The Bear Truth


Mar 11, 2001
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The Bear Truth

by Reid Collins of The American Spectator

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has done it now. No grizzly bears for the Bitterroot, the wilderness that keeps Idahoans out of Montana. She has withdrawn plans to introduce some 25 of the endangered bears into the region, upsetting the National Wildlife Federation and others who see the vanishing bear as a poignant symbol of a nation's natural past.

In reversing gears, Secretary Norton has gladdened Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican who had sued to keep the bear project out, describing the projected interjections as "massive, flesh-eating carnivores," a description applauded by local residents who never were enthused by the prospect of 800-pound new neighbors who go by the scientific moniker, Ursus horribilis.

Uncle Sam's ambivalence toward horribilis has been evident for 200 years, since Lewis and Clark discovered the great white bears not only in the mountains but also out on the plains, and on islands in the Missouri River. For years the administrators of Yellowstone Park, for example, allowed the feeding of bears -- garbage from the big hotels, tidbits from cars whose occupants would be hailed by wheedling bears.

This reporter recalls many a bear jam caused by traffic backed up by people feeding bears by the side of the road. In some attic trunk exists a photo of a man standing with a grizzly paw on either shoulder and holding as high as he could a jar of honey into which horribilis had thrust its pliable tongue to extract the last golden sip.

The danger was the mathematical likelihood of running out of food before the bears ran out of appetite. It happened to me and a cinnamon bear to which I could not pitch cookies fast enough through the car window. In moments he was on the running board of the car, head and paws through the back window. (Yes, running board; it was that long ago.) As I attempted to keep the cookies coming, my mother shouted, "Give her the goose, Raymond!" (my father's name) and soon we were hurtling along the treed two-lane highway, a bear stuck fast to the car, my grandmother in the front passenger seat leaning forward as far as the years would allow, bear spittle flying fore and aft. "Faster, Raymond," the back seat command. And soon, providentially, a curve rose ahead, a convex curve taken by my father on two wheels. The bear left and last was seen tumbling down a Yellowstone Park embankment. I'll not bother with the rest; commands about the end of my bear largess, complaints about the damage to Grandmother's permanent wave gotten just for the Yellowstone excursion.

Park management, and bears, have changed. Long before it became the belief by management that an occasional holocaust would be good for the western forests, there came a park policy called "bear management." Garbage dump feeding was forbidden. Traditional bear feeding grounds were closed. Tourists were warned not to feed bears, not to stop for them. It worked. Under bear management you may now drive all week through Yellowstone Park and never see a bear.

But bears have changed also, and especially horribilis. No one is sure why. Time was hikers could walk from one side of the continental divide in Montana to the other, through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and see scores of bears, most of them black but some grizzlies. And camp out every night in a sleeping bag. You could hike from Swan Lake up to little mountain lakes filled with trout and watch bears feeding in the berry bushes along the way and not give them a second thought.

Now hikers wear "bear bells" on their shoes to warn Ursus of their approach. Large cans of mace are sold that would stop a charging rhino. Foresters close trails to all when a bear is merely sighted on the path. Yet, nearly every year, there is a grizzly bear attack, often fatal, in Glacier National Park. Theories abound. One is that grizzlies are often "tranquilized" and transported out of areas where they've gotten into trouble. And the theory goes there is something in the tranquilizer that changes the nature of the bear, and not for the better. Could it be an inherited, genetic-based trait? (There is current psychological research indicating that serotonin enhancers, Prozac, Zoloft and the like, produce permanent structural changes in the brain.),

In abandoning the Bitterroot bear introduction, Secretary Norton indicates a desire to concentrate on those areas where the few grizzlies left in the lower 48 already live. Perhaps there'll be some more research into the relationship between Ursus and Homo.

With the hope that a little sapience can be brought to bear.

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.

(Posted 6/22/01)

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