Bear Kinship

Bear Spirit


"The Man Who Lives With Bears" - Responses

RE: The Man Who Lives With Bears, the story of Charlie Vandergraw

Response By Steve Stringham

Hello All,

Reading some of the recent comments on how much skill is needed to safely coexist with bears on their turf, I am forced to wonder what qualifications their authors have for advising anyone on these matters. As much as they may decry Treadwell, they sound very much like him in their assessment of bear aggression -- or non-aggression, if you will.

As a scientist, my first response to anyone's statement of knowledge is "What proof do you have? How have you verified your conclusions? What critical tests have you performed?"

When it comes to bear safety, verification is very difficult and sometimes quite dangerous. Which is why the history of bear safety education has been rife with the blind leading the blind. Much of the lore about ursine ferocity is mere hype. But would an Edenic viewpoint be any more realistic and reliable?

Assessing danger is easiest where each test gives a definitive result. Does fire burn? Stick you finger into the flame and find out! If each violation of a safety precaution triggered immediate "punishment," need for the precaution would be crystal clear.

Assessing danger is infinitely harder where the risk of "punishment" is very small, as Treadwell's case illustrates: For example, after a year or so of camping at the Kaflia Narrows without an electric fence and of not needing pepper spray, he concluded that the standard precautions were useless. And for roughly 1000 days and nights at Katmai, he was right. But on the 1001st night, he was wrong; dead wrong.

Skill at reading bear body language to assess mood and intentions, and skill in responding, may likewise be unnecessary in specific locations such as Hallo bay or McNeil 99.9% of the time. But if you happen to meet the "1000th" bear, such skill could mean the difference between life and death.

The notion that only 1 bear in 1000 is likely to dangerously bully you is a lot more comforting on your 1st encounter than after your 10,000th, as in my own case.

How many times do you have to get away with violating a precaution before you can determine whether it is useless, or only essential occasionally?

Bears may not be dangerous in the way usually hyped by media. But they are dangerous in the same basic way that flying a small plane is dangerous. It takes no more skill to watch typical bears at some sites than it takes to pilot a small plane or a boat during calm weather through the wide open spaces. But piloting through a storm, or during landing or takeoff, can challenge even experts. So too, there are situations during bear encounters that demand every bit of knowledge, skill and judgment that anyone can offer.

Ultra-lights are especially dangerous. Yet, Charlie Russell managed to survive both bears and ultra-lights; and for some of the same reasons. He is likely as knowledgeable and skilled with bears as he is with a plane.

That said, Brandon is perfectly correct in noting that this kind of knowledge and skill are a far cry from magic.

You can learn by reading and with guidance by a tutor in the field. In this day and age, learning like Treadwell did, by the seat of your pants, isn't smart.

Steve Stringham

Reply by Sabrina


No disrespect, but scientists need cold hard proof of everything they encounter to come up with a reasonable explanation on their findings and it seems all of their findings HAVE to have a reasonable end. Some things have no definitive explanation, and if anything proves that, its Grizzlies. Some things are constantly changing, and everything depends upon circumstances and environments. I don't think Treadwell concluded anything, I think Treadwell did what he thought was right for him no matter the outcome. I also think, given that last statement, he didn't think, out of complacency, that the outcome would be what it was, and so, part of his stubborn problem was that contemplating the "what if" cost bears their lives. These are lessons to be learned. Let's not forget that although the "experts" say they knew he would get killed getting close to bears, he didn't. He got killed doing what people do when confronted by a bear outside a tent AND by camping in a spot he should never have camped but had for thirteen years before. Complacent? NOT by touching a bears ass. Not by photographing a bear. Mind you, plenty of scientists and biologists have gotten killed and/or mauled while doing their work. Many scientists and biologists have killed bears doing their work.

Another point I would like to make is that the "expert bear scientist and biologists" don't really make the time for simple enthusiasts. I suppose had people taken Treadwell more seriously, or at least gotten him involved in something more productive, the outcome may have been different. Yet they were too busy waiting for something to go wrong so that for a few days they could get patted on the back for saying, "they told him so." Amazing. Instead using him in a positive way they forced him to, how did you say Steve, "fly by the seat of his pants", really there were no other options for someone of his character and the more he was teased the more trouble he became. People with high passion and enthusiasm are hard to stop, so placing them in an area where they could do the most good with that energy would be the best way to go, otherwise, more Treadwells will prevail and they will cause the exact thing the biologists wish to avoid. Basic psychology. Regardless because of Treadwell my inspiration has taken me on a different path and I am helping out in a positive way. Another, "oh everyone who watches Treadwell is going to become like him" line of BS. Like I said, not trying to be confrontational, just throwing out my view. Hard to gauge inflection in people's tones online obviously.

Aw, this oughta open up a can of worms. It's been a while.


Reply by John

My comments are based on the 20,000+ yearly safe human-bear encounters that occur at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park with totally inexperienced tourists who only receive 20 minutes of training before being allowed to freely wander in a wooded area concentrated with grizzlies. Between 300-500 tourists per day visit Brooks Camp during the peak of summer. This has been going on for about 30 years now without a single fatality. During this time probably several 100,000 inexperienced, unskilled non-scientists have safely observed bears up close at Brooks Camp. I can think of no better scientific proof of what is possible than Brooks. (I would also add how these numbers starkly contrast with the 3,496 murders and aggravated assaults committed by humans in Alaska in one year, 2006)

I know, I know... but Brooks bears are habituated so they don't really count. Why is it that habituated bears are always discounted? It seems habituated bears, like those in some parts of Katmai, are always ignored and treated like the exception rather than being seen as the model of what is possible with bears everywhere. Habituation is often used like a bad word but in the case of Katmai it simply represents what is possible when bears live in an intact ecosystem that is free of human violence. In any case, bears visiting Brooks Falls come from all reaches of the park and a significant portion of the bears there are not habituated. Also the area around Brooks is heavily wooded and its quite common for inexperienced tourists to be surprised by bears crossing the trail right in front of them. Yet even with a high concentration of non-habituated grizzlies sharing space with inexperienced humans in a highly wooded area, there has never been a fatality at Brooks. How can that data be ignored?

Also I hold no illusions about temperament differences between coastal browns compared to inland grizzlies. Inland grizzlies have larger personal space requirements but coexisting with them is no more difficult than coexisting with coastal browns. Living in the Canadian Rockies we observed many inland grizzlies but we just didn't get nearly as close. Despite the pressures of intense habitat destruction and hunting, the attitude of the bears towards us was identical to the coastal, “habituated” bears of Katmai – calm, indifference as long as we gave them adequate space. I don't suspect inland grizzlies will ever be as comfortable up close with humans as Katmai bears but when they are free from the violence of humans so much more is possible.

There is no doubt that what Vandergraw, Russell, Stringham and others do requires skill and experience. This is the reason why, unlike Treadwell, we spent years observing grizzlies and trained for a week in Katmai with an grizzly bear expert before we camped in Katmai solo. Having experience and skill is of course essential when working frequently up close with so many bears because your odds are much higher of eventually running into an agressive bear. But I simply tire of the narrative that always gives all the credit to the human and none to the bears. The human ego has already done enough damage to bears. It doesn't take lots of experience for the average person to be safe in bear country but narratives such as this one seem to imply that without experience bears will eat you. Even a conservative, federal institution such as the National Park service deems 20 minutes of training sufficient for every tourist visiting Brooks Falls.
Experience isn't everything and many times those with lots of experience become complacent and antiquated. Just because a person has 10 times more experience doesn't mean they have 10 times the skill and people learn at different rates. Just as good judgement isn't necessarily a byproduct of experience. Police officers have more experience in dealing with violent people but that doesn't mean you need to be a police officer to be safe around people.

As a scientist myself I've come to realize that science is extremely limiting when it comes to studying the behavior of complex animals. If you only look at bears through the lens of science then there is so much you are missing. Scientists are typically interested in animals as a population whereas we're more interested in them as individuals.


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