Original Griz: The Return of the Great Plains Grizzly Bear
“The rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”
~ Mark Twain, on reading his own obituary
In 2004, I received a phone call from Gordon Stenhouse, a biologist with the Foothills Model Forest Grizzly Bear Project in west-central Alberta. Gord was in charge of a large-scale effort to collar dozens of grizzly bear across their current range in Alberta as part of an effort to figure out how many exist and where they might be found.
He told me of a grizzly bear, G87, he had trapped and collared six kilometers west of Milk River, Alberta, 300 kilometers east of the Rocky Mountains and halfway to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. It had arrived in Alberta from south of the international border, where the United States government listed them as a threatened species in 1975 and has protected them from hunting and habitat destruction ever since. Like its ancestors, this restless young male had followed a river valley—in this case the Milk—north from the Blackfoot Indian Reservation into Alberta. After being collared near the town of Milk River in June, it remained on the plains until the fall, when it wandered west into the mountains, eventually denning up in November in the South Castle Valley north of Waterton National Park. The next spring, G87 left the mountains and returned to the foothills on the western edge of the Great Plains.
Such a find came as somewhat of a surprise to Gord and many of his colleagues, for Milk River was no longer grizzly country, as least not as we had understood it. To find a grizzly bear so far out on the plains piqued my curiosity and begs us, I think, to reconsider the story we have written for the Plains grizzly. I made a few phone calls, poked around in libraries, searched the Web. A 1975 report written for the Canadian Wildlife Service about the past and present status of Alberta’s plains and boreal grizzly bear populations confirmed that the plains grizzly bear no longer existed in Alberta. But another report written 20 years later provided evidence that seemed to contradict these findings. Written by John Gunson, a wildlife biologist for Alberta’s Natural Resource Service, it was an analysis of all known human-caused grizzly bear mortalities between 1972 and 1994. Over the course of 22 years, more than 100 grizzly bears were killed in places most geographers would consider part of the Great Plains. Surely this indicated that rumours of the Great Plains grizzly bear’s demise were somewhat exaggerated.
South of the 49th parallel, the story is less ambiguous—the Plains grizzly is back. According to Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator in the United States, grizzlies have been expanding their range south and east from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, for the last 20 years. This has pushed significant numbers of bears well out onto the plains, where they are forced to co-exist, however uneasily, with towns, rural communities, ranchers, hunters, industrial development and other human-dominated land uses. Servheen is optimistic that the number of bears using the plains will only increase.
“In 20 years,” he assured me at a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the southern edge of the Great Plains, “we’ll have grizzly bears as far east as Fort Benton.”
These facts demand a deeper, more detailed inquiry into the story of the Great Plains grizzly bear. Is, as the Canadian government claims, the plains grizzly bear really gone from the Canadian landscape? And is it, as the most recent status report contends, beyond hope of recovery? Or does the evidence, and the results of the American experience south of the border, indicate that the plains grizzly bear is alive and well, not just in history books and the treasure chest that is our collective imagination, but on the land itself? And if it does still exist, what does that say about the changing spirit of our culture and our evolving relationship with the natural world? About the nature of our dreams?
These are important questions not only for the Great Plains grizzly bear, which is making its last stand on the plains and the eastern slopes of southern Alberta and western Montana, but for a society precariously perched on the edge of the grand canyon of a new century, peering into an abyss obscured by the specter of interminable conflict and the burgeoning realities of resource depletion and climate change—and yet lit, here and there, by the inextinguishable lamps of tolerance and compassion, and by the stubborn will of the landscape itself.
The grizzly bear is a light that can help show us the way. Andy Russell, one of the last real mountain men and a pre-eminent Canadian writer, filmmaker and conservationist, knew well what the grizzly bear could teach us. In Grizzly Country, his 1967 treatise on the grizzly bear, he wrote: “Man, through most of his recent evolution from primitive to present-day civilization, has chosen to fight the wilderness blindly, attempting to break nature to his needs, at war with it and sometimes mercilessly destroying the very things he needs the most. The grizzly can show us something of what it means to live in harmony with nature.”
And so, the history of the Great Plains grizzly bear begins with the land and ends, if it needs to end at all, with people. This exploration of the history and future of the Great Plains grizzly is an attempt to examine our evolution, as Russell puts it, “from primitive to present-day civilization,” and to find a way, if there is one, to co-exist with an animal that will push us, if it is to survive, to the very limits of our tolerance, compassion and rationality.
This is an important and timely undertaking, for it is not the grizzly bear itself, or what we know of it, but the evolution of our understanding about ourselves and the implications of our collective behavior that will “show us something of what it means to live in harmony” with both the grizzly bear and the natural world for which it is such a powerful symbol. If we cannot find a way to allow grizzly bears to persist on the Great Plains of which it was once lord, it is difficult to conceive of our ability to make peace with a planet that is being radically transformed beneath the collective weight of 6 billion people and the deforestation, habitat alteration and climate change we have wrought.
But if we can find a way to co-exist with these grizzlies, it will be an indication that we are capable of, as Barry Lopez has written, “behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains,” making it “possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us.” If we can manage that, the land will respond with a generosity we have not seen in North America for 500 years, and our dreams will soar, like hawks, high above the mountains and well beyond the greatness of the Plains.