June 17, 2020
Forty-five years ago, Barrie Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear. Yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Warning: graphic, bone-crunching description ahead.
Female grizzly feeding cubs at Glendale Cove on the B.C. mainland about 35 kilometres north of Sayward where there have recently been numerous grizzly sightings. Photo by Shea Wyatt, courtesy Barrie Gilbert.
ALMOST 45 YEARS AGO, not long after sunrise dappled the remote ridge they were climbing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming, a Canadian wildlife biologist and his graduate student emerged from the stunted tree line on a cold, windswept height three kilometres above sea level.
This was Bighorn Pass. For sake of comparison, that’s almost twice the altitude of Mount Arrowsmith, the craggy, snow-clad peak that so dramatically dominates the skyline above the pass separating Nanaimo from Port Alberni.
The two men were there to observe and study how grizzly bears responded to back country hikers and mounted outfitters with pack trains. It was part of an ambitious research project at Utah State University, where Barrie Gilbert had landed a faculty position after graduating from Queens University, taking a doctorate at Duke and then doing field research in Alberta.
To get there, they’d spent a week humping their 20-kilogram packs through the foothills, fording rushing creeks and paddling 30 kilometres across deep, icy Yellowstone Lake, itself almost 2.5 kilometres in elevation.
It hadn’t been an easy passage. They’d endured a series of marching cold fronts which spawned thunderstorms, hail, drenching rain and lashing squalls that repeatedly forced them ashore when the short, steep waves threatened to swamp their aluminum canoe.
The canoe itself was cause for concern. There was frequent lightning. The prospect of getting fried by a strike on the lake or while huddling under the up-turned hull to shelter from pelting rain loomed large in his imagination.
So did grizzlies. At night, they’d camped well off the trail and they’d dragged in snags and branches from deadfalls to create crude barriers around their tent that, if they gave no real protection, at least offered an early warning should a bear approach.
Eventually they reached their destination and, to their excitement and delight, soon encountered what they’d come to observe—a grizzly bear in pristine habitat. It was a female with three cubs digging roots in an alpine meadow.
They watched enthralled as she stood down a male that approached, a mortal threat to her cubs. Male grizzlies, like lions, will kill the offspring of competitors. Later the bear family ambled down the meadow they shared with a small herd of grazing elk.
The next morning, Gilbert decided they should circle behind and climb the back side of the adjacent Crowfoot Ridge so they could observe the bears more closely from above.
Just as they left the scrubby trees at the top, Gilbert felt a call of nature and moved ahead of his partner to find a spot. He hunched over, keeping himself low to avoid spooking the elk with his silhouette against the skyline.
That was when he met the bear. It had unexpectedly come up the other side of the ridge.
Gilbert realized later that the unfortunate encounter—for him at any rate—was shaped by two things. First, because of the menace of the big male to her cubs, the female grizzly was already on hair-trigger alert. Second, approaching in a hunched-over stance, the biologist must have resembled a stalking predator.
There was one explosive “woof,” a blur of brown hurtling out of the scrub and in seconds he was on the ground.
“Her teeth felt like a row of pick-axes scraping across my head as she tore my scalp off,” he recalled later, although strangely, he says, he felt no pain in the moment.
“Her second bite came down on my face, a big canine tooth punching into my eye-socket. ‘This is how you die,’ I thought as I felt bones crunch. One bite removed my cheekbone and sinus, exposing brain membrane.
“As my life drained onto the ground”—it was later determined that he was hemorrhaging almost half of his blood supply—“I went limp and the biting stopped.”
The grad student, Bruce Hastings, courageously yelled and the grizzly retreated.
The bear, Gilbert later realized, was simply being a bear—reacting to his presence as a threat to her cubs. She wasn’t interested in killing him for the malicious reasons humans attribute in their deep trait of anthropomorphizing other animals. She simply wanted to neutralize an unknown and unidentified threat and once it was no longer a threat, she left.
A less resilient person might have surrendered to the terrible wounds and died on the mountain. But Gilbert was tough. He was also very lucky.
A team of highly trained medical technicians attached to a smoke-jumping crew had just deployed from a nearby fire base. And the helicopter pilot who picked him up had just done two combat tours in Vietnam war, landing under the most difficult conditions. Finally, a team of military surgeons experienced with battlefield trauma had just been assigned to the nearest medical facility.
Gilbert’s first surgery, the one that would save his life following a bear mauling in the remote Rockies, took 11 hours and exhausted the hospital’s suture supply.
The lead surgeon, Earl Browne, who has since died, later showed Gilbert photographs from before they began reconstructing what remained of his face.
“All my facial skin and scalp was pinned out like a rat dissection in Biology 101,” he writes in the preamble to his astonishing memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.
Scientific curiosity and a fascination with methodology trumped squeamishness.
“I wasn’t repelled,” he writes. “I asked Dr. Browne if he had seen this kind of damage before.
“‘Well, yes,’’’ the surgeon replied. “‘But not all on the same guy.’”
So, through a combination of luck and fortitude, Gilbert survived the extraction and a round of intensive surgeries. His maimed face was rebuilt—although the massive injuries left him blind in one eye and his face permanently disfigured.
