Grizzlies-Lords of the Frontier
Updated: May 4
The most magnificent apex predator still roaming the wilds of the West. But it and its habitats are severely endangered.
The tale of the North American grizzly bear, like that of the wolf and other magnificent apex predators, is a complicated tale of human awe, pathological fear, admiration, hatred, and ultimately a tragic story of unbridled demonization and decimation of the species to near extinction. Today, grizzly bear habitat has been eliminated by 98% in the lower 48 states. It's original habitat ranged from Mexico to Alaska and Canadian territory on Hudson Bay. Now it's territory is severely limited to isolated areas of Alaska, Canada, and small spots near Yellowstone. Likewise, the continental population has diminished from more than 50,000 during the time of Lewis and Clark to about 1,000-1,400. Those numbers only survived through the Endangered Species Act of 1975.
There are six small areas where grizzlies can still be found in the lower 48:
-The North Cascades Ecosystem in north central Washington.
-The Selkirk Ecosystem in northern Idaho, northeastern Washington, and southeastern British Columbia.
-The Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwest Montana and northern Idaho.
-The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in northwest Montana.
-The Bitterroot Ecosystem in the Bitterroot Mountains of east central Idaho and western Montana.
-The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in northwest Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and southwest Montana.
Some sources suggest that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado have also had possible grizzly bear occurrences. But, sadly, there has been no evidence of that since a bear was killed there in 1979.
During the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1804, both explorers wrote of numerous accounts of sightings (and killings) of Grizzly bears, especially in the Upper Missouri.
Many early white Americans and immigrants who came in the 1800s brought with them a pathological fear of wolves and bears wrought from centuries of terrifying fairy tales, legends and hunting lore that resulted in demonization and decimation of both species on the European continent. That fear was imported to the New World with a vengeance. The prevailing philosophy was much like the white regard for Indians and General Sheridan's motto: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." No fate was thought to be too cruel or extreme, as long as all the beasts were killed.
Below is the 1934 film short, "Roping Wild Bears." Be forewarned, this is not easy to watch and the poor bears are not ferocious man-eaters but adolescent black bears. Note how the drama is heightened, depicting terrified little children holding piglets as potential victims and a staged bear attack in a barn, to demonize the bears. (Black bears are opportunists and will attack small livestock like chickens or shoats, but very rarely would attempt to attack a mature cow, horse or human.)
Of course, a marauding grizzly that had become accustomed to killing livestock on an isolated ranch (as depicted in the 1966 classic, "The Night of the Grizzly" with Clint Walker) was terrifying and threatened the very existence of settlers in the frontier. But there lies the rub....for it seemed there was no middle ground for co-existing with apex predators whose habitat had been claimed in North America eons before whites came to the land. Complete decimation was the unequivocal answer.
Legends abounded of monster killer grizzlies, fed by writers (those darn writers!) who painted adventures with awe-struck exaggeration and grisly details that accompany tales of most feared monsters in the human psyche. One particular writer, Henry Brackenridge, did more to feed fear of the grizzly than any other. "This animal" he wrote, "is the monarch of the country he inhabits. The African lion, or the tyger of Bengal, are not more terrible or fierce. He is the enemy of man; and literally thirsts for human blood. So far from shunning, he seldom fails to attack; and even to hunt him."
Brackenridge's "Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River" was published in 1814, the same year that Lewis and Clark's first edition of their journals came out. Both were rife with terrifying accounts of the enormous grizzlies so large and fierce as to boggle the mind. Lewis wrote of one humongous grizzly taking ten bullets before he was downed. Americans were mesmerized and terrified at the same time and could not read the accounts fast enough. It is no wonder that a mania to destroy the bear and the wolf resulted in nearly complete extinction of both by the 1920s. (The fear of wild predators was even more heightened by the fear of rabies, which, when contracted, was truly horrifying and was known to exist on the frontier. See past post: Rabies on the Frontier.)
Many legends grew out of the grizzly bear mania sweeping the West. One of the most popular was the Legend of Old Slew Foot (or Old Reel Foot), which first came from the Smoky Mountains area. The bear was called "slew foot" because his tracks indicated he twisted his hind feet when walking. Many other Big Slew Foots or Big Reel Foots followed in the legend of the Smoky Mountains' bigger-than-life tracks. Their legends spread across the land to the swamps of Florida, the Flathead River area of Montana, the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon, and as far west as California.
In 1898, the San Francisco Call newspaper reported the death of Old Reelfoot, “a grizzly that terrorized four counties.” The bear had been accused of many crimes--which grew with each telling--that included carrying off children, killing and eating a horse while its rider climbed a nearby tree, killing hounds, raiding a pigsty, killing a ranch foreman and a sheepherder. The bear eluded hunters until it was driven from its hiding place by a forest fire and shot.
But with the loss of these lordly, albeit ferocious and sometimes deadly, creatures came a loss of the true and wild nature of the frontier, as well. Today, we have more options, more science, more strategies, more knowledge of bear behavior that can help us co-exist with apex predators. It is important to protect their habitats and give them space. Otherwise, we--or they--pay the price. The people of the First Nations honored them, respected them, gave them space and learned to co-exist with them. We must do the same if we want to preserve any of what little is left of the American frontier.
"Grizzlies: Lords of the Frontier" was first published on NotesfromtheFrontier.com and Facebook on March 10, 2020.
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-The True Life of Grizzly Adams
-Rabies on the Frontier
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