… a most tremendious looking animal, and extreemly hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar and it was at least twenty minutes before he died; he made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.
— Meriwether Lewis; May 5, 1805
There are roughly 500 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem (the three million acres of Yellowstone National Park, plus six million acres comprising six surrounding national forests in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho). This is up from approximately 200 in 1975, when they were listed as “threatened” under the auspices of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). There are 700-800 more scattered from northwestern Montana to the Washington Cascades. Grizzlies have recovered so well in the last generation that they are now candidates for “delisting” under the ESA, a “process” causing much legal and bureaucratic wrangling among multiple federal agencies, environmental groups, and the Fish and Wildlife Services of three states. But all that is fodder for another article.
The bears as encountered in newspaper stories or as the subject of government reports found on obscure official websites become abstract: the estimated numbers of breeding-age sows extant, sow-cub ratios, current mortality rates, etc. Then there’s the overall health of the habitat: Will drought affect the whitebark pine nut crop? Army cutworm moths? Serviceberry, Buffaloberry, Whortleberry? But life in the Northern Rockies means that the grizzlies aren’t merely the subject of weekend trip to the zoo or the stars of bad nature television programming. Out here we tend to bump into them.
I’ve seen eight. Three from the relatively safe confines of a car at the roadside; two from the comfortable distance that required observation with binoculars. And three in a close encounter I will describe later.
When on all fours, even the largest seem small because of their short legs. This doesn’t inhibit their ability to run up to 40 MPH over short distances. They have large heads and prominent shoulder humps that are a mass of muscle and the center of the incredible strength that permits them to break an elk’s back with one swipe of a paw or to excavate a large hillside while digging rockchucks out of their dens. They are omnivorous and will eat anything from winterkilled elk, deer and bison carrion to summertime grasses, forbs and berries, and the human food left by careless campers. Unlike the dog-like faces of black bears, grizzlies have a “dish-shaped” profile, that is, a flat, concave face with rounded Teddy Bear-like ears. They walk pigeon-toed, and their tracks are noted for long, finger-like elegantly curled claws of two or three inches. Boars can weigh up to half a ton; sows usually in the 300-600 pound range. In an interesting Darwinian twist, stray boars will readily kill and cannibalize cubs. Thus a sow in defense of cubs is noted for her ferocity and will usually drive away a boar up to twice her size. And this defensive instinct certainly applies to people.
On the same day as the John F. Kennedy, Jr. aviation tragedy in July 1999, I had a scary encounter with a sow grizzly and her two cubs while hiking on the North Fork of the Shoshone River a few miles from the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The two events will be forever fixed in my mind as being related.
I had had my lunch at the edge of an old grassy forest fire burn that I scanned with my binoculars while I ate. This was a security measure. Because of the variety of available food — from bugs to roots to berries — self-rejuvenating snag-strewn burns are popular with grizzlies in midsummer. It was a warm, breezy day with sluggish cumulous clouds dragging shadows across the surrounding mountains, and I dozed off while sitting propped up against a log. As I snoozed for a few minutes, the buffeting wind and river sound seemed far away.
Upon awakening, I shouldered my pack to resume the hike. The river was nearby just over a nearby hillock and down in some cottonwoods. I decided to check it out. I scanned the burn one more time and saw nothing but acre upon acre of blackened snags studding the breeze-waved carpet of grass and wildflowers. I left the trail and crested the little rise — and froze.
About a hundred feet away a large round sow grizzly nosed in the grass by the river. Two cubs of the year wrestled playfully near her. The sow’s windblown furry rump faced me, and the cubs were preoccupied with their play. Grizzlies are nearsighted, so she didn’t see me, and being behind her favored me. I must have been upwind because her keen sense of smell didn’t scent me, even the whole time I was snoring through half my lunch with only the little grassy knoll between us. And if either cub had detected my presence they would have alerted her, and millions of years of evolutionary ursine motherly instinct would have been on me in seconds. A rule of thumb in grizzly country is don’t hike alone, but in this case the presence of other people would have complicated things with movement, voices, etc. As it was, I was for a split second frozen in time, and in the frame was the bear and the cubs, and the flashing river with a soundtrack of chattering water and thudding wind. I had hit the cosmic lottery of luck. God watches over drunks and idiots.
I simply backed up over the hillock and temporarily out of sight again, then turned and ran a couple of hundred yards back up the trail, where I climbed atop a huge boulder and watched the bears with my binoculars. The tumbling, playful cubs stood about a foot and a half tall, and were marked by white furry bibs on their chests. Mother continued her nosing in the grass, and with an easy push of a paw rolled over an old log to see what insect delicacies lay beneath.
On the way back to town that evening I heard the first reports of the Kennedy tragedy on the car radio. By the time I got home CNN was all over it. In a different set of circumstances, John Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law would not have had their plane crash or would have survived it. In a different set of circumstances, the sow grizzly would have killed me.
While I cooked dinner my eyes were glued to CNN. Life is luck, I thought.
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