Barry Gilbert closely observing a young grizzly bear on a river at Geographic Harbour, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy Barrie Gilbert.
IF THIS STORY SOUNDS LIKE THE MAKING OF A BOOK, IT WAS. But not the book you might expect. This gripping story—a journalist like me might have made a whole book out of it alone—occupies a mere 15 pages at the beginning of Gilbert’s recently published memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.
Gilbert went home to convalesce, to endure his 15-minutes of fame as the media descended to pester him for lurid details—mostly, he concluded, to advance a stereotype of grizzlies as “rogue killers in the woods eager to eat your children”—and to grapple with the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the cold reality of people staring at his facial disfigurement.
Some might have withdrawn. “I chose to see the staring responses of others as their problem,” Gilbert writes. “I was a handsome guy and still am (inside).”
Instead, he rejoiced that his hands still worked. And his scientist’s analytical brain. It reminded him of something equally important—point of view.
Which is why the following summer found him sitting beside half a tonne of black bear just stirring from anaesthesia after being darted in his new research project. With only the slightest misgivings, Gilbert stayed with the bear while it recovered consciousness—staying with bears in such a state is essential, he notes, because a handicapped one invites opportunistic attacks from other bears, another trait they share with humans.
“Fear of that bear was not an issue for me, but I could only guess why,” he writes. “Maybe long experience with animals and my short dose of terror carried the day.”
We should all be grateful that Gilbert didn’t succumb to the kind of risk-averse apprehension regarding bears that might have gripped the rest of us, because he went on to almost half a century in the field, exhaustively studying bears in their habitat and in the most intimate proximity, at that. He sat with them, walked with them, observed them more closely than the benighted rest of us might get in a zoo with cages.
His field work took him from the American Rockies to the Alaska wilderness and deep into Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.
One of Us charts that remarkable journey, not just through the bush in search of the great predators, but also through the devil’s club thickets of contradictory political policy; the technical disagreements spawned by what he calls “conservation contrarianism” and “science friction”; and the baser economic conflicts between the imperatives of ecological integrity for a threatened species and the special interests of industry, from tourism to timber harvesting to the powerful big game hunting lobby.
There’s far more than the science of observation and dry statistical analysis here. Gilbert’s memoir takes us on an extraordinary excursion through the history—and pre-history—of relations between bears and humans.
First, it explores the thousands of years of bears’ coexistence with indigenous peoples, an entanglement of mutual tolerance that populates the innermost of First Nations’ sacred spaces and endures into the present.
Second, it examines the fatal contact between bears and a settler culture which demonized the animals as a precursor—and rationalization—for their systematic extirpation from vast areas of their range, particularly in the United States.
Explorers, fur traders, cattle ranchers and sheepherders shot them, trapped them and poisoned them in great numbers. Trophy hunters preyed on the remnants. Then loggers, farmers and urban developers set about destroying their habitats. Once abundant in California, for example, the last grizzly bear was shot there in 1922 and the species survives only on the state flag, a reminder of our propensity to make icons of what we destroy.
Grizzly populations dwindled to about 1,500 in the lower 48. There are 600 in Wyoming, 800 in Montana, 400 in Alberta, maybe 70 in Idaho and 20 in Washington.
In Canada, there are about 25,000 bears, of which about 15,000 are in BC. When Europeans arrived by land it was estimated there were 25,000 in BC alone.
One of Us takes us back to 1805 and the first scientific expedition of discovery by land across what’s now the western United States by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The party shot and killed 51 grizzly bears and wounded another 18, probably mortally. From then on it just got worse for the bears.
And yet humans and bears can safely coexist, Gilbert argues, and provides the evidence from deep personal experience. He disrobes the enduring myth of the demon bear and reveals a complex, highly intelligent creature with a fascinating social system and crucial roles in the natural ecosystem.
As I was reading One of Us, I thought about an incident that happened more than 20 years ago, when I was still young and agile enough to do some serious bushwhacking. I was deep in the arid rain shadow somewhere between Yalakom Mountain and Lillooet.
The environmentalist I was with, my guide on a tour of another of British Columbia’s old-growth forests doomed to yet another chainsaw massacre with the blessing of politicians who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, led me on a side trek. He wanted to show me something special.
In the forest floor, carved into a steep slope way out back of the outback, was a stairway. The steps were constructed from beaten earth and they had obviously been there for a long, long time.
At the top of this staircase, in a fern-ringed hollow in the earth where a spring bubbled from the fractured rock of the mountain, was a natural basin filled with cool, clear water. My guide had come across it by accident.
There had been a commune in the Yalakom Valley back in the 1970s, founded by a Simon Fraser University professor at the height of the back-to-the-land movement, but most of its adherents had dispersed again by the mid-1980s. Was this an artifact from a lost utopian dream?
What my guide told me was astonishing. It belonged to the bears. Black bears would climb the mysterious steps, soak in the cool bathtub, then descend the steps again and vanish into the trees. Clearly, he said, the bears had worn the staircase into the hillside, probably over centuries of use, and they were still using it after who knew how many generations.
