The Mighty Grizzly—A Killer or a Victim?
Does the grizzly deserve its reputation as a rampaging killer? The following interview with David Hamer, a research associate of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and presently stationed in Waterton Lakes National Park, sheds light on this question.
How long have you made a study of the grizzlies?
I started in 1971 and, excepting the years 1974 and 1975, I have continued up to the present time.
How do you proceed with these studies?
Here in Waterton the wardens captured a female grizzly that had cubs with her. They put a radio collar on her and named her Bertha Bear. This was in June 1981. The next year the wardens caught another female without any cubs and collared her—she’s Ruby Bear. Now we keep check on their movements by picking up the radio signals.
What is the purpose of the project?
We’re studying the food habits of grizzlies, their use of habitat and how the grizzlies interrelate with people.
And how do they interrelate with people?
Our two radio-collared bears avoid or ignore people to a certain degree. Ruby Bear usually stays off the trails and out of campsites. Bertha Bear uses the trails, and on rare occasions walks through campsites, but without bothering people, their food or their packs. That’s quite a credit to her, because a bear is a very, very curious animal. If she were to walk over and investigate those packs and smell food in them, she could connect people with food. Once they learn that packs mean food and hikers carry packs, some of them will take packs off hikers or enter campgrounds looking for people’s food, and injuries can result.
So the bear is looking for food and not just making a vicious attack?
Yes, if it’s what we call a garbage bear. When regulations warn against feeding wild animals, it’s not to spoil the fun of visitors. It’s to protect both visitors and animals. When wild animals are fed they lose their fear of people, and that’s when injuries sometimes happen. When bears learn that people can mean food, they may investigate people and their belongings as a source of food—like the rare cases where bears break into people’s tents or pull people out of their sleeping bags and drag them into the woods as a potential food item.
Thus people feeding bears may be giving them a death sentence, for park officials may thereafter have to kill such bears as too dangerous to let live.
In other situations a bear can be responding to what it interprets as a threat. Maybe you’ve invaded its space and it’s upset. Or it may be a mother with cubs and it feels you’re endangering her babies.
If a person is in the backcountry and he sees a grizzly and it comes close and he feels threatened, what should he do?
First, let me say that the best preventive is to obey the law that forbids feeding wild animals, especially bears. You should also dispose of garbage properly. You might think, ‘I’ll bury my garbage.’ Then later someone sets up his tent on this spot, a bear comes along, smells the buried garbage and tears up the tent to get to the garbage. People could be sleeping in that tent! This has actually happened in a provincial park in British Columbia.
But, getting down to your question, which was . . . ?
What should you do if you meet up with an aggressive bear?
Yes, well . . . an aggressive bear. What action should you take? It’s so dependent on the situation. Each bear, each situation, is different. There are perhaps two broad types of problems. One is the aggressive bear that for some reason is extremely upset with you. The other situation is the bear that has lost its fear of people and looks upon you or your pack as a food source.
Like: ‘If you see a bear, play dead,’ period. That won’t always work, but sometimes it will. Perhaps a bear is furious because you’ve invaded its “space,” its “individual distance.” In that case the best course may be to ‘play dead.’ You eliminate the threat by becoming inconspicuous, inactive.
In one case I know of there were two fishermen that had invaded the individual distance of a grizzly. One played dead, the other man fled. The bear ran at 30 miles an houra right by the one that had frozen and it chased and seriously injured the one fleeing.
And what about in the other situation that you mentioned?
In the case where a bold bear is looking for food, if you throw yourself at its feet and play dead it’s like saying, ‘Here I am, eat me!’ What’s the bear going to do except see whether you’re edible or not? I think with the bear looking for food that it’s not a very good idea to play dead. Better, if you have a pack or a bag, put it on the ground and back off.
There might even be a time when it would be best to fight back—not that you could defeat the bear, but the resistance might awaken its slumbering fear of man and cause it to run off.
I’ve read about problems with grizzlies in Glacier Park in Montana—people mauled, an arm chewed off, or maybe someone even killed. Is it the most dangerous park for grizzly injuries?
It’s had a few problems, but very few. But such happenings are sensational and draw publicity. Glacier Park does have a fairly large grizzly-bear population and its backcountry is heavily used by backpackers. Even so, the number of incidents is really very, very low. But it’s easy for reporters to get carried away with the rather gory, horrifying details of a grizzly’s mauling a man.
That’s how the grizzly got its “killer” image?
Yes, from sensational writers. Of course, it’s a gory subject, but so are automobile accidents. They maim horribly, but people don’t like to read about that—they all use cars. But they gobble up the sensationalized stories of grizzly attacks and begin to think that one is lurking behind every bush, ready to leap out and grab them.
A ranger in Glacier just recently made a study on the number of deaths that had occurred in that park since it was formed. I think it was around 150. Three percent of them were by bears. Forty-nine percent were by drownings and falling off cliffs. Deaths from automobile accidents were also fairly numerous.
