Grizzly Bears in the Pacific Northwest: Part 5

March 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

People in Montana and Northwestern Wyoming have been living and recreating in close proximity to grizzlies upon settlement. In Washington nobody has seen a grizzly in nearly 20 years. For those who do not live in grizzly country it is an animal associated with danger and fear. Common misconceptions and ignorance about grizzlies are major reasons why they have nearly gone extinct and may have an even tougher time recovering in The North Cascades. In Grizzly Wars David Knibb states, “Ignorance breeds fear. Ironically, because people around the Cascades lack firsthand experience with grizzlies, they are more afraid and thus more likely to oppose recovery efforts” (Knibb, 50).

People that do not live in grizzly country and those who have never encountered a grizzly before, like those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, are going to have the preconceived notion that the American culture has created about the grizzly, a culture created by the media to make a fixed story in our minds about what to believe about something. I have yet to see a Hollywood movie where the lost children or the lonesome cowboy come across a grizzly eating berries as it glances up noticing the people and simply returns to eating berries. Instead of this natural occurrence, the bear almost always attacks, only to have the children rescued by a brave outdoorsman or the cowboy besting the monster by pumping multiple gunshots into its pelt. This all too often scene has been played out hundreds of times through the American public’s television screens and feeds into the notion that man has dominion over all of nature. Wilderness is the antagonist and needs to be tamed and subdued by man, and nothing speaks of wilderness more than animals like wolves and grizzlies.

With this portrayal of the grizzly in mind that has been created by culture perspectives, we start to see that unless people encounter grizzlies in their natural occurrences people are going to have only the knowledge that they have been fed throughout their lives, and unfortunately the only knowledge people have about grizzlies comes from cultural perception. How then can these common misconceptions about grizzlies be eliminated? The answer lies in education.

A great place to start grizzly education is with the image of the grizzly itself. Most images of grizzlies portray either a male grizzly showing its teeth and ready to attack or a cute little cub with its mother. I Googled “Grizzly Bear” and 13 of the first 45 images showed grizzlies snarling their teeth, 3 of cubs, 1 eating salmon, 28 standing, and non eating berries. These images can create a public misconception about the grizzly here in the lower 48 that can be harmful to both humans and grizzlies.

People need to know that grizzlies are not carnivores but omnivores. Most people associate a grizzly as a ferocious predator that not only eats salmon and elk, but also will also stalk and kill a human for a meal. The truth of the matter is that grizzly bears are poor hunters and rarely eat meat. If we want to know the truth about grizzlies we have to change the images of the grizzly we see in the media. More images of grizzlies in their natural state should be shown and their natural state is eating berries and sleeping.

I would next like to take the image that people see of newborn bear cubs. Pictures indicate that cubs are cute and cuddly. Whereas grizzly cubs are very cute, the image of a cute and cuddly cub generates an emotion that humans associate with a pet. Grizzly cubs are not Labrador puppies; they are wild animals with an incredibly protective and potentially dangerous mother nearby. In places like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, which see a lot of tourist from all over the world, people can get the wrong idea from the image they have seen of a grizzly cub. They could approach it, get too close, or even worse, try to feed it. This is how many grizzly attacks occur.

Nothing depicts the false image of the grizzly better than Disney Nature documentary Bears released in the spring of 2014. The documentary featured all the quintessential Disney characteristics: impeccable cinematography, an emotional soundtrack, and moments of adventure that reach a climax scene. The documentary features a mother brown bear in Alaska that had just given birth to two young cubs. It is the classic story of bears in Alaska searching for salmon in their struggle for survival in the final frontier, but with the touch of Disney magic. The documentary does little to provide information and education about bears, but does do a very good job of showing cute bears cubs that are in constant danger. This plays well to our emotions, but can be dangerous in creating a false image of a wild and potentially dangerous animal.

Another popular Hollywood depiction of grizzly bears was created when Werner Herzog came out with Grizzly Man, a documentary featuring the life of Timothy Treadwell. This eccentric character, who for thirteen summers went into the Alaskan bush to live with and film brown bears, captivated America. The film shows many takes of Treadwell in dangerously close proximity to bears, sometimes even reaching out to touch them. Whereas Treadwell brought attention to the grizzly and claimed that they are not so much dangerous as misunderstood, some argue that he did more damage to the bears than help.

In the film a Native Alaskan explains this from Grizzly Man, Curator of Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum:

He tried to act like a bear, and for us on the island, you don’t do that. You don’t invade on their territory. When you’re in their territory, you know you’re there. And when you’re nearby, you make sure that they know you’re around. To me, it was the ultimate of disrespecting the bear and what the bear represents.  I think he did more damage to the bears than he did help. Because when you habituate bears to humans, they think all humans are safe. Where I grew up, the bears avoid us and we avoid them. They’re not habituated to us. If I look at it from my culture, Timothy Treadwell crossed a boundary that we have lived with for years. It’s an unspoken boundary, an unknown boundary. But when we know we’ve crossed it, we pay the price.

The problem with the false connotation associated with the grizzly that these mediums have created is that it fails to see the grizzly for what it truly is, a large and potentially dangerous animal that plays an important role in the ecosystem. The grizzly’s image and perception as a bloodthirsty, man-killing beast dates back hundreds of years, and a perception that is 200 years old is tough to shift. When people tend to think of the grizzly they either think of it as cute and cuddly cubs, the spirit of the wilderness, or a evil man-killer. If the grizzly is to recover in the North Cascades we must begin to portray an accurate image of the grizzly. An image that is not based bon myths and movies, but from accurate science, statistics, and education.

Mike has also written Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of this series along with a series on wolves.

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