staple food source for the human carnivore. Traditionally, to make bear palatable, backyard chefs heavily douse the flesh and offal with spices and grind the whole mess into sausage.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and spending summers in Alaska, I learned firsthand the actual disposition of bears. I’d come across numerous black bears while hiking in Washington’s Cascade and Olympic Mountains (most of them responded to my intrusion by running in mortal fear from the sometimes armed and oftentimes unpleasant primates who should never be completely trusted), but my first extremely close encounter with a grizzly was in Alaska in 1977.

Still un-evolved and under the influence of society’s norms, I had taken a summer job in the fishing industry at a salmon cannery in Nak Nek, a dismal settlement on the Bristol Bay side of the Alaska Peninsula. A gloomy ghost town most of the year and a small but industrialized boom town during the annual fish-kill frenzy (when incoming tides ushered in boat after boat overflowing with mountains of bloody fish bodies), the only thing that Nak Nek had going for it, to my mind, was its proximity to the pristine wilderness of Katmai National Monument. Named after one of its many active volcanoes and supporting a hefty population of grizzlies (known locally as Alaska brown bears) who congregate at the spawning streams (to which any salmon lucky enough to escape a slow death stuck in a gill net feels a desperate yearn to return), Katmai’s best known feature is Brooks Falls.

When I first visited Brooks, bears outnumbered people. There wasn’t so much as a footbridge across the clear, deep river. This was long before the construction of the now-busy tourist boardwalk—complete with bear-proof railings and gaits. The only trail to the falls was a crooked, narrow bear trail which weaved in and out of dense, black spruce forest and open tall-grass meadows.

One afternoon I was hiking that trail when I rounded a tight corner in a dog-hair spruce thicket and just about ran head-on into a substantial grizzly. He must have heard me coming (or more likely, smelled me, since a bear’s sense of smell is 7 times better than the best bloodhound), while I, the oblivious human, didn’t even notice the 700 pound roadblock fixed squarely in the middle of the trail.

I’ll spare you the melodrama you’d be subjected to in the many bear-scare stories found in sportsmen’s magazines, suffice it to say…I could feel the colossal grizzly’s hot breath and hear his low rumbling growl just one step behind me as I frantically ran for my life… No, seriously, I instinctively did what anyone meeting a bear up close should do: I slowly backed off the trail while talking to him calmly, courteously and reassuringly. When the bear saw that I had forfeited the trail, he soundlessly proceeded past me without even a glance or nod of appreciation. Sadly, many people in bear country rely on cumbersome, potentially ineffective weapons, instead of their wits, in situations that call for little more than a simple sidestep.

An irrational fear of bears dates back to the earliest days of American history and is often accompanied by obtuse thinking and quirky spelling. The most famous inscription (carved in a tree, naturally) attributed to Daniel Boone (that guy who went around with a dead raccoon on his head) boasted about how he “...cilled a bar...in the year 1760.” The bears Boone killed (and there were many) in North Carolina and Tennessee were American black bears, a uniquely North American species which evolved on the Western Hemisphere.

Grizzly Bear

Meanwhile, Lewis and Clark, greatly fearing the grizzly bears they discovered on their voyage up the Missouri River, were among the first pioneers responsible for sending that species down the path to near-extinction. Of the grizzly, Meriwether Lewis wrote, “It was a most tremendous looking animal and extremely hard to kill.”

Between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand grizzly bears once thrived across the western Continental United States before incoming settlers shot and trapped them out, quickly snatching up prime valley bottoms (the preferred habitat of grizzlies) for themselves and their livestock. Driven into desolate high country by government hunters, the few grizzlies who survive in the lower 48 are left with only 2% of their historic domain. The current population of 500 is essentially marooned on islands of deficient wilderness, cut off from one another by freeways, sprawl and a network of barbed wire fences that spell “keep out” to any grizzly bear who knows what’s good for ‘em.



Bear and Cub

In the past few decades, many have spoken in support of the wrongfully maligned grizzly. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has deemed that the token few bears who remain are plenty enough to warrant their removal from the list of threatened—and therefore, federally protected—species, reducing them back to the status of “big game.” Now hunters in Idaho, and Wyoming are gearing up for the day when grizzly bears will once again grace the walls of their trophy rooms.

And why shouldn’t those hunters be allowed to have their fun (after all, their counterparts in Alaska and Canada have been legally killing grizzlies without a hitch, right up to the present)? In Alaska, grizzly bears—along with wolves—are even shot from planes, under the deathly ill-advised notion that eliminating those animals will leave more moose for hunters to slay. What the likes of Sarah Palin can’t seem to figure out is, as the population of hunters goes up, the number of moose goes down, regardless of the number of natural predators. Will we have to see an Alaska devoid of bears and wolves before their confused state game department finally figures out who’s to blame?

Black bears, though more numerous (in part because their chosen habitat is not as open and sought after as that of the grizzlies), haven’t fared much better in terms of persecution. They too, have lost much of their former range to the encroaching modern world, but even more significant is the amount of cruelty they’ve been subjected to, at the hands of hunters. Year after year, a new crop of “sportsmen” decides to play Daniel Boone and blast some poor little black bear with a musket ball (which, though extremely painful and traumatic, often isn’t enough to kill a bear outright). Others like the challenge of archery, impaling innocent bears who are just trying to find enough berries to get them through the winter.



And like fishermen who cast out baited hooks and wait on shore in a lawn chairs to catch unsuspecting fish, some hunters set out piles of “bait,” using whatever they have on hand (usually Twinkies, hot dogs or some kind of processed lunch meat) to lure in unsuspecting bears, while waiting in lawn chairs safely perched on platforms high in trees. With the scary bear’s attention focused on the goodies, the plucky “sportsman” makes his kill. Still another devious approach (banned in some states, but institutionalized in others) is the pastime of hounding. After releasing his hounds—equipped with high tech radio tracking devices—a hunter simply follows them to the tree where a helpless bear has taken refuge and guns her down.

The late marine biologist, Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, launched the environmental movement, saw the brutality of hunting as a detriment to civilized society: “Until we have the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is—whether its victim is human or animal—we cannot expect things to be much better in this world. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature. By every act that glorifies or even tolerates such moronic delight in killing we set back the progress of humanity.” On the rare instances when bears do resort to violence, at least they don’t take delight in it.

Jim Robertson is the author of Exposing the Big Game: Living targets of a Dying Sport.


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