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The misunderstood grizzly: Three experts discuss why brown bears deserve respect rather than fear

By Jordan Reeves on April 18, 2014 in News + Updates

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In the 1800s, around 50,000 brown bears — or grizzlies — roamed much of the Western United States. Today, those bears can only be seen in less than two percent of their former range.

TED-Ed Educator David Laskin uses NASA satellites to track the shifting, interrelated patterns of grizzlies and plants. In the lesson, “Tracking grizzly bears from space,” he shares how he uses his data to help protect the threatened bears. TED-Ed invited Laskin and two other bear experts — naturalist wildlife guide Simyra Taback, who is on the front lines and observes, studies and teaches about bears on a daily basis, and nature documentarian Keith Scholey, who witnessed these majestic animals in the wild while directing the newest Disneynature documentary, Bears (which arrives in theaters on April 18, 2014!) — to have a three-way conversation about the current state of bears.

What attracted you to the study of bears?

David Laskin: What got me interested in bears is that they are pretty enigmatic. They share a lot of similarities with humans. They have generalist life history strategies; they have long maternal periods; they’re intelligent and they’re playful. They’re also kind of intimidating and scary. So, they easily piqued my curiosity. I live right along the interface between human settlements and bear habitat. And I see how their numbers are being affected by economic development and human activity.

Simyra Taback: Well, I grew up on a farm, and there was always wildlife there: coyotes, wolves, lynx. I started photography when I was about 14, with one of those little Kodak disk cameras, and that was kind of fun. Then as I got older, it progressed from there.  I started going out with Fish and Wildlife in northern Alberta to study the black bears in the area. I always wanted to see brown bears, so I took a trip to Alaska one year. I fell in love with the bears. I moved up to Alaska the following year and I’ve been there ever since — about 14 years.

Keith Scholey: Bears are so similar to us. You find so many parallels in a bear’s world that fit with a human’s. I think this is why we find them so engaging. I think people come into conflict with bears simply because often we would be going for the same food source — they fish in the same salmon rivers where we fish. The other thing about bears is that they are really smart. I mean, very, very smart. You can sort of see them working stuff out. They have personality, and they’re also very funny.

I think there is another side which always fascinated me: brown bears are either the teddy bear or the monster. How do you square the teddy bear and the monster? Well, bears are neither — they’re somewhere in the middle. But they’re far more like the teddy than the monster, that’s for sure.


Photo: Courtesy of Disney

So interesting that you say bears are funny. Do you have a funny anecdote about your time with bears?

Simyra Taback: They’re very playful. They’ll play with the driftwood logs and other stuff that floats up on the beach, like those plastic buoys that break off of fishing nets. Two cubs will kick a plastic buoy down the beach like it’s a soccer ball, and they’ll pick it up and throw it up in the air, just like little kids. They love to play. We see interaction between bear cubs and other wildlife like ravens or foxes. Sometimes, the bear will chase the fox down the beach and then they both stop, turn around, and the fox will chase the bear. Wildlife interacting with each other, in a natural habitat — just bears being bears — is great to see.

Stuart Brown’s TED Talk shares a story about an adult wolf and an adult polar bear playing in the wild — it’s fascinating. Have you ever seen anything like that?

Simyra Taback: We see that in the older male bears during the fishing season — we always say a full bear is a happy bear. You get one thousand pound brown bears and they play wrestle with each other. It’s like a bunch of little kids.

So bears have individual personalities? Do you think you could get to know a bear?

Simyra Taback: They do. We can pick individual bears out just by the way they walk, their habits, their personality quirks. Every bear is an individual. It’s great to watch. Bears are so unique.

Keith, Simyra was your wildlife guide for Bears. Did you ever see this playful side of bears?

Keith Scholey: Yes! [During filming], we were just sitting on a pile of driftwood, as you do by the beach, and this big old bear is wandering towards us. I’m asking Simyra, “So, what’s this bear going to do?” This bear just keeps on coming. So I say, “Hey Simyra! It’s coming straight at us still.” At a certain point, Simyra says, “Whoops, I’m going to have to go and do something about this.”

She takes a few steps forward, and sort of starts talking to the bear, and the bear keeps on coming, and then she changes her voice with the bear, and the bear slows down a bit. Simyra carries what we jokingly call the deadly rain pants. She never wears these rain pants; she always carries them tucked into her belt. So, she gets out the deadly rain pants. And she just flicks them at the bear. The bear says, “Oh! I don’t know about that.” Then the bear deviates and walks around us. That’s the end of that, and that’s a very typical kind of encounter you would have with a brown bear. The really sad thing is that most people experiencing that would probably have shot the bear. They would’ve thought they were in terrible danger. But we both knew there was no danger. The bear was very relaxed; the bear was minding his own business.

With that said, bears in different places behave very differently. And there’s some places where it would be extremely unwise to allow a big brown bear to come too close to you. But in Katmai National Park, where we were, you don’t have any difficulties with bears because you’re never really threatened by them.


Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Are the bears that you study in danger themselves?

Simyra Taback: Any wildlife, especially large wildlife, is in danger in one form or another. With the bays freezing over later and later, the polar bears are losing a lot of their food sources. So the polar bears are going to have to adapt, or they’re going to die. Obviously in areas where there’s hunting or poaching, there’s a danger to the brown bear. But not only that, overpopulated areas keep encroaching onto the bear’s habitat, and that’s going to affect, among other things, their food sources.

David, how big of a problem is poaching?

David Laskin: Illegal poaching is just part of it. Mortality incidents are often accidental, and it’s just because there’s more human activity on the border between where people like to live and the wilderness. So, cars are hitting bears, and hunters are shooting brown bears thinking that they are deer or a different species of bear. Some hunters may even shoot a brown bear out of fear or self-defense. There is malicious, illegal poaching. People go out and look for a grizzly to kill, or they just opportunistically shoot them. This year we lost three of our study bears. They had GPS collars on them, and they were found in various areas across the study area because the GPS signals stopped moving. Sadly, they were shot from the side of the road.

Keith, I’d love to talk to you about this perception that bears are monsters. Do you think bears are dangerous?

Keith Scholey: If you statistically look at the most dangerous animal on the planet, I’m sorry to say it’s [humans].

You and I will quite happily go into a bar or restaurant full of people, and we’ll feel no sense of danger if it’s the right bar or the right restaurant. We might go into the wrong bar or wrong restaurant and feel a sense of danger. It’s very similar to that with bears. If you have bears that have lived in a place where they have had no reason to have fear of humans, they’ve had no reason to come into conflict.

So I would say, absolutely – brown bears can be incredibly dangerous animals. You have to know where you’re going, where you’re seeing them, and where you’re experiencing them. By and large, listen to the experts on the ground in that particular place. At Katmai National Park, hundreds of people every day are coming into direct contact with brown bears, and in the history of that park, I believe there have been two fatalities. Those were real freak incidents. With that kind of statistic, the most dangerous part about visiting Katmai National Park is the flight in. The bear isn’t the problem.


Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Is there anything that we can do to help protect bears, and maybe change their reputation?

Simyra Taback: Bears want to be left alone. They’re not as dangerous as people think they are, but people actually create the danger. People that go camping and leave food and garbage behind are creating opportunities for the bears to get into trouble. Once a bear realizes that campsites are a food source, they’re going to continue to look in those places — they relate humans to food sources.

A bear has an incredible sense of smell. If you throw that food item in the garbage, your human scent stays on that food item as well. Just say it’s an apple core that you’ve thrown out in the wilderness. If a bear eats that apple, it smells the scent of the apple plus the scent of the human. Now this doesn’t mean that the bear is going to sniff out a human and use the human as a food source, obviously. But he’s going to relate the fact that I got food from a person — or this thing that smells like a person — so then when he comes across an area that smells like people, it might think, “I got food from something that smelled like that before, I think I can get that again.”

Leaving a cooler with the lid closed is not going to protect what’s in the cooler. It’s funny how a lot of people think, “Oh! I put it in the back of my pickup truck, or I put it in my car.” That’s not going to protect it. That’s why they start breaking into vehicles that have food in them. People don’t realize that you can’t smell the food that’s in your vehicle from the outside, but a bear certainly can. People should be more conscious of that. Clean up your campsites, don’t leave garbage and don’t leave food. If you keep the area clean, that’s going to keep the bears away from the area. That’s going to make the area safer for people to enjoy the wilderness.


Photo: Courtesy of Disney

David, what’s your take on this?

David Laskin: My lesson looks at when bears are using different parts of their habitat at different times of the year. I think it’s possible to go into a bear’s habitat at certain times of the year, and then when we know the bears are active in certain areas, then we can check out for a while. I think that’s the goal: to have that balance. 

It’s built into our psyche that these are big scary predators — something to be afraid of. I think that’s ingrained in us since the time of the first North American settlement — it took 100 years for 98% of the grizzly population in the lower 48 states to be eliminated. There’s inertia from this kind of pioneer mindset that bears are something to be purged from the landscape because they’re in direct conflict with what humans want to do.

To reduce that fear, we have to educate. The more people that know about bears, the more the ingrained fear is reduced. A lot of people rob themselves of the experience of enjoying the wilderness because they’re too scared. How you behave in the wilderness has a direct impact on how bears will respond to you. Grizzlies specifically don’t like to be surprised or feel threatened. That’s why people carry bells or make noise when they walk because it gives the bears a heads up that you’re sharing their habitat. If they know you’re coming, they can move out of the way. They’ll leave long before you ever get there. But if you come around the corner and the bear can’t hear you coming, the bear will perceive you as a threat. They’re not predatory in the sense that they’re out there actively hunting people; they’re just trying to neutralize the threat. They’re just eating berries most of the time.

If you could do another lesson about bears, what would it concentrate on?

David Laskin: Reducing that fear, learning how to coexist, and more about their intriguing natural history.

Keith, I’m interested to know why you made this movie about bears.

Keith Scholey: When you see what a mother bear goes through in the first year of raising cubs, you just think, “Wow! What a mom!” I think when you see the bears and their struggle — respect comes with that. You actually see that for a bear in the wild, life is tough. And I think the general gentle nature of bears will come across.

But the film is not unrealistic. You do see some violent scenes — bear on bear. It’s an honest portrayal of a bear’s world. I think that by seeing that honest portrayal, you’ll end up getting a feeling of huge respect for them. I hope people will value them because they will have enjoyed seeing their story. And then once you’re in the valuing stage, you get action. People go see bears, or they help to conserve bears, and so on and so forth. That’s the route we would like people to go down. And I think the cinema is a wonderful way to do that. In the cinema, you can immerse people for over an hour in the world of bears.

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Any final thoughts?

Simyra Taback: Respect. The more respect we have for ourselves and for the wilderness and for the environment that the bears live in, the longer we’re going to be able to have this natural asset in the world. Everyone deserves to live and enjoy where they want to live, and that includes the wildlife as well. Respect it before it’s gone.

Keith Scholey: Disneynature Bears is about the coastal brown bear, which people call grizzlies. There’s a cast of other characters — like wolves and eagles and various others that kind of come into the story — but it’s pretty much a bear movie. Bears are animals you can build complete trust with and live together in the same space alongside once you’ve built that trust. That allowed us to make the film we made. They were always running away from us over the hillside — but then they completely let us into their world, and that is amazing.

David Laskin: I agree that the more you learn about nature or a specific species, the more eager you’ll be to protect that species. You’ll tell your friends and get them enthused. So I think that’s a gateway. But everyone has different interests — the wilderness isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s the cool thing about TED-Ed. It’s a consumable, interesting way to spread lessons about things that people may not have known about — things they didn’t even know they had an interest in. And from that interest and learning more, they’ll start to care about the world around them. They’ll start to realize that we all have to operate together in order to keep the planet moving in a positive direction.

For more info on Disneynature’s Bears, click here. >>