Grizzlies and black bears in southern Alberta face a grim future if public perception of them doesn’t change soon, according to local bear expert Charlie Russell.
“These are wonderful, beautiful animals that are trying their best to get along with us,” says Russell, a Pincher Creek area author and photographer who has been studying bears in Canada and Russia for more than 50 years.
“It’s almost like bears have been deliberately given the reputation of being highly ferocious animals because then it’s easier to justify hunting and killing them.”
Russell will be presenting his insights into bear behaviour on Saturday, Feb. 8 at the University of Lethbridge after spending the past 52 years closely observing the nature of these animals in their natural habitat.
His experience includes an 18-year exploration of how grizzlies used and shared his ranch situated on the boundary of Waterton/Glacier International Park near the border between Alberta and Montana. During this time he developed systems that allowed his cattle and the bears to co-exist.
He also lived on Princess Royal Island in British Columbia among the Kermode “Spirit Bears” for two years creating a film with award-winning wildlife filmmakers Jeff and Sue Turner and authoring a book chronicling his time spent with the animals.
Following that experience, he lived at the heart of a dense population of brown bears in the wild and remote area of Kamchatka, Russia. For 10 years, he pioneered raising orphaned cubs rescued from a Russian zoo, along with research partner Maureen Enns.
Russell says they managed to develop bonds with the cubs, as well as several wild bears living in the region. He says the cubs grew into peaceful, trustworthy adult bears that demonstrated no signs of violence or aggression toward humans.
“Some of our photographs show me quite close to the bears — I don’t recommend that this is how everyone should approach bears, but it does demonstrate what is possible when trust is built,” he says.
Russell’s latest book, “Grizzly Heart — Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka,” recounts his Russian experience and has been published in five languages. Several films have also been made about the experience, including a 1997 PBS documentary titled “Nature: Walking with Giants, the Grizzlies of Siberia” and a BBC film titled “Bear Man of Kamchatka.”
A 90-minute theatre production entitled “The Edge of Eden,” by Jeff and Sue Turner, which has won 12 awards in both European and North American film festivals, is also based on the Kamchatka research.
Russell, who still lives on the family ranch that was pioneered by his father — well-known conservationist Andy Russell — says bears have suffered from being poorly managed in the past. He attributes this to the “hunting culture” of our society, as well as the perceived need to protect the public from danger.
“Bear managers have taught the bears to be fearful of humans in order to keep them away by using rubber bullets, bean bags, chasing them with dogs, and making a lot of noise,” he says. “This constant conflict eventually builds up a lot of bad feelings and mistrust and bears treated this way should be avoided because they have a long memory.”
Russell says the public has been sold on the concept that bears are dangerous and need to be avoided. “If we fear an animal, we don’t much care about what happens to it,” he adds.
He says his experience with bears has been much different and shows what is possible when mutual trust and respect is built between the humans and bears.
“I went to Russia to study two questions — are bears unpredictable and are they dangerous if they lose their fear of humans,” he explains. “I found neither to be true. Man is by far more unpredictable. A bear has no idea what to expect when it meets a human and many a bear has died because it lacked fear.”
Russell says bears don’t do well where we want them to be, which is up high in the mountains away from people on land that is very unproductive food wise for the bear.
“It’s a tremendous advantage for them to be social with us because they need to share the land with us in order to access food sources so they can survive,” he says. “It’s a matter of life and death for them.”
Bears need to double their body weight of about 180 kilograms during the warmer months in order to survive a five-to seven-month hiberation when they don’t consume food. It is also during this time that the young are born.
“They are not highly successful predators — they don’t hunt very well, so they really need the plant-based food,” Russell says, noting that bears will scavange dead animals if happened upon.
Recently, a larger number of grizzly bears have been coming down out of the southern Alberta mountains to co-exist among the ranchers and farmers in southern Alberta, notably along the Milk River Ridge, he says.
“They’re quite at home on the prairies and it is part of their natural habitat,” he says, noting that it was documented by officials at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan in 1873 that about 760 grizzly bears had been killed that year near the fort.
They are moving further east again, with the number of sightings in the Milk River town site and in the grain fields around Del Bonita on the rise, he says.
“People aren’t hunting them or shooting them on sight as often as they did in the past, but they are still unwelcome by the majority of landowners,” Russell says. “Unless we learn how to get along with them better, I’m afraid the bears are in trouble.”
Besides educating the public through his presentations, Russell is working to bring co-existence home through the Pacific Rim Grizzly Bear Co-Existence Study.
Russell’s presentation will be held at the First Choice Savings Centre at the U of L in Room PE250 beginning at 1 p.m. Tickets are $20 (regular) and $15 for students.
For more information, visit his website at http://charlierussellbears.com/.