Endangered Species Handbook

Print PDF of Section or Chapter

Persecution and Hunting


The immense Grizzly or Brown Bear, which once roamed the prairies and woodlands of western North America, inspired awe and fear in explorers and settlers alike. For thousands of years, Native Americans revered this bear. The Cree called it a four-legged human, and other tribes considered it a brother or cousin. They felt a kinship based on its intelligence and respected its great strength. They could not easily hunt it with bows and arrows, and when wounded, it showed great courage defending itself, able to cause severe injuries or death with its 5-inch claws.
The Grizzly reigned as the fearsome and unchallenged king of all wildlife on the continent, numbering at least 100,000 prior to the arrival of Europeans (Nowak 1999). These extremely adaptable bears lived in every western North American habitat except deserts. Arriving from Asia by way of the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago when sea levels were lower, Grizzlies gradually colonized western regions, the biggest of an array of large carnivores that inhabited the continent at that time, including dire wolves, hyenas and sabre-toothed cats. They survived the frigid and harsh climate of the Pleistocene Ice Age. They thrived in prairies, especially those with scattered woodlands. In the 1500s, their range extended from the Arctic tundra south through the shortgrass prairie to the pine forests of northern Mexico, and west to the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the original range of the Grizzly Bear may have been larger than previously thought, reaching east to the Atlantic in Canada. A Grizzly skull has been found in a midden of the late 18th century, and pelts of these bears reportedly were taken in Labrador as late as 1927 (Nowak 1999).
Grizzly Bears of North America and Brown Bears of Eurasia were previously considered separate species, but today they are classified as a single one, Ursus arctos. The bears that live along the southern Alaskan coast and offshore islands, such as the Kodiak, are the world's largest carnivores (Nowak 1999). Weighing up to 780 kilograms (1,716 pounds), Kodiak Grizzlies have a shoulder height up to 1,500 millimeters (58.5 inches, or almost 5 feet), and a body length ranging up to 2,800 millimeters (109.2 inches, or 9 feet) (Nowak 1999). Standing height can be almost 12 feet. Adult males are larger than adult females. North American Grizzlies are far larger than bears of the same species native to southern Europe, which average only 70 kilograms (154 pounds) (Nowak 1999). Grizzlies of the northern portion of the lower 48 states are only somewhat smaller than the Alaskan bears, while those native to Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, all now extinct, were smaller still, weighing less than 1,000 pounds.
Reproducing at a very slow rate, Brown Bear females have an average of two cubs only once every two to four years, and the cubs stay with their mother for this entire period (Nowak 1999). On occasion, only one cub is born, and sometimes up to four. If the mother is killed at any time before the cubs leave to be on their own, the cubs will also die because they are unable to fend for themselves, destroying two generations. The training period of these bears is extremely long, an indication of their slow maturation and the complexity of learning about food sources and other keys to survival. Another reason for this long apprenticeship is the potential of attacks by male Grizzly Bears. Until a young bear is 3 years old or older, it is not large enough to withstand an attack by an adult male, requiring the protection of its mother. Males continue to grow until they are 10 to 11 years old, and may provoke fights with younger bears to chase them from the territory, which prevents inbreeding. Females remain fertile until well into their 20s. Females in the Yellowstone region are known to live to be 25 years old, and Grizzly Bears may have the potential to live 50 years in captivity (Nowak 1999). They do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 4 to 6 years old. These bears have a low natural death rate, and when combined with their slow reproduction, they are very vulnerable to extinction should they suffer high mortality.
A large habitat requirement is another aspect of their vulnerability. In the Arctic, a single Grizzly requires more than 100 square miles of tundra, and in the Yellowstone area, each bear occupies about 88 square kilometers (Nowak 1999). In regions where they are distributed sparsely, they can be eliminated easily, and even where they are more numerous, persecution and trophy hunting have caused local extinctions.
The strength, intelligence and size of the Grizzly, which have served it so well for thousands of years, were no match for European guns. Explorers, trappers and, later, settlers, slaughtered thousands of Grizzlies, killing them on sight. The first to disappear were the bears of the Great Plains, where the landscape was open and provided little cover. In some cases, these bears showed almost mythic strength upon being shot. Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 reported that one wounded bear ran at a fast clip for nearly a quarter of a mile before it fell dead after being shot through the heart (Peck 1990). Persecution of bears often includes the killing of their cubs. Early in the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt refused to kill bear cubs pointed out by his hunting guide, and when this was publicized in newspapers, he became a folk hero as a result. Toy manufacturers took advantage of the story by producing stuffed animal "Teddy Bears," which remain popular today. President Theodore Roosevelt left a legacy of destructive trophy hunting, however, including the killing of many adult bears.