“In many ways,” Gilbert writes, “grizzly bears cluster with wolves, dolphins, apes, and elephants as cultures, highly social civilizations that we barely understand.”
What does he mean when he ascribes civilization to bears? He turns to American naturalist Henry Beston, who noted in 1928 an inherent hubris in human notions of superiority over other creatures, the assumption of a hierarchy with us at the summit and lesser beings beneath.
Beston, who had volunteered with the French army in 1915 and had his faith in humanity upended by the indifferent carnage he witnessed, argues that in world older than ours—for modern humans have been around for only a paragraph compared to the long history of bears—many animals are more completely integrated with and attuned than we perceive ourselves to be.
These animals are, Beston writes, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.
“They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time…”
Gilbert points to the amazing richness of what he concludes is a bear culture—the ability to communicate, cooperate, retain and transmit knowledge over time, to express empathy and even altruistic behaviour.
Black bears, for example, have extraordinarily large brains in comparison to their body size and some wildlife scientists think their intelligence is comparable to that of the great apes—chimpanzees and gorillas.
They’re now thought to be able conceptualize at a basic level and mother bears will spend up to three years educating their cubs on how and where to obtain food while the cubs themselves demonstrate a powerful ability to form mental maps of their terrain, the territories of other bears and the location of food sources, and the timing of the availability of food. So, like humans, bears in the wild develop a seasonal round.
They have a small vocal vocabulary of sounds but Gilbert’s observations also indicate a non-vocal communication system based on gestures and body language.
For example, he writes, while in an Alaska salmon river’s estuary to observe bears closely in 1999, he watched a sub-adult bear move down the river bank foraging for spawned-out salmon. It strayed inadvertently into the fishing station of an immense male, hidden by the tall grass on the opposite bank.
The bigger bear suddenly popped his massive head out of the grass. The small bear froze, realizing he was in a danger zone, intruding on someone else’s real estate.
The big bear slowly shook his head. The small bear remained still. The bigger male slowly shook his head again. The young bear abruptly skedaddled.
“I’m cutting you some slack here, so clear out,” was the message, Gilbert writes. “The entire routine looked rehearsed but it was probably some kind of communication ritual, not unlike our [human] face-saving tricks.”
Bears, he writes, are smart enough to self-medicate—Gilbert recounts watching a bear eat a particular kind of mineralized mud repeatedly and after analyzing its content concluded that it was treating itself for tapeworms.
And bears are smart enough to sneakily exploit humans to achieve what the bears want.
In one case, he writes, a female in a protected bear-watching area would bring her small cubs to a floating observation bridge, leave them and go to feed on salmon.
As excited bear-watchers crowded forward a park ranger would quickly intervene to keep the visitors back from the cubs.
Usually, he points out, bears with cubs so small—scarcely the size of large house cats—are intensely protective, keeping them within a very short distance.
“The biggest threat to a female with new cubs are large adult males, who sometimes kill cubs. However, on salmon streams with anglers and photographers, the adult males usually stay away…This avoidance of people by males appears to be understood by females. In effect, people present a shield for bears with cubs, somewhat like a tree for the cubs to climb, permitting mom to go off to fish, knowing her cubs are safe.”
So, while some thought the bear a “bad” mom, leaving her cubs at risk. Gilbert concluded the opposite—he discerned “a brilliant plan for child care.”
“The mental gymnastics for a bear to make all the connections in this picture looks Einsteinian, because mother bear had linked three insights: the threat of predatory male bears, an awareness of male bears’ avoidance of humans, and predictable benign humans. She recognized an opportunity to place her cubs in a secure location.”
One of Us is full of similarly exhilarating anecdotes. And yet, if Gilbert’s book is filled with hope that the nation of humans will learn to coexist with the nation of bears, the reality seems to be that we’re still mostly driven by our misunderstandings and fears.
Instead of learning to live with this marvel of evolution, we prefer to destroy it. In 20 years of wildlife “management,” British Columbians have slaughtered more than 85,000 black and grizzly bears.
Think of this in another context. World War 2 killed about 45,000 Canadians. Canadians have killed more than twice as many bears.
We hunt them with jetboats, with all terrain vehicles, with trucks. Mostly we kill them for fun or for our convenience. We shoot them on logging roads, at garbage dumps, in apple orchards, in suburban back yards where ill-informed and inconsiderate landowners don’t manage their garbage—we put out attractants and then punish the bears for responding to our lazy stupidity.
We kill them with high-powered rifles, with shotguns, with cross bows and longbows, with traps, with cars and with trains.
Gilbert remains an optimist. The abysmal trophy hunt for grizzly bears has finally ended in BC. Perhaps enlightenment will eventually come to the black bear slaughter, too.
“When this uniquely sentient creature is perceived as responding to us according to how we treat him, a path to survival opens up,” he writes.
“We are at the end of a long period of attempted dominion over this apex predator and my hope is that we can rise to the challenge of restraint and tolerance required of us.”
As Vancouver Islanders get used to the idea that they might soon be sharing the outback with grizzlies, particularly along salmon rivers north of Campbell River, One of Us would be a good resource to put on the bookshelf. It’s $21 in paperback.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.