Ursus Horribilis In Extremis

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Bears and people have been at war for a long time-possibly longer than two predatory mammals should be, with any hope of mutual survival. In the beginning, the bears won almost every time, though not as often as the great cats did. Together with the great cats, bears provided spice to the human experience. People were obliged to defend themselves, were forced to think . Fires were lit at the mouth of the cave. Weapons were invented. Then the bears began to lose. People pictured them on the walls of caves. In some cultures, bears became as gods, and apologies were offered even as huntsmen plunged their lances through the bear’s hide. Next, there were legends and tall tales at the campfires. Smokey put on his ranger hat. Gentle Ben smiled for the television camera. Soon, a few people began to root for the bear, or at least for a truce.

They offered renewed apologies even as they designated one kind of bear a threatened species throughout much of its historic range. This was Ursus horribilis , the great silvertip grizzly, the onetime scourge of mountain men and cowboys, the epicenter of the back-country camper’s darkest dream, the largest, the deadliest, the most fearsome fang-and-claw critter on the North American continent.

It was a fine gesture, this effort to protect the bear, but late. Once, the grizzly ranged far and wide; east from the Pacific coast halfway to the Atlantic, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. But most are gone now. The grizzly was gone from California by 1922, from Utah by 1923, from Oregon and Arizona and New Mexico by 1935 or earlier; so long gone from the Dakotas that few citizens of those states are old enough to remember the last of the breed thereabouts. Though sizable and somewhat stable grizzly populations still prevail in Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska, the bear’s range in the coterminus United States is sharply pinched. It is about four hundred miles long and from one hundred to two hundred miles wide; it embraces Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and spills somewhat questionably across the Idaho panhandle above Coeur d’Alêne into the northeast corner of Washington State. Considering what used to be, that isn’t much of a kingdom. Not for the grizzly, anyway.

In all likelihood, most of the 750 to one thousand grizzlies remaining in the Lower Forty-eight are confined to the near precincts of Glacier and Yellowstone parks, where, despite increasing human pressure on the back country, bears find fewer opportunities to test the marksmanship or trapping skills of people who still perceive predators darkly from the mouth of an ideological cave.

Rooting for bears, as I do, one has to believe that the grizzly deserves to find its own way to extinction, unhurried and unaided by humankind, like the brontosaur before it. But that kind of going is out of fashion these days; it is almost impossible when, on the one hand, you have a large animal capable of homicide, and on the other, ideological cavemen with high-powered rifles, builders of logging roads and condominium resorts, tenders of sheep and cows, miners of ores, and others who press their claims to some part of the bear’s diminishing world. So the war goes on, protective rulings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notwithstanding.

To be sure, the nation will not perish should the grizzly disappear altogether. But something of importance will be missing nonetheless. I mean the cultural loss, the purging of risk and danger from a wilderness that is already safe enough for all but the errant fool. I believe that to qualify as wilderness a piece of country requires something special: a presence larger and stronger than a man, and wiser to the woods, and fully capable of killing. It is not essential that one encounter such a presence. It is enough to know that it is there.

The history of Ursus horribilis is a capsule history of the American West. No other single wild species—not even the wolf or the cougar—has figured quite so prominently in the literature of exploration and settlement beyond the hundredth meridian.

Paleontologists tell us that somewhere to the north and west is where it all began—likely in the early Pleistocene forests of Asia, in the form of a large brown bear since immortalized as Ursus etruscus . About thirty thousand years ago came great sheets of ice. The forest became sparse and coniferous. In some places taiga and tundra took over. The bear adapted. Ursus etruscus became Ursus arctos. And one fine morning in Siberia, Arctos gazed out upon a shallow Bering Sea and saw a bridge of tundra reaching to America.

No doubt it took the bear many millennia to wander through what is now Alaska into the coastal ranges of the Northwest, to the Sierra Nevada, to the Rockies, to the parched hills of Mexico. With a preference for open country, the bear ranged eastward, moseying along the rich river bottoms of the Great Plains, growing fat on berries and ungulate prey. There is fossil evidence that some grizzlies crossed the Mississippi River and poked tentatively into the hardwood forests of Ohio. But mostly the species backed off and retreated with the sun, leaving the East to Ursus americanus (the black bear) and to the woodland Indians who would come later.