CNN reported this week that the EPA is considering removing grizzlies from the endangered species list. The grizzly population in Yellowstone National Park and in the surrounding mountains of Montana has tripled since listing in 1975. The Grizzlies current range in the United States is primarily the Greater Yellowstone Bioregion, stretching northwards into Glacier National Park, and large parts of Alaska. I would like to see a report on who in the cattle industry has been supporting this effort. Access to grazing allotments on federal land is a huge issue in Montana. The ability to shoot a few "nuisance" bears every now again and remove them from the habitat would expand the areas currently available for grazing.
My relationship with bears in the Yellowstone region began in the spring of 1999, when I went to work at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Bear encounters in Yellowstone are rare these days. During the 18 months that I worked there I only saw four. I had three rather harrowing Grizzly encounters, including one in which I spent 6 hours in a tent in zero degree weather while a grizzly killed an elk and ate it near our campsite. The sound of an elk being torn apart - ribs snapping like dry branches being stepped upon on the forest floor - is not something you ever forget. This incident haunts me to this day, and I endured frequent nightmares for months...
AMFAC Parks & Resorts, Inc. and a couple park rangers taught me most of what I know about bears during my first week of training at Yellowstone. However, the emphasis of park employee training at that time focused more on bison encounters than grizzly encounters. There are a lot more bison in Yellowstone than bears. A very graphic video is shown to each new employee. A man attempts to hide behind a tree from an approaching bison. The bison drops its head and horns directly into the poor bastards crotch and flips him into the over back of its head like a rag doll. Off camera, his wife screams in horror. Welcome to Yellowstone, I thought to myself, you're making just a little more than minimum wage.
Bison are bigger, have no fear of cars or parking lots and love to sneak up on you when you're sitting on a big rock in front of geyser playing your guitar. Bison are not cows. Bison are smart, and they know how to screw with you. I once saw a big bull standing in the eastbound lane of a two-lane road, heavily wooded on either side. He was allowing cars to travel in one direction, and then crossing the double-yellow line to the opposing lane to block the cars coming from the other way. He crossed the line about 12 times until I was able to steer around him and get through. I'm no expert on bison, but I think this one was really enjoying pissing off a couple hundred humans. This is funnier when you think of the people a half-mile back in a line of RV's wondering what the hell is going on up ahead. With that said, you should be just as cautious encountering an approaching bison as you are when encountering an approaching bear.
If you are hell-bent on hiking into the wild to see a grizzly, the first thing you should do is purchase a couple bells at the outfitter in the Old Faithful Village and attach them to your clothing. Surprising any type of bear is the worst possible thing you can do. The bell's tinkling will alert a bear that someone is approaching. The joke told to employees at Yellowstone goes like this: "How do you tell black bear poop from grizzly bear poop? Grizzly bear poop has bells in it." Get it? The process also works in reverse. You're alerting the bear to your presence, but you're also telling it exactly where you are standing. This is why there are large canisters of cayenne pepper spray for sale at the store also.
There are many myths associated with encountering the big bear. Remember that Yellowstone has 3 distinct types of bears - black, cinnamon brown, and grizzly. None should be approached by you.
First, never run. It has been postulated by bear researchers that the act of running is an indication to the bear that you are a prey species and therefore might be tasty. Second, do not attempt to stand your ground. Challenging a grizzly directly is an act of idiocy; you will get hurt. Do not throw anything at the bear or agitate it in any way. Third, curling into a ball and pretending to be dead is also a nice way to end up seriously hurt. Some folks who did this lived to tell of their encounter, but they'll also tell you that they miss their leg and wish they didn't have to have a metal plate in their head. In more than a few instances the survivor's backside was protected by their backpack loaded with gear, but a 600lb to 1000lb bear can flip you over as easily as you could flip a steak on a grill. It's important to note that guns are strictly forbidden in Yellowstone, you're in deep trouble if a ranger sees you with one.
If a bear is coming toward you, immediately pepper-spray the air around you. Their noses are incredible sensitive; they don't like it at all. Remain calm. Do not speak. Do not gesture to your friends or make any sudden movements with your arms. Slowly begin moving your feet backward, one foot at a time. Whatever you do, do not take your eyes off the bear (don't worry, you won't be able to). This is all about body language between species. This process, I assume, implies to the bear that you are not afraid, but are in fact hesitant about getting closer. You are attempting to be recognized as an equal creature now, not prey. If the bear charges you - not common but she might have cubs nearby - that is not the time to begin moving quickly. Wait until the bear closes in and then move – fast - in the opposite direction the bear turns. Most of the time the charge is a feint. If you don't back down, you're cool, the bear will rush toward you and then turn abruptly. She's playing chicken with you. Move quickly in the opposite direction the bear turns and don't stop - you are now behind her - and you will live. I've personally spoken to a married couple that lived to tell about this experience. This encounter lasted less than 30 seconds. It is, however, 30 seconds of their lives together that they will never forget.
If the charge turns out not to be a feint and there are several hikers in your group, pray that you are the fastest runner. You've only got a few seconds to outdistance your hiking partners. Run toward your car as fast as you can. This is an "every man for himself" situation. The fat, slow guy goes down first.
So, given that both bison and bears are equally dangerous, which is the worst to encounter in the dark, say, under a waning gibbous moon on a crystal clear September night when you have chicken alfredo in your backpack? Grizzlies hunt non-stop in the fall in order to gain enough weight to survive the bitterly cold winter. They're on the prowl all the time, especially at night. Remember, the bear hears and smells you long before you know it's even in the neighborhood. A grizzly can smell a campfire cookout from several miles away. You, puny human, are just another appetizer to be followed by an elk or moose entree. Encountering a bear in the black of night was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. Don't hike in Yellowstone after sundown.
The great bear deserves continued protection. The grizzly's intrinsic beauty and majesty is reflected in the canon of literature and the art of North America, bears have had a profound influence on us as a species and a culture. Removing the grizzly from the endangered species list removes the bear's right to exist. More bears will be shot, more encounters will occur as humans continue to encroach on habitat, and the loss to tourism in the area would be dramatic. The bears are still one of the primary Yellowstone attractions, more than 2.2 million people visited during the summer of 2000 while I was employed there. My prediction is that fewer bears, or the media coverage of bear shootings, will bring an economic downturn in the tourism industry for southern Montana and northwestern Wyoming affecting tens of thousands of families.
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