A sow grazes along with her cub (there are two other spring cubs that are not in the photo), moving within two meters of our group of six photographers. This is what can be when grizzlies do not feel threatened by Homo sapiens. Photo by Scott W. Michael.
Is the contemporary grizzly the same beast described by Dr. William T. Hornaday and John M. Holzworth in my bear blog on May 17th (click here to review)? I would suggest that the answer to this question is yes and no. The behavior of bears towards people is greatly impacted by how the latter treats the former. If you are familiar with bear intelligence, this should not surprise you. These animals learn quickly and negative reinforcement is a good teacher. If they have had bad experiences with the human species they will behave accordingly. This usually means giving people an even wider berth.
Holzworth wrote, “Contact with man has not changed the bear from a savage and aggressive animal; contact with man has added considerable, however, to his native caution.” Likewise, Theodore Roosevelt states “Constant contact with rifle carrying hunters, for a period extending over many generations of bear life, has taught the grizzly by bitter experience that man is his undoubted overlord, as far as fighting goes; and this knowledge has become a hereditary characteristic.”
But what about in the lower 48 States where the grizzly has been protected for decades? Is the bear still as cautious as it was when it was regularly hunted? I would propose that few grizzlies that roam the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its adjacent environs are still impacted in negative ways by man. Bears are regularly hazed, if they become nuisances by regularly approaching too closely to camping areas or trails that are heavily utilized by hikers. For many years, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has attempted to discourage close contact between bear and people. And for good reason – our species often behaves inappropriately when interacting with other animal neighbors. There are incredible stories of mothers attempting to put their children on the backs of human-conditioned black bears or eagerly sharing their sack lunch with a nearby bruin. Food conditioned bears can be very dangerous. As a result, the Parks department and bear advocates constantly chant the “fed bear is a dead bear” mantra. But, many people choose not to listen and, as a result, directly negatively impact bear behavior.
Because of irresponsible people, the Feds have apparently decided it is best for bears and Homo sapiens to try and restrict contact between the two. This is done by shooting line-crossing (“bad”) bears with bean bags, rubber bullets or pyrotechnics. Grizzlies are also tranquilized and relocated. I have been told that during this process the bear is well aware of its surroundings. It sees the people as they lift and weigh it, as it is tagged or collared and slid it into the holding cage. It is simply paralyzed. It sees and smells “the aggressor” (people) and is well aware that humans are responsible for its discomfort. It views them as foe, not as friend (or even indifferently as it might view a rock or tree). Bears have amazing memories. In fact, the parks service is counting on the bear to remember. When they haze a bear, they assume that the problem bruin will remember the negative encounter which will dissuade it from returning to that location. (There is one thing that can overcome the bear’s desire to avoid pain and that is its desire to eat - even hazed bears will return to an area if they found easy pickings.)
While grizzlies in the lower 48 may not deal with hunters (this may change soon since the grizzly is no longer considered a threatened species), they do deal with humans that sometimes inflict pain and discomfort.
Now consider this question: which sow, with spring cubs in tow, is more likely to attack a hiker that stumbles across it and its family: one that has been hazed by humans or one where all of its experiences with humans have not been positive or negative (i.e., neutral)? It seems logical that the bear that has had threatening encounters with humans, is more dangerous than the one where human encounters have been neutral (no positive or negative stimulus). The hazed sow is more likely to look at humans as a threat to her progeny and is thus more likely to engage in a pre-emptive strike if she should suddenly be faced with a Homo sapien.
You only have to go to Katmai National Park to see how brown bears react to “neutral” human observers. In this ursid Shangri-La, grizzlies have few if any negative experiences with the Homo sapiens that move about the landscape during the summer months. Here sows with young cubs regularly approach to within 4 to 6 meters of groups of photographers without exhibiting any aggression at all. I have seen family units (consisting of a sow and one to three spring cubs) slowly move past our stationary group as mother bruin browsed on Carex “grass” or dug clams from the intertidal flats (see photos above). The female may have looked up at us as she chomped on a sedge salad, but exhibited no concern at all that her cubs were within spitting distance of humans. You would never (or it would be very unlikely to) have such an experience in a place like Yellowstone, where the relationship between bear and people is strained.
Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael