Oh My! Feared Grizzly Now a Wilderness Wonder

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GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- A mother grizzly with her cub charged into a group of seven teenagers in the Alaska wilderness, July 23. She seriously injured two and wounded two others.

That attack comes after a momma grizzly near her cubs killed a hiker in Yellowstone National Park earlier this summer.

In each case, authorities chose not to kill the bears and their cubs but allowed them to live.

Their restraint highlights an evolving attitude about how humans should share the land with these big beasts of the West.

Americans are increasingly starting to see these massive mammals as a wonder to treasure, not a danger to exile to the farthest wilderness.

Hunter Turns Watcher

Montana outdoorsman Roland Cheek, author of Learning to Talk Bear, personifies this attitude adjustment.

For years, the former wilderness outfitter and hunting guide wanted nothing more than to shoot a grizzly and turn it into a rug for his home just a few miles outside Glacier National Park.

But over the years Cheek observed the bears, saw their intelligence, and watched them play.

"I've seen grizzly bears swimming for fun in a glacial tarn," he recalled. "They rocket down snow fields on their bellies for the sheer exuberance of it."

All this so changed him, that when he finally had a rifle aimed at a grizzly he discovered his change of heart.

"I found out that the animal itself had seized my heart so much I'd just rather watch the bear than to shoot it," he said.

Now he and his wife build whole days around getting into bear country so they can possibly spot grizzlies. 

"They've got to be the most fascinating creature God ever made," Roland said of the big bears.

'Lord, Not Here, Not Now'

You'd think 20-year-old Steve German, a one-time Glacier National Park summer worker, might have nothing but fear after a grizzly encounter on a wilderness trail inside the park. 

He was coming around a corner when suddenly he noticed a mother grizzly with her two cubs about 25 or 30 feet in front of him.  

"I'm 6-foot-6, and the bear was so much taller than me when it stood up to encounter me," German told CBN News.

"They can tell you all they want in National Geographic or some place like that how big these animals are. But when you encounter one in person, you really are understanding for the first time how massive they are, just how muscular, how beefy," German stated.

So what did German do when he encountered the bear family?

"I slowly backed away, real slowly, trembling. And I was praying, 'Lord, please, not here, not now," he recalled. "Fortunately enough, the grizzly mother and cubs just walked down the other way."

You'd think German might be filled with fear and loathing for grizzlies after that.

But instead he said, "I think they are fascinating animals, and I don't regret anything about that experience."

Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up

German's attitude was far more positive than that displayed by a crowd in a Glacier parking lot near the Rising Sun campground in 1966.

A ranger showed up to see a female employee trying to shoo a crowd away that had completely surrounded a grizzly bear. The bear was getting angry, putting its ears back, stamping its foot. 

The crowd refused to disperse, so the ranger was left with just one choice.  He took out a rifle and shot the bear.

Then he went off to make a call to get the carcass removed. When he came back, people were swarming all over the dead bear's body, cutting off claws, ripping out its teeth.

Another crowd back then in the Many Glacier region of the park actually chased and stoned a bear for nearly half-a-mile.

They started near a horse corral, pummeled him all through a nearby parking lot, ran after him down a couple of nearby slopes, across a road and up nearby Altyn Peak, stoning him all the way.

A ranger who came late upon the scene later talked about the incident with Cheek. 

"He told me that was the most tolerant bear he ever saw," Cheek recalled.

It was a time when bears were seen almost as vermin to be killed and buried without thought.
"The common practice was shoot, shovel and shut up," Cheek said.

New-Found Respect

Now, though, the bears are a major attraction used to lure tourists. Grizzly sculptures and ads featuring the bears can be found all over this Montana region.

Their images are plastered on every possible product merchants can sell to the tourists.

"Now people are taking pictures of grizzly bears feeding on lawn clover out their window instead of shooting them," Cheek told CBN News.

"If you ask people that come to this park, 'What do you want to see?' they always want to see a bear. They're a magnet for people," said glacier ranger Michael Ober, who's also authored a book titled Glacier Album.

Bear spray could be a major reason for this warming up. This powerful spray, sort of like Mace on steroids, has turned out to be so fool-proof in turning back charging bears, it's killed much of the fear factor. 

"Each of us has a can of bear spray with us, and we've never ever had to use it," Cheek said of him and his wife.
Ober said there's also a respect factor towards the bears.

"You're just a temporary guest and visitor going through their living room. And that's the attitude to have," Ober explained.

Ober's impressed by how much grizzlies don't want to attack humans. 

"They just want to not have much to do with you," he said. "They don't like you; they don't like your smell, and avoidance is a part of their everyday lifestyle."
Retired ranger Jack Potter believes bear spray and a few safety tips like not traveling alone in bear country, and making noises like clapping or shouting can help keep you alive.

"The smaller tinkling bear bells aren't very effective," Potter shared. "The joke is that they're dinner bells."

Grizzly Etiquette

Cheek has written 13 books, almost all of which are about the Wild West. But his photo-filled Learning to Talk Bear is all about grizzlies. 

The book explores the social etiquette the big bears practice. For instance, they show respect by not looking directly at each other.

One day Cheek and his wife noticed a bear deliberately ignoring them.

"What he was trying to do -- he was practicing social etiquette among bears -- 'I don't see you,'" Cheek explained. 

Authorities like leading bear biologist Charles Jonkel told Cheek about, "common courtesies that the bears show each other that they transfer to us readily -- because, as far as Jonkel is concerned, to the bears, we are a kind of super-bear."

Developing these courtesies between man and grizzly could keep both off the endangered species list.

Cheek believes, for instance, humans need to reconsider how much they're bulldozing their way deeper and deeper into the wild land grizzlies once ruled.

"If we keep changing their primary feeding grounds to shopping malls and parking lots, there's no way they're going to make it into the next century," Cheek declared.

Cheek said he's all for making peace with the bears, not only for their sake, but for how much they add to an area that's still touched by the wonder of wilderness.

"We have to accept the fact that they're here or we have to change this place like every place else," Cheek said.

"And most of us who feel the way I do about Montana, if this is really the last best place, we don't want to change it," he said. 

And since authorities might still sometimes be forced to kill an angered animal, humans who might rile up these mighty beasts bear a serious responsibility.

"Your actions could determine what happens to these individual bears," Potter said. "And when you're talking about 300 bears today in the greater Glacier area, every bear's important."

--Published July 25, 2011

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.