Fifty thousand people are killed by motor vehicles every year in the United States, but people don’t stop driving their cars, do they?
No, they don’t, and many won’t even wear seat belts!
Yes, smoking. It makes an interesting little study of human nature, doesn’t it? People by the tens of thousands kill themselves all the time by things they could prevent, and they take this for granted; but let a grizzly kill one person and it makes headlines all over the country.
In actuality, man is more the killer and the grizzly is the victim. Because of man’s actions the grizzly is a threatened species. Grizzlies need wilderness habitat to survive, but man has pushed them into small pockets of their former range.
How much range do they need?
They have to range far to find food. A male grizzly can have a home range of over a thousand square kilometers,b the female perhaps two or three hundred square kilometers.c The grizzly is a really remarkable creature, but he must be admired from a distance. He’s unpredictable. They are creatures of great strength and fearsomeness, yet they can be very gentle with their young. But man’s insistence upon feeding them makes them lose their natural fear of humans and trouble starts, for both man and bear.
What are some observations on the bear’s life cycle: its mating, how often they have cubs, how long the cubs stay with the mother, and other interesting facts?
The female grizzly has her cubs—usually two but sometimes one or three—during winter hibernation. The cubs normally stay with the mother for the first and second summers, and the third summer she’ll let them go and she’ll mate again and have a new set of cubs with her the fourth summer.
During hibernation she doesn’t eat or drink anything, yet is able to nurse her cubs for about three months. That in itself is quite a physiological feat, but it’s nothing compared to the far more amazing feat of her not defecating or urinating during this entire hibernation period!
In fact, the Mayo Clinic has studied the blood chemistry and other physiological processes of the hibernating black bear. If the bear can go for some five months without urinating and without accumulating nitrogenous toxic compounds in its blood, how could their kidney patients do the same?d
Here’s another remarkable thing about the mother grizzly. The mating period occurs in May, June or very early July, and the cubs are born in January or February. But the gestation period isn’t nearly that long because when a 400-pounde grizzly births a cub it weighs only a pound—fortunately for her. How could a mother bear who isn’t eating nurse a 30-pound youngster, or two or three? So it has this very tiny offspring, just a pound, or two or three, if twins or triplets. Incidentally, Ruby Bear came out of hibernation last spring with just one cub.
The physiological mechanism the female uses to have such a small offspring and yet have this apparently long gestation period from, say, June until February, is delayed implantation. The embryo does not implant in the wall of the uterus until late November or December. Then the actual gestation period is only about two months. Hence, the tiny offspring.
That’s really amazing! Something else: I’ve heard that the grizzly’s diet is some 95-percent vegetation. What vegetation?
They’ll come out in the spring before anything is green and dig for roots and bulbs and corms. They will also eat last year’s berries—especially the bearberry. Its sugar content doubles over the winter due to the freezing and thawing, and it will have twice as much sugar in the spring as it does in the fall. And when the green vegetation comes out you’ll see bears grazing just like deer or elk—just grazing, grazing, grazing.
Yes, grass and sedges. They essentially follow the snow as it melts, eating young growth as it appears. They have to eat only the very tender greens. They don’t have the four-part stomach and the bacteria and protozoans of the cud chewers to digest cellulose—the woody plant tissue.
In Waterton Lakes National Park bears also eat cow parsnips and other members of the carrot family, and in late summer they may switch back to digging for bulbs. In the fall the big item is berries.
Ants or grubs under rocks or in rotting trees, are these much of a source of food?
I suspect their importance is in vitamins and essential amino acids and things like that, because they are no big food item in terms of volume. Grizzlies are also famous for digging up ground squirrels and marmots and other burrowing rodents.
Of course, the bears are famous for eating berries. In the fall they will often go on a 24-hour-a-day schedule of berry eating. Gorging on these sugar-laden treats, the bears really put on weight—a pound or more a day. It’s their big opportunity to pile on the fat to see them through the winter. They add a layer of fat up to eight inches thick.f
How heavy are the biggest male grizzlies?
They are twice as heavy as the females, on the average. Many run 600 to 700 pounds. Here in the Canadian Rockies, in late October, an exceptionally huge male in its prime just might touch a thousand pounds!
So if he lived up to his image as a killer bear . . . ?
He could do a tremendous amount of damage! Fortunately, this huge vegetarian doesn’t live up to its sensational image as a bloodthirsty killer. Unfortunately, it’s man in his treatment of animals that comes closer to fitting that image.
a 1 mile = 1.6 kilometers.
b About 400 square miles.
c About 100 square miles.
d The head of the dialysis unit at Mayo Clinic acknowledged that there was some interest in this matter, but no positive results were forthcoming.
e 1 pound = 0.453 kilogram.
f 1 inch = 2.5 centimeters.
[Picture on page 17]
In spring and early summer when the grass is tender, grizzlies will graze like cattle