Settlers moving into the West hunted these bears, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, government predator-control agents began campaigns to eliminate these bears. Much of the zeal with which the bears were slaughtered was based on a misconception: they were thought to be vicious man-eaters. In fact, they are mainly vegetarian and only occasionally kill animals for meat. The most common animals killed by Grizzly Bears are various types of rodents, such as ground squirrels and, in some areas, fish. Elk calves are killed as part of their diet in some areas. The staple foods of the Grizzly diet are green shoots, sedges, clover and lilies early in the spring and, later in the summer, berries, roots, fruit, acorns and nuts, with occasional rodents (Peacock 1996). These bears do not consider humans to be natural prey, and attacks are rare. Prejudices dominated, however, and hunters who killed them were considered heroes and rewarded with bounty money. To protect their livestock, ranchers insisted that government hunters kill off every Grizzly Bear, and after several centuries of uncontrolled hunting, trapping and poisoning, the bears became extinct in their vast original realm south of Canada except for a few hundred animals protected in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
All 26 subspecies of Grizzly Bears south of Canada and Alaska, except Ursus arctos horribilis, became extinct by the 1950s, and some disappeared during the 19th century. The latter subspecies, named from specimens obtained in northeastern Montana, barely survived. In fact, Ursus horribilis was the species' scientific name until recently, an indication of the prejudice against it. Now considered a subspecies, Ursus arctos horribilis is listed on the US Endangered Species Act as Threatened, and this subspecies is used to indicate all Brown Bears in the lower 48 states.
Grizzly populations still occupy only 1 percent of their original range in the lower 48 states and number fewer than 1,000 (Nowak 1999). This includes Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, whose protection prevented their total extinction south of Canada, a few wilderness areas in Idaho, western Montana, and Washington. Human activities such as road building disturb them and cause them to desert otherwise prime habitat. They are no longer the fearless animals that Lewis and Clark encountered, but have become very shy outside of national parks after centuries of persecution. Although they may pose a potential threat to humans who enter their last retreats, people are a far greater threat to them.
Their rugged wilderness habitat in Montana is being developed rapidly, and Grizzly populations, which had risen somewhat after their listing on the US Endangered Species Act, are now in danger of disappearing again. Added to this, some ranchers in the region still persecute them. A prime habitat for Grizzly Bears, the 329,000-acre Swan Valley of northwestern Montana borders the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, a country of open grassland and forest with breathtaking mountain views. Until recently, this landscape remained almost unchanged from its original state. Ranching, road building and other activities, and an increasing human population in this region, however, are now ruining its wilderness character and threatening the Grizzlies (Pelletier and Servheen 1995). Through cooperation with local residents, the Fish and Wildlife Service is identifying important habitat areas and linkage corridors for the Grizzly Bears in this part of Montana to prevent conflict with humans. These zones would be a link between the small population of bears in the Mission Mountains to the west and those in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area (Pelletier and Servheen 1995). The land is a checkerboard of ownership by private individuals, state, federal and corporate entities; in an unusual project, all private and public lands will be included in a management plan, with input by local citizens (Pelletier and Servheen 1995). These bears remain under the continual threat of being shot by ranchers fearful for their livestock and apprehensive about possible land restrictions in areas where Grizzly Bears are resident. Sport hunting of this small population is also allowed.
Grizzly Bears are still depicted in the media as dangerous man-eaters, resulting in a prejudiced view by the American public. A number of television programs produced by the National Geographic Society, CBS, the Discovery Channel, Fox and others have perpetuated this image. With titles such as "Dangerous to Man!," "Bear Attacks" and "Man-eaters," these programs often demonize the bears and interview people who have been attacked while camping in the bears’ habitat. Very few such attacks have occurred, and almost none has been fatal. After centuries of being shot at and harassed by humans, Grizzly Bears tend to avoid people. When camping inside national parks where Grizzlies are resident, special precautions must be taken, and it should be kept in mind that the parks are their home, and humans are the intruders. The national parks, where hunting is banned, are their only refuge. Some documented cases of attacks have occurred when a mother bear felt her cubs were threatened by humans, especially if they approached the cubs. Mother Grizzlies may be the fiercest protectors of their young in the animal world, a trait that should be admired from a distance. Television programs that sensationalize the potential threat of animals do not note the hundreds of Grizzly Bears killed by humans every year in North America. They also fail to show the many bears that are merely wounded by hunters and suffer a long death, or the cubs that are orphaned and die of starvation.
The irrational fear and hatred aroused by misinformation often result in mortalities to these bears by armed tourists and residents in their range who misinterpret the bears' behavior. Many bears have had to be destroyed because tourists fed them, and they became fearless, capable of swiping food or destroying tents and property. Information on avoiding Grizzly Bear encounters is available from National Park Service rangers, other federally employed biologists, and many conservation and humane organizations. Only with tolerance, respect and an informed public concerned about preserving these bears can they survive.
Ecotourism in the threatened and unprotected portions of the Grizzlies’ range is in the early stages of development. Portions of the revenues from tours could be spent to acquire habitat and conduct local education programs. In Alaska, this has been highly successful, with tourists coming from around the world to see these bears fishing for salmon. Montana has some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent, sweeping vistas and vast open spaces that rival those of East Africa. They could be a magnet for tourists anxious to see Grizzly Bears and other native wildlife against a background of snow-capped peaks. Unfortunately, much of their prime valley habitats have been taken over by ranchers and private homes. The tourism in the area has been of a highly commercial and exploitative nature. For example, in some Montana towns, tourists see many stuffed Grizzlies in local businesses, and one can have one's photograph taken posed in a cutout painting of a Grizzly Bear appearing to attack.
If sizeable portions of Montana valley habitats were acquired for the Grizzly Bears, tourists could be taken on van tours, similar to those that now operate in East Africa. For the more athletic, groups of tourists could be taken on guided walks into the high country. Portions of the funds from the tours could be used to purchase privately owned land, to fund public education about these bears and their survival, and to compensate ranchers for livestock losses. The Nez Perce tribe is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on a project to reintroduce the Grizzly Bear into the Selway Bitterroot wilderness of Idaho and Montana, another magnificent area for ecotourism (Robbins 1997).
Plans to reintroduce Grizzlies into the 1.9 million-acre San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado have sparked controversy and prejudice (Papich 2000). Decades after Grizzlies disappeared from the state, the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduction project has been applauded by local conservation organizations, such as the Colorado Grizzly Project, and opposed by ranchers and even hiking groups who fear attacks (Papich 2000). Returning the Grizzly Bear to portions of its former range in the lower 48 states, even into immense wilderness areas, will be a slow process, possible only after extensive education and a change in the accepted practice of releasing livestock in national forests without sheepdogs, herders or other protections.
The Mexican Grizzly (Ursus arctos nelsoni) persisted in the remote mountains of northern Mexico until it was poisoned, shot and trapped to extinction in the late 1960s (Day 1981). This race was smaller than northern Grizzlies, weighing about 700 pounds. Quite numerous and widespread, the Mexican Grizzly had an enormous range in the pine forests of the northeast until efforts began to exterminate it. Only about 30 animals remained by 1960. Although some individuals tried to protect these last bears, others set out to destroy them, and a campaign of poisoning, trapping and hunting, sponsored by ranchers, resulted in the killing of the last animal in the early 1960s (Day 1981). In 1968, biologist Carl Koford conducted a three-month survey in the isolated mountain canyons of Chihuahua where they had last been seen, and he saw no sign of Grizzly Bears (Day 1981). Subsequently, they were declared extinct.
Hunters in many parts of the Grizzly Bear's range in Canada kill the species in such numbers that many biologists consider it to be threatened there. The Canadian Broadcasting Company's "Nature of Things" program produced a film, “Grizzlies: Losing Ground,” which painted a dim picture of this bear's future in Canada. They are killed by ranchers and hunted for trophies and for their gallbladders, which are used in Traditional Medicine. Many are killed by park rangers merely because they come too close to tourists. They are being driven from their wilderness homes by unrestricted logging and mining as well.
Brown Bears are already extinct in North Africa, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Syria and the United Kingdom. They are endangered in the few countries where they remain in Western Europe. In Scandinavia, there may be as many as 700 Brown Bears, with populations of less than 1,000 in Slovia, Romania and Bulgaria, and possibly 2,000 in the former Yugoslavia (Nowak 1999). Fewer than a dozen Brown Bears survive in France's Pyrenees Mountains where, despite protests from around the world, a major highway was built through the center of their habitat. Brown Bears are heavily persecuted throughout Eurasia for body parts, especially gallbladders. They are considered endangered in Central Asia's mountains where Ursus arctos isabellinus occurs, a CITES Appendix I race, and the Tibetan Brown Bear (U.a. pruinosus) is listed as Endangered on the US Endangered Species Act. Outside Russia, only about 4,500 to 7,600 of these bears remain in China, and isolated populations survive in Mongolia, northern Japan and Turkey (Nowak 1999).
The South American Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, with persecution by ranchers a major cause (Nowak 1999). These 300-pound black bears have large circles of white fur around the eyes and white circular markings on the neck and chest. They feed on fruit, bamboo hearts, corn, and other vegetation with about 4 percent of their diet composed of rodents and insects (Nowak 1999). Spectacled Bears are native to the Andes of western Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and western Bolivia. This high-altitude, shy bear is active mainly at dusk and at night and poses no threat to livestock, yet ranchers and landowners have persecuted and hunted it in Peru and other countries because of the mistaken belief that it kills livestock (Nowak 1999).
With the destruction of their high-altitude, humid forest and grasslands replaced in many areas by agriculture, some bears have raided corn fields to survive; many of these bears have been shot by farmers (Nowak 1999). This bear is declining throughout its range, and few areas remain where it can forage without being hunted, either by livestock ranchers, farmers, or for its body parts to sell to Asian markets for traditional medicine. Only a few national parks exist within its range, and populations have become fragmented and isolated from one another. A biological study of these bears in Bolivia by British zoologist Susanna Paisley is uncovering new information about their natural history and the threats posed by radio-tracking. A film about her study and the local people helping her, “Bears of the High Andes,” was shown on a National Geographic Explorer television program in 1998, providing a unique glimpse into the lives of these rare bears.

Chapter Index
Animal Welfare Institute
    ©1983 Animal Welfare Institute