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Walking among bears

Walking among bears

“I don’t really know bears at all,” begins Barrie Gilbert’s book. “But then, does anyone?”

My first up-close grizzly encounter took place by surprise on a mountain ridge in northwest Yellowstone National Park, and it left me nearly dead ten miles from the nearest road. The bear so resented my intrusion that she tore half my face off with one bite. I was rescued, hospitalized, reconstructed, recovered, and given a chance to spend the rest of my career spying on other grizzlies, who were much more accommodating.” An experienced researcher and observer of bears, Dr. Gilbert had assumed that he had chosen a safe point from which to observe grizzlies, 9,200 feet below. But one mother bear had ventured onto that same ridge. And her instinct was to protect her cubs from this intruder.

[photo of Barrie Gilbert]
Photo by Bernard Clark

That devastating encounter was in 1977. Dr. Gilbert recovered, returned to fieldwork, and devoted the rest of his career to understanding and protecting grizzly bears. He has spent thousands of hours among wild grizzlies in Canada and the U.S., studying how bears respond to people and to each other, with the ultimate goal of learning how to keep both humans and bears safe. He writes in One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears:

After surviving my devastating accident in Yellowstone, I wanted to champion grizzlies. My commitment to maintain the wild in national parks was deep. I was at home in the outdoors, seeing large, wild mammals as they were seen in Paleolithic times. Doing field science with enthusiastic students buttressed my enduring optimism that rationality could overcome mythology and the greed and ignorance that threatens natural systems. In many ways, grizzly bears cluster with wolves, dolphins, apes, and elephants as cultures, highly social civilizations that we barely understand. We treat them as consumable resources instead of recognizing them as challenges to our humanity and degree of civility.

[photo of Barrie Gilbert observing bears]
Barrie Gilbert observing bears in coastal British Columbia. Supplied photo

While Dr. Gilbert professes not to really know bears at all, his years of observation and research have led to many insights about these intelligent creatures, which he lays out in his book. He has seen bears “bluff charge” other bears, demonstrating aggression in an initial encounter which then switches off, once the perceived threat is seen to be benign. He has observed bears “self-medicate,” eating specific types of soil, presumably for its trace nutrients. Bears also may eat coarse, undigestible grass, in order to rid themselves of worms. And when it comes to food, bears are fast learners.

As Dr. Gilbert writes, “Bears are hardwired for overeating.” Oily food sources like salmon enable bears to pack on body fat in order to survive winter hibernation. But deprived of their preferred foods, they will find alternatives out of necessity. And they only need one food reward and their behaviour is re-routed. This is referred to as “single-trial learning.

The stamping into memory of a food type, season, and location seems like imprinting. Cubs observe their mothers closely, share her food, and learn food locations and so develop a tradition. This contributes to individual specialization. Visualize this as a postal route in reverse in which the bears memorize every place to locate food. When they find our food supplies, that same memory kicks in – we start the bear on a life of crime.

He also elaborates on the vital role that bears – and their food – play in the ecosystem.

Salmon are keystone species here, the superstars in the ecological theatre, vital for all living things, green and otherwise. Grizzly bears have been the prime transporters of large quantities of salmon tissue, fertilizing vegetation wherever they go. The bears also create vegetation by distributing enormous numbers of berry seeds. Johnny Appleseed has some competition!

The specialization of bears on salmon was foundational for high survival and reproduction of bear populations…Because fish concentrate at one place and time, grizzlies need protection from harassment or disturbance by people. Any serious decline of salmon, destruction of spawning habitat, or warming of streams (from climate change) will damage this cornucopia for bears and its enjoyment by people…When fish populations collapse, large carnivores, like bears, abandon traditional areas and begin to range widely, often drawn into coastal villages by food odours. When the land can no longer support the same density of animals, they come to our supplies or starve. Both outcomes lead to dead bears and decimated local populations.

Dr. Gilbert makes a strong case for humans to accept responsibility for our mistreatment of bears, by polluting their habitats, destroying their food sources, and then punishing them when they are quick to adapt for their own survival.

Although he carries the scars from his own early unlucky encounter with a grizzly, Barrie Gilbert never gave up on the animals. Because he continued his research with them, he was able to walk among bears that were both well fed and unthreatened by humans. And he saw the reciprocal relationship that can exist between human and animal. “Most of the time,” he writes, “they not only don’t want to hurt us, they even watch us and take cues about how secure a situation may be for them. We can live in harmony with bears if we choose.”

One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears is published by Friesen Press. Barrie Gilbert can be reached at barrie.gilbert36@gmail.com.

[cover illustration of The language issue of the Queen's Alumni